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Kingfisher, Eater’s Restaurant of the Year, Parts Ways With Its Head Chef

James Beard Awards semifinalist Jonathan Bautista is no longer in the kitchen

A gold cocktail bar. Kimberly Motos

One of San Diego’s breakout restaurants, the acclaimed Kingfisher in Golden Hill, is moving forward without its executive chef, Jonathan Bautista. The modern Vietnamese stunner and the veteran chef confirmed to Eater that they have mutually agreed to part ways.

Bautista, who spent five years at George’s at the Cove and the much-missed California Modern, joined the Kingfisher team at the height of the pandemic, developing recipes for its sell-out preview pop-ups up until the debut of the highly-anticipated restaurant and cocktail bar in January 2022. His menu, highlighting the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine through a California lens, produced now-classics like the wild mushroom congee and dry-aged duck and earned accolades for the restaurant that includes Michelin Guide recognition, a berth on Bon Appetit’s 2022 list of the 50 best new restaurants, and Eater’s award for 2022 restaurant of the year.

In January, Bautista was named a 2023 James Beard Awards semifinalist in the best chef, California category, although he did not advance to the slate of finalists announced on Thursday, March 30.

Bautista tells Eater that he’s planning to stay and cook again in San Diego, but he’ll first take some time off to travel and be with family.

A chef stands in a kitchen.
David Sim.

Kingfisher co-owner Kim Phan says that David Sim, the chef who has been Bautista’s right hand since the restaurant’s opening, will move into the executive chef position, supported by sous chef Sydney Imlay. Stepping in as general manager, in a role left open by David Tye, is Ghali Benhima who previously worked at Vaca in the OC as well as Waverly and Marisi.

Sim and Imlay, co-collaborators with Bautista, have helped to create some of Kingfisher’s most popular dishes. Raised in San Diego, Sim has spent 15 years in restaurants, cooking for high-profile groups like Whisknladle Hospitality and the Trust Restuarant Group. The chef, who also ran a Southeast Asian food pop-up, tells Eater that he hopes to further explore his Cambodian-Chinese heritage as well as his culinary training through new additions to the menu, and says that he may look to add a chef’s tasting that could include off-menu specials.

A female chef stands in a kitchen.
Sydney Imlay.

Imlay has been in the industry since she was a teenager, working at notable spots like Tender Greens, the Lodge at Torrey Pines, AR Valentien, and George’s at the Cove. The chef, who was also part of the Fish to Families program, says she’s looking forward to continuing to develop dishes that spotlight local seafood and seasonal produce from Chino Farms.


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