Chef Paul Murphy is the man behind the magic. Each summer, Humphreys by the Bay Summer Concert Series touts a lengthy list of top talent. And each summer, it’s Chef Murphy’s job to keep them well fed before, during and on their way out of their show. Happy artist equals happy audience. And we all know happiness starts with a well-rounded meal.
While Chef Murphy’s job description comes with a tall glass of celeb-status, he also balances the Humphreys Restaurant fame for breakfast, lunch, dinner and the Sunday brunch frequented by San Diegans and tourists moseying in from Half Moon Inn. Through and through, Chef Murphy remains humble and ever-aware of accommodating his customers, no matter if an international idol or just a local looking to grub.
Still this season, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay will be hosting such stars as Sheryl Crow, Earth, Wind & Fire, Seal, Steve Martin and Jewel among others. In the midst of his hectic schedule, Chef Murphy welcomed me in for lunch at Humphreys as we chatted about celebrity encounters, his inspiration for the menu and some of his favorite dishes.
How has Humphreys changed in the past 10 years?
It gets better every single year. I’m lucky to work for an owner that believes in us. When I first got the job ten years ago, he asked me, “What do you need to be successful?” That’s why I stayed, because I knew he was always going to be there for me.
How is Humphreys Restaurant different from other restaurants?
From May to October, I think I have the hardest Executive Chef job in San Diego. I have to be ready for all the concerts and specially shop for the artist’s needs.
How far in advance do you have notice of what a performer will want?
It all depends on the artist. Sometimes we get the riders a week in advance. Other times, they’re coming off a plane from Europe or from Latin America, and they touch down and call the production manager. I could be in the middle of something, and I have to stop to prepare whatever.
So have you had bizarre requests?
I can’t say who the artists are, but there have been certain foods requiring certain preparation that just have to be done. I have to speak with them, and they quiz me: “How are you going to do this, and where are you going to buy that?” There are no restrictions on what they could ask. We hope that people return because of the way we treat them. We want them to come back. So no restrictions.
A lot of time, I can’t leave until the performer goes on the stage to make sure everything is taken care of. I take care of them before the show, and absolutely after. Some have a particular process they use during their tour. Like, I have to make a certain kind of food, and it can’t be made ahead of time— it has to be made right when they’re going off the stage. Then, I have to make sure their buses are full of food.
Have you ever been star struck?
Yes, I could not believe the way she said “hello.” She’s coming back this year, and she’s drop dead gorgeous.
A bowl of Sweet Potato Tots arrive at our table with a spicy curry dipping sauce, and we dig in.
But yeah, I was just walking through, and a lot of the time when the artist is back there, I’m not allowed to be there. But for whatever reason, she was really really low key, and I went back there and she looked right at me, said “hello,” and I lost it. And she can still belt it out.
Have you ever not been able to fulfill a request?
What happened this year was an international artist wanted a certain kind of rum that is illegal in the United States, so we had to buy something that we thought was compatible. There was one show when a drummer from one of the artists requested 2.5 gallons of fresh juice. But I had to begin squeezing when he began his sound check. Sound check is between 4 and 5pm, and we’re usually getting everything ready, but the production manager calls me up and says “Paul, start the juicing now.”
How big is your team?
I have 32 employees. On a concert night, I have 15 employees in the kitchen. But I don’t think everyone realizes Humphreys does concerts as well as Sunday brunch, live music and meals for the hotel guests…
Obviously Humphreys is a major tourist destination. How do you balance between these high profile performers and just regular visitors from out of town?
You have to. The way I run the kitchen, no one is allowed to argue with the server. If the server comes in and says they want half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and half a grilled cheese sandwich, I train my ladies and gentlemen to just do it. So I think that’s how I’m able to attack that. When things like that come up, they all know not to argue.
So there’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, and brunch on Sundays. What has changed in the past year?
We redid the brunch, and we got all-new equipment within the past year. We changed the menu a little bit. We have some different items. Brunch can be brutally busy. On Mother’s Day, we had 800 guests, and then we turned around and did a concert that night.
What are some dishes you would recommend to a tourist who wants to play it safe?
For lunch, we have our Salmon Sandwich if you want seafood. It’s wonderful. For dinner, another great seafood item is our Tarragon Seafood Risotto. It has shrimp, garlic tomato risotto, a lime basil sauce and a piece of sautéed sea bass. Also, our Meyer Natural Beef Burger.
