Jim Murphy of Kingfisher: “We’re Not Done” 

Chef Jim Murphy of Kingfisher and Bluefin on sourcing, American cuisine and the midnight run

When speaking to chef Jim Murphy or Murph as he's more commonly known, it's pretty clear from the get go that he loves two things a lot: sarcasm and cooking in Tucson. While the first is given away by the occasional side-eyed glance to see if you're keeping up, the second is apparent by how he references time.

He goes over his time at Jerome's and Boccata—two of Tucson's most lauded, but now defunct restaurants. At Jerome's in particular he grew to have a deep appreciation for Cajun and Creole cuisine that stayed with him to this day.

"If there's one indigenous flavor to the U.S., it grew out of the swamps of Louisiana," Murph says. "For me, that's the true American flavor."

He stops next at La Joyeux for a stint of cake decorating. He speaks of opening Kingfisher, his iconic seafood restaurant on Grant Road just east of Tucson Boulevard, in 1993. Nowadays, Murph sees American cuisine as the vanguard of the culinary industry.

"American cooking is some of the best in the world," Murph says. "Chefs come here from all over the world because of the access to fresh ingredients we have and the freedom from rigid traditions."

In that, he sees Tucson's place as an up-and-coming market. Although he admits issues as large as city infrastructure and youth voter turn out affect the growth of the city, he's focused on doing what he's been doing for over 20 years, 18 of which have included him supporting the Tucson Originals restaurant group which was originally formed to combat chain takeover in town.

However, Murph's love of food started somewhat predictably at a young age. Growing up in the '60s, he says the norm was to eat a lot of processed, canned foods and weird things crammed into Jell-O at home. Unlike his peers, Murph, his parents and four brothers frequently cooked with fresh vegetables that they picked from U-Pick farms. They had chickens for eggs, but he also learned to butcher and clean the birds growing up. He was eating liver before offal was cool. His grandmother, who was a Quaker, taught him to pickle.

"It certainly opened doors for me. I knew things didn't have to look pristine to taste wonderful," he says. "I also knew orange juice didn't come from a frozen thing."

He, along with two out of four of his brothers, ended up taking that love of food and turning it into culinary careers. Now Murph uses his lifelong training in sourcing to acquire some of the town's best seafood for both Kingfisher and Bluefin. He finds the myth of no good seafood in Arizona pretty ridiculous.

"Look, you have to try," Murph says. "It's there. You just have to form relationships."

Murph says he deals with five vendors on a daily basis and 15 on a weekly basis. It can't be as easy as picking up the phone, calling one person and getting everything he needs. That's just not how it works for Murph. When the fish and other seafood is delivered, Murph is there to make sure it's fresh—he says to check coloring and for slightly slimy scales, as well as the smell, to make sure it's good.

Despite all of his hard work, Murph and Kingfisher announced last month that their sister restaurant, Bluefin, will be closing on May 24 after difficulty renegotiating their lease with the new Casa Adobes Plaza owners. He says his goal in announcing two months early was to give everyone a chance to say goodbye.

"We didn't want to do a midnight run. We would have put people out of jobs in the beginning of summer and it's not what we wanted to do to our customers either," he says. "It's not good by any means, but I hope the way we did it helps aid in the transition for those people."

Bluefin will run a brand new spring menu for its last eight weeks and then shutter. Murph will still be on the line at Kingfisher, but he also hints ever so slightly at the possibility of more to come.

"We're not done," he says, simply.


More by Heather Hoch

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