Food Nerd: Jim Murphy of Kingfisher Bar and Grill

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By Lee Allen

Chef Jim Murphy got his start cooking at age 14 to help pay tuition at his Jesuit prep school. The rest, as they say, is history.

From leg of lamb or rack of ribs to grilled sea bass and bouillabaisse, Chef Jim Murphy has done it all in his lengthy culinary career. His current restaurant, Kingfisher Bar and Grill, will celebrate twenty-three years as a Grant Road favorite this fall.

“I have five brothers and three of us are trained chefs,” says Murphy, the owner and founder of Kingfisher. “Cooking has been a family tradition, instilled in us early by our mother.”

Not only did Murphy absorb the basics at her hand, he further learned at the School of Hard Knocks before eventually graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. “I started at age 14 by working in the kitchen at a Jesuit prep school to help pay my tuition.”

Then it was on to TGI Fridays in Phoenix until he headed for Tucson in 1978. First job in Tucson? Lunt Avenue Marble Club. Then Vineyard (now Dirtbag’s), Bob Dobb’s, La Paloma, and Jerome’s, as well as a stint with the Westin Hotel chain. “Tucson was an active food community and there was lots of mobility in the industry.”

Getting his culinary degree in 1993, he returned to Tucson and hooked up with three friends who had all worked together at Bocata. They decided it was time to open their own operation and the old Iron Mask location became Kingfisher.

“Initially, 60 hour workdays were the norm and on our first payroll, we were able to pay the staff–but had nothing left over to pay the partners. This was a labor of love, and we persevered under the unified mantra of presenting the freshest, tastiest meals for our guests.”

Many things have changed with longevity, but not Murphy’s basic philosophy: “Cooking for me is the capture of flavor, and how to accomplish that.”

If you had to do it all over again, would you take the same path?

“Yup. I think this is who I was supposed to be. It was something I fell into when my initial collegiate career was less than stellar. I gravitated into something I enjoyed the hell out of and was good at. I discovered where I wanted to be and stuck with it.”

When you cook for yourself, what’s your go-to?

“Something quick and flavorful. I love to cook low and slow with a lot of smoke coming from the BBQ, but on the fly, something like a pepper steak with gorgonzola butter or an omelet with herbs and smoked trout.”

What about when you cook for dinner parties at your home?

“Usually the grill is involved for something like shrimp or fish. We also established an Anti-Thanksgiving prime rib roast where a small intimate group of 50-60 people will gather for roasted prime.”

What’s the weirdest thing in your refrigerator?

“Currently it has to be a wild boar haunch given to me by a friend. It’s 23 pounds of ham that I’ll boil, then rub, marinate, and smoke.”

What’s the one food item you get a craving for?

“Right now, the hankering is for a Rocco’s sausage pizza with extra cheese. Because of what I do for a living, I get to eat a lot of different things.”

Do you have a favorite food?

“I love mushrooms like lobster and chanterelles. If there’s a guilty pleasure for me, it would be mushrooms with maybe a little Hudson Valley fois gras.”

What are you most likely to eat on Tuesday night?

“The staff meal, whatever is being served. We work together, we eat together.”

What’s your favorite adult beverage?

“Probably a glass of red wine. But I’m an Irish-American, so when the bottle is open, a dram or two of triple-distilled Granore is appealing.”

Still learning new culinary concepts at age 55, Murphy continues his pursuit of amassing new knowledge, earning his bachelor’s degree in 2015. “Learning is a big part of who I am, retaining knowledge and sharing it with our staff. I like to watch TV chefs and see the way they cook. And I read the trade magazines cover to cover and make copies of interesting articles that I pass around. The ability to continue to learn makes us all better cooks.”

While splitting duties with fellow owner/chef Jeff Azersky, much of the day-to-day chores now fall to Executive Chef Fred Harris, a 15-year employee. As to his future: “Kingfingfisher’s not going anywhere and neither am I for the foreseeable future. I want to keep busy here because there are other worlds to conquer.”

Kingfisher, An American Bar & Grill, voted for 8 consecutive years as “Tucson’s Best Seafood Restaurant”, is located at 2564 East Grant Road. Visit www.kingfishertucson.com for more information or call 520.323.7739.

 

dennis fesenmyer