In the Kitchen

It's just another night at one of Tucson's most renowned restaurants

In an industry with an exorbitantly high failure rate, Kingfisher has defied the odds.

Kingfisher, which opened in 1993, still attracts crowds nightly. Employee turnover is low, an anomaly in the restaurant business. And at a time when food trends change on a whim, Kingfisher continually serves the best seafood in town, at least according to our readers: Kingfisher has won Best of Tucson® honors every year since at least 2000.

What makes it all work is both simple and complicated—simple in that the owners, Jim Murphy (known to all as Murph), Jeff Azersky and Tim Ivankovich (they also own Bluefin on the northwest side) share a passion for their product and a commitment to hard work; complicated, because there are so many things that must be taken into consideration to run a successful restaurant: finding the best foods and the right staff, budgeting, scheduling, etc.

It's early on a Saturday afternoon, and in the Kingfisher kitchen, a small group of people is hard at work. Bertha Duarte, a dishwasher, is cleaning up last night's detritus. Virginia Metheny is doing a variety of prep work in the back.

Fred Harris, who will be working the sauté station tonight, is chopping, mixing and mashing ingredients for his mise en place, the kitchen term for all the items he's going to need for tonight's service. Items range from bacon and chopped cabbage to garlic and cranberry chutney. He prepares the potato-cake mixture, a side for the lamb chops. After a quick consultation with Murph, he writes the evening specials on a white board above the doors leading to the dining room.

Murph is in another part of the kitchen cleaning fish. Kingfisher serves an average of 300 dinners a night, two-thirds of which feature seafood. The fish comes from a variety of purveyors, and quality and freshness are paramount. Using needle-nose pliers, he carefully picks away the tiniest bones of yellowtail, which will be the "Hi-fish," or Hawaiian fish, for the evening. There is always a Hi-fish at Kingfisher.

"With most fish," he says, "we manually pull the bones. It preserves the integrity of the fish, and there's no wasting." He packages and dates the yellowtail and moves on to monkfish, tilapia and snapper.

The kitchen is compact. The guys on the line stand between the pass—where meals ready to be served are placed—and a row of stoves that include a grill, numerous burners and a convection oven with several racks. Below the pass is the steam table. Here, sauces, steamed rice and such will be kept warm and at the ready.

Behind the stoves lies a long table which serves as a prep area and as the oyster-shucking station; about 60 dozen oysters are served nightly.

The pantry station lies perpendicular to the line. This is where salads, some appetizers and desserts are prepped. Marianne Baines (see "Part Artist, Part Scientist, All Female," Yum! July 24, 2008) is the pastry chef, but she's gone for the day and has left her creations behind. The dishwashing station is on the other side of the pantry.

Storage is plentiful; not an inch of space is wasted. Far in the back is a walk-in refrigerator where all sorts of perishables are kept in a most orderly manner. There is also a dry-storage area with vinegars, salt, sugar, corn starch and other ingredients. A wine-storage area is part of the layout; shelves in the kitchen hold pots, pans, plates and utensils.

The bussers arrive first, and they've got plenty to do. Although the dining room appears ready, a last-minute polish must be conducted. Someone will tend to the floor; the front window is washed. In the kitchen, they prep the bread, cut and plate pats of butter, and roll silverware. They make coffee and set up the soup area.

James Miller arrives. He's on pantry, and he has to get his own mise en place to get together.

Next through the door are Shawn Ahern and Gary Colvin, grill chef and oyster-shucker, respectively. They chat with the line staff and the servers who are walking in, but almost on cue, they then head to their stations to get ready.

Ivankovich has also arrived. His forte is the front of the house. "The back doesn't get any immediate interaction with people," he says later. "They're just as important as the front, but the front gets the immediate, either positive or negative, feedback. Some people are better working the front of the house or the back of the house."

Once service starts, there is a remarkable calmness; everyone knows their role and is eager to get started.

Orders come in electronically from the computers out front. Murph, working as the expeditor, calls out the orders at a regular clip, adding details as necessary.

Fred grabs a sauté pan, splashes a sauce or oil into it, takes a piece of fish or a handful of cabbage, adds the other ingredients, and places it on a burner. Then he does another, and another. Most pans go into the convection oven to be finished off. At any given time, he'll have six to eight pans on the fire.

On the other end, Shawn tends the grill. The grill station is in charge of red meats and some fish. At first glance, it might seem like the grill station isn't working at the same pace as the sauté station, but you'd be wrong. Seconds make the difference between a perfect steak and a not-so-perfect one.

Murph makes a final check, then places the finished dishes on the pass, where the ever-moving runners take them and deliver them. Food doesn't spend much time in the pass.

Gary and James keep up a steady pace. The dishwashers—Luz Garnillo has now joined the team—return armloads of dishes and pans to the line: plates in front, pans in back. Nobody ever stops. Timing and communication are essential, and because this team has worked together for a long time, it seems like kitchen ESP is at work.

It's now two hours into service, and the pace has picked up considerably. Special requests come in: Someone wants a dish prepared without pepper, or wants their lobster shelled. A few mix-ups occur, but they are quickly and calmly handled.

"It doesn't really help," Azersky says later about tension. "We know what it's like to be a worker bee."

A 12-top (a table with 12 diners) and an eight-top order within minutes of each other; everyone has both first and second courses. However, the kitchen is running like a well-oiled machine, and the dishes arrive at the tables in a smooth and timely manner.

With three working owners, things could get a little crazy, but Murph, Azersky and Ivankovich are a great team. When asked what makes it all work, they pretty much have the same answer: people and passion.

"It's very staff-centric," Murph says. "We've had a great ability to retain staff. It's not always who you hire; it's who you find. We've found a lot of great people. It's quite a family. I like to think it's a nice place to work."

Azersky notes, "We've never been ones to pull the 'executive chef' thing. We still do a good amount of cooking. We do dishes if we have to, and I think our staff sees that, and it rubs off on them. And they appreciate it."

Murph sums it all up: "Attention to detail. ... It's as important as anything that happens on the plate to greet guests with a warm hello, and as they're leaving, say goodnight. If you can walk out of Kingfisher without getting at least a goodnight, you're sneaking out. From the bar to the bussers, it's ingrained to say good evening or whatever, and we think that's a big part of the whole dining experience, to be greeted and to be escorted out with a kind word."

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