Chris McKinley of The Local in Downtown Phoenix: "We Just Want to Have Fun"
Chris McKinley of The Local.
Chris McKinley Chef, co-owner The Local www.iamthelocal.com
If you've been to The Local, then chances are you've already seen chef Chris McKinley. He's usually in the open kitchen, sporting some unexpected item of clothing, like bright red pants or fancy-looking shoes or a newsboy hat.
It's also not uncommon to see him out of the kitchen, stopping at the bar to welcome a familiar face or even in the dining room greeting one of the many Valley chefs who come to check out the new spot.
"I've seen just about every chef in town come through here," McKinley says.
And it's easy to understand why. Though McKinley says he calls The Local a modern American restaurant, a more accurate description would be something along the lines of "food Chris McKinley likes to eat."
"I didn't want a menu you could get anywhere," McKinley says. "Either you like us, love us, or hate us. We just want to have fun."
Luckily for McKinley, letting it all hang out seems to be working so far. The restaurant has received a warm welcome from the neighborhood and local media, which made short work of falling in love with the chef's one-of-a-kind menu. The restaurant, like its lively chef, seems to have a way of winning diners over with minimal effort.
It's only fair to mention that McKinley had a jumpstart on menu creation. At his last gig, at Atlas Bistro, the chef had plenty of practice playing with food. The BYOB restaurant let McKinley revise his menu just about every day.
"It was more practice than I could have asked for," he says.
Chef Chris McKinley in the kitchen at The Local.
Prior to heading the kitchen at Atlas, McKinley worked at restaurants including The House and North with chef Chris Curtiss, who McKinley knows from when they both worked at Noca. Eliot Wexler's restaurant is where McKinley landed after coming to Phoenix to work under chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the then-new J&G Steakhouse at the Phoenician.
McKinley says he fell in love with Vongerichten's cuisine while a culinary student at the Art Institute of California in Orange County. During a course called Modern Cuisine, students learned about different contemporary chefs, including Vongerichten.
"His tuna ribbons were so good," McKinley remembers. "I'm like, 'I'm sold on this guy.'"
So he came to Phoenix with the plan to work at J&G for a year before transferring to one of the famed chef's restaurants in New York. But his plans got derailed when he learned about Noca -- and the rest, you could say, is history. McKinley joined the all-star kitchen team that worked at the restaurant during some of its best days (so far) and has been spending time in the city's top restaurants ever since.
The chef says opening his own place was always a part of his five-year plan, so when co-owner and general manager Adam Haggert proposed they attack the project together, McKinley jumped. They considered opening in Scottsdale or Arcadia, but found the current location on Roosevelt Row and it just felt right.
"We were just like, 'This is The Local," McKinley says.
It was bigger than they originally wanted, but the chef says they're both confident and excited about being a part of the downtown community. Besides, McKinley says, he's not one for "what-ifs."
"I think we really believe in this," he says.
One song to describe The Local: "Smooth Operator" by Sade.
Your favorite dish on the menu and why: I love the bone marrow because when you're done, you can do a shot out of it! Pass the Jameson, please.
The next project/dish you're working on: I've got about five to seven new dishes for a happy hour menu. Everything will be between five to eight bucks.
Your three biggest sources of inspiration when it comes to food: 1. Local farms. 2. All the great restaurants we have in the Valley inspire me. 3. The people I work with, including Adam.
Two things you want everyone to know about The Local: 1. We're open! Ha-ha. 2. Think of us as a come-as-you-are type of spot. I wanna see bone marrow orders in shorts.
Your earliest food-related memory: I loved picking eggs at my grandma's farm in Arvin in northern California.
The most memorable meal you've ever had: Jean-Georges at Trump Tower in NYC. It was 17 courses, I was with two friends, and we were all dressed in three-piece suits.
Two ingredients you enjoy using the most: Pork and, um, pork.
The most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil has gotta go.
Your favorite food trend right now: It seems everyone has a poutine on their menu right now.
The Local's bar.
One national/international restaurant you admire and why: Le Pigeon in Portland. It's incredible. I love it as a very small chef-driven restaurant. People are lined up in the middle of a Monday night for a tasting menu.
One local chef you're a fan of and why: Kelly Fletcher because he is him: He loves food with the highest passion, and he respects everyone around him.
Your biggest mentor in the kitchen and the best lesson he/she taught you: Chef Corey Vuu, an amazing chef I used to work for. He taught me that hard work pays off. For a while, I wanted to quit culinary school, but he was the main reason I stayed in. The guy has a degree in business and is a master chef out of Napa Valley.
Best advice for a chef who wants to own a restaurant: Be sure it's really what you want.
Your personal mantra: Local love.
What does The Local bring to the downtown/greater Phoenix food scene?: I like to think The Local adds more "grownup" to downtown, but also something chic and new with a lot of super-fun character.
One thing you want to see more of in Phoenix: Chef-driven restaurants.
The difference between and chef and a cook is: Attention to detail.
The most underrated restaurant in Phoenix right now: Reathrey Sekong. It's a little Cambodian spot on 12th Street and Indian School.
The best thing you've eaten in the last year: The wings from Reathrey Sekong.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Chris Mayo -- Central Bistro James Fox -- Bootleggers Jay and Christine Wisniewski -- Caffe Boa Joe Absolor - Clever Koi Jason Grossmiller - Arizona Distilling Company Chris Collins - Grassroots Kitchen and Tap Perry Rea - Queen Creek Olive Mill Adam Brown - Noca Steve Kraus - Press Coffee Roastery Jason Raducha and Claudio Urciuoli - Noble Bread Sasha Raj - 24 Carrots Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.