What about for an adventurous eater?
For lunch, I like the Summer Salad which has goat cheese, dates and pecans. There’s a really good Macadamia Crusted Sea Bass. And one other thing is the Cold Soft Chicken Salad Tacos.
Chef Murphy asks if I’d like to try those next.
The Salsa de Castillo on that dish— that’s from one of the guys in the kitchen, he’s the dishwasher. He’s been making that hot sauce for us all this time and it’s incredible, so we just put it on this plate and named it after him.
For an adventurous eater at dinner: The Baked Cod. I love the Baked Cod. The Short Ribs are great, and the Salmon Bites are really really good because they’re simple and sautéed in Cajun spice with local tomatoes and finished with a little bit of balsamic.
What would you recommend for dessert?
The Cherry Poptart and the Mouse-Filled Chocolate Bon Bon. Our pastry chef Helen (Coyne) makes all of those. It’s also hard for Helen during concerts because she’s the sous chef, too. She’s incredibly organized, and she just tells me, “Paul, we’ve got four concerts next week, please order me 30 pounds of this chocolate and 20 pounds of this chocolate,” and we go from there. Helen has been here 12 years. She’s another incredible part of the puzzle back there.
Anything else on the menu that’s your favorite?
Yes, and we’re going to order it next. I like the Black Forest Ham Panini. Unfortunately in the media, when people meet an Executive Chef, they think he makes everything. Well that’s not reality. I mean I try to as much as I can. I’m more of an overseer, except for during a concert when I’m here expediting.
I know that you’ve traveled all over the world as part of your career. How has your experience influenced your work at Humphreys?
The dedication to the food. And the quality. I tell the ladies and gentlemen in the kitchen, even if you’re making a hot dog, make it right. It goes back to what I told you before: don’t cheat, do it right. Because the customers will know. Don’t cut corners.
I worked in France. A lot of the stuff at night shows that, like the corn soufflé and the spinach soufflé. And then the hummus. I really got into hummus because I was in the South West of France in Pau, and my best friend there was Algerian. He didn’t speak English, but he taught me stuff that he liked to eat at his house.
I learned a good risotto at Postrio in San Francisco. Chef Anne taught me the right pot to use and how to continue to move and move because risotto is a process, not a rice.
Our Chicken Salad Soft Tacos are served on Naan bread, with side of avocado and the Salsa de Castillo sauce.
Were you raised in San Diego?
No, I’m from Phoenix. I was living here in San Diego initially when I went overseas. I was working at Delicias Restaurant, and then I moved to France for 2 years. I was able to get that great job at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco when I came back. By far, that was the most pivotal moment in my career. I was there 5 years. And I met my wife at the Ritz. I was in the kitchen, she was in catering. I asked her out 13 times. That’s true. Is that creepy? In the end I got what I wanted, didn’t I?
Chef Murphy orders us the Black Forest Ham Panini with extra pickles and a side of the Cajun Spiced Onion Rings.
The thing about the Ritz-Carlton was that everyone treats each other with respect. We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. So the Executive Chef would show you how to do it, and why you do it that way. It was pivotal. And we used to go to wine country and do wine dinners with them in Napa, Sonoma and St. Helena. We’d go to those massive homes in San Francisco. You sure learn how to behave.
Was seafood always your specialty?
I always thought that I was good at seafood; I liked seafood. The craziest misconception about Humphreys though is that I sell a lot of seafood. It’s not true— I sell a lot of meat.
Do you eat at other restaurants?
I try to. I have a 4 year-old and a 9 year-old, and I live 38 miles away. But I try to all the time. It’s a lot of fun.
Do you cook at home for your family?
I’m not allowed to— my wife says I make a mess. It’s true! I can do barbeques, because it’s outside, and it’s easy to clean up. Every now and then, my wife loves a mushroom risotto. So I stop at The Fishery in Pacific Beach and buy scallops. And I buy the meats at Tip Top Meats in Carlsbad.
While finishing our bites, we chat about Chef Murphy’s favorite restaurants to visit with his family, from Carlsbad to Coronado. We top off our meal with the Organic Dark Chocolate Terrain Mousse and Cherry Poptart for dessert.
Main photo from Brad Oliver Photography