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.