Head chef at award-winning pub sacked for 'shocking' food hygiene

Head chef at award-winning gastropub loses unfair dismissal claim after he was sacked for ‘double dipping’ his fingers into sauce and serving mussels ‘unfit for human consumption’

  • Max Murphy, 53, was sacked from The Malt Shovel at Barston, West Midlands
  • Restaurant’s owners uncovered catalogue of ‘shocking’ food hygiene practices
  • They included ‘double dipping’ and plating other people’s unused gravy up again
  • His unfair dismissal claim was thrown out of a Birmingham employment tribunal
  • Chef had worked at the acclaimed pub for 21 years and had led team since 2006

A head chef at an award-winning gastropub was fired after ‘double-dipping’ his fingers into sauce, plating up other customers’ unused gravy and serving mussels ‘unfit for human consumption,’ an employment tribunal heard.

Max Murphy, 53, was sacked from The Malt Shovel at Barston, in Solihull, West Midlands, after the restaurant’s owners uncovered a catalogue of ‘shocking’ food hygiene practices in his kitchen.

They included putting wet fish next to desserts and preparing vegan food next to raw chicken.

Max Murphy, 53, was sacked from The Malt Shovel at Barston, West Midlands, after the restaurant’s owners uncovered a catalogue ‘shocking’ food hygiene practices in his kitchen

In an old interview for Birmingham Living, Mr Murphy spoke of his love for different flavour combinations and described his cooking style as ‘organised rustic charm’. 

‘The emphasis is on flavour and the presentation is rustic but in an ordered way. While we have classics on the menu such as a gorgeous steak and chips, I like to put some unusual flavours together, too,’ he said.

Under his leadership, the pub was awarded two AA rosettes and won praise for its seafood from TV chef Rick Stein.

But after an investigation into his behaviour, bosses at the village pub fired him for gross misconduct.

Mr Murphy, who had worked at the pub for more than 20 years, took them to the tribunal claiming that rather than being sacked he should have been given another chance.

But his claim of unfair dismissal was thrown out by Employment Judge Katherine Hindmarch in late August, after she ruled that there were ‘serious issues’ with his behaviour.

Staff members told how the chef served mussels stored in a fish drawer that ‘stank’ and that ‘were clearly dead’, washed and rinsed his fingers in a container which held utensils and regularly reused gravy from customers’ Sunday lunches.

The hearing in Birmingham was told that Mr Murphy had worked at the pub for 21 years, joining as a junior chef and becoming the head chef in 2006.

Owners of The Malt Shovel at Barston, a village in the West Midlands, investigated Mr Murphy after reports from staff members

In 2018, the pub was bought by new owners Eric and Heidi Cahill, who initially only visited the business two or three times a month.

However, the tribunal was told that they became more involved when the pub reopened in April 2021 following the Covid pandemic.

When they started attending on a daily basis, the hearing was told staff reported concerns about unhygienic practices in the kitchen which led to Mr Cahill starting an investigation in May 2021.

The following month Mr Murphy was summoned to a disciplinary meeting conducted by Mrs Cahill at which 14 allegations were set out.

The tribunal heard that among the practices he was found to be in breach of were ‘cross contamination’.

He was also found to have stored food ‘inappropriately’ as well as regularly leaving a food store unlocked overnight so fish and other deliveries could be left there out of hours.

‘(Mrs and Mrs Cahill) had obtained witness statements from staff members regarding mussels being in a fish drawer that ‘stank and were clearly dead and unfit for human consumption’, despite them being ‘in service’ earlier that day,’ the tribunal heard.

‘Mrs Cahill concluded (Mr Murphy) did not understand the appropriate way to store mussels and if these mussels were dead by evening they could not have been fit to serve that lunchtime. They should not have been served and should have been disposed of earlier.’

Mr Murphy was also found to have been ‘double dipping’, or putting his fingers into a sauce and tasting it, then dipping his fingers into it again.

‘(Mr and Mrs Cahill) again had witness statements from staff who had seen this,’ the tribunal said. 

‘During the investigation, (Mr Murphy) said he usually used a spoon and ‘generally doesn’t use his fingers’ and ‘if I do use my fingers, I use a different finger if I dip again’.

‘Mrs Cahill upheld this allegation. She again found this to be an inappropriate and unhygienic practice.’

Regarding the accusation of reusing gravy, the tribunal heard: ‘(Mr and Mrs Cahill) had witnesses who said (Mr Murphy) regularly emptied unused gravy (reusing after a customer meal) into a pot to be used for another customer.

‘At the disciplinary hearing (Mr Murphy) said he was in fact measuring wasted gravy/jus so they could measure usage. He denied placing the gravy/jus into a pot for re-use.’

The hearing was told Mrs Cahill did not believe his explanation and upheld 10 of the 14 allegations against him. He was dismissed the following day.

The pub was awarded two AA rosettes and won praise for its seafood from TV chef Rick Stein

At the tribunal Mr Murphy brought claims of unfair and wrongful dismissal. He said the decision to fire him was ‘severe’ and that he should have been given an opportunity to ‘rectify any shortcomings’.

The panel disagreed, however, and said he had been ‘grossly negligent’.

Judge Hindmarch said that the role of head chef ‘clearly has responsibility for the development and nurturing of other staff members in the kitchen and for health and safety/hygiene practices.’

She said: ‘As a business providing food and drink, these standards are rightly high as any lapse can result in customer complaint, reputational harm and – worse case scenario – customer ill-health.’

She added that the business ‘was right to be concerned about the various hygiene concerns being raised and to investigate this. 

‘The witness statements it obtained, and the photographic evidence supported its findings. In cross examination (Mr Murphy) accepted that the allegations were serious.

‘(The business) had clear rules for kitchen hygiene and (Mr Murphy) had undergone relevant training in July 2020.

‘Mrs Cahill concluded that (the business) could no longer trust (Mr Murphy).’

The Malt Shovel at Barston has been contacted for comment. 

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