Turnover in restaurant kitchens is notoriously high. Reasons vary, of course, but whether it’s a Gordon Ramsey-madman-boss or an employee who quits after the first day because the work is “too hard,” kitchens worldwide suffer from this malady, especially in the post-COVID era.
So, the fact that Liam McCarthy has been working at Renee’s Tucson for ten years is remarkable.
What makes his longevity there even more remarkable is how he got started.
“Being a chef was the absolute last thing I’d planned on doing. This is my first and only restaurant job,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy was born and raised here in Tucson. Before Renee’s, he was working as a paraeducator at a charter school in a cross-categorical Special Education classroom and attending Pima. But during the recession, the school closed and he turned to the job market to support his family, which included his high school sweetheart and their three-year-old daughter.
“I was hired by a gentleman named Alex O’Neal, who was heading the kitchen at what was formerly Renee’s Organic Oven. He needed a dishwasher. I took the job,” said McCarthy. That was ten years ago.
“We recently passed the torch to Liam,” Renee Kreager said of the decision made by her and co-owner/husband Steve to advance Liam to executive chef of the restaurant.
As an example of Renee’s commitment to improving their products and methods, one of Liam’s first invitations as executive chef was to experiment with the dough.
“They started me on the dough right away. It was the first thing I learned,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s fascinating, learning the science behind good bread making,” McCarthy exclaimed.
He credits The Tartine Bread Book as his master class.
For the 18 years prior to COVID, the dough at Renee’s was made from a classic dough recipe using 100% organic high gluten and organic olive oil with organic sugar and dry yeast. That recipe has led them to top rankings and awards for their pizza over the last 15+ years.
“Liam consulted with Steve on what we needed to ensure his process was approved, as it was taking our very loved dough in a new direction,” said Renee.
“Steve and Renee are great people to work for,” said McCarthy. “Renee is so knowledgeable about hospitality and Steve is one of the most patient chefs I’ve ever worked under.”
Steve gave McCarthy the go-ahead, and McCarthy didn’t have to look far.
“We get our flour from Don Guerra of Barrio Bread. He’s who I contacted about getting white Sonoran wheat. The Sonoran wheat helps to keep the inside soft and travels better,” McCarthy noted.
This dough is now 80% organic high gluten and 20% local Sonoran white wheat.
“We pivoted to natural leavening,” he said. That changed the process of making dough. It allowed Mother Nature to do her thing.
McCarthy comes in early every morning, and after getting the kitchen up and running, he starts the first batch of the day.
He lets the dough sit for about four hours, giving it a couple of good turns to get the glutens going. The dough is then set in a tub and put in the walk-in overnight.
The next day that dough is portioned out and returned to the walk-in for another overnight wait.
“It can take 48 to 72 hours,” McCarthy said, “The dough is even better now.”
The dough is used for the pizza and focaccia. The kitchen averages about three batches a day for all those pies.
“Liam has been dedicated to developing this, and he’s highly intelligent and passionate along with being quite a geek about pizza,” Renee said, “The results are a well-developed, slightly sour, perfect chew on a gorgeous edible plate,” said Renee.
While the pies are what made Renee’s a long-time favorite, for a true taste of all that time, hard work, and magic, one must try the focaccia.
Warm and fluffy, the dough has a nice chew. Add a slathering of quality olive oil and you’ve got yourself a thin, lightly crisp, golden crust.
The appetizer is served with Renee’s famous honey butter and hot honey butter – a little sweet, a little savory. All you need is a glass or two from their selection of wines, and your meal is off to a great start.
A savory version sprinkled with oregano accompanies many of the entrees. It’s hard to say which is best so make it easy and order it all.
“But it doesn’t stop at the dough maker,” said Renee as she and Liam paid honor to his team.
“He has an excellent, tiny crew to work with, and thank goodness he is a good teacher because in this time we live in there is always one or two cooks in rotation with a solid few that rock our kitchen day after day,” said Renee.
“Those cooking the pizzas must work that dough properly, top the pizza perfectly, and rotate the heat and char in the exact right moments to bring out the best this pizza can be,” McCarthy noted. “We really do our best to make the best possible dish. We try to put our hearts into every single dish.”
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Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The History Press. Growing up in a large Italian family instilled in her an appreciation for the important role food plays...