Former Bacanora chef brings Scandinavian menu to Phoenix with Nordborg | Phoenix New Times

Former Bacanora chef brings dinner pop-up to Sauvage Wine Bar

Chef Derek Christensen is cooking Scandinavian-inspired bites with Nordborg.
James Beard Award-nominated chef Derek Christensen is displaying his culinary and artistic endeavors at Sauvage Wine Bar and Shop.
James Beard Award-nominated chef Derek Christensen is displaying his culinary and artistic endeavors at Sauvage Wine Bar and Shop. Brookklyn Huberty

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Longtime Arizona chef Derek Christensen is changing gears, in more ways than one.

Christensen recently stepped away from working in some of Phoenix's buzziest restaurants. He was part of the James Beard Award-nominated team for Best Chef Southwest in 2023 while at Bacanora with chef-owner Rene Andrade and chef Roberto Centeno. He also helped Andrade open Huarachis Taqueria in December.

“I just realized it was time to change it up,” he says, explaining his desire to focus on another creative pursuit – painting.

But while he’s eager to explore naturalist-inspired work via paintbrush and canvas, the talented chef isn’t ready to step away from cooking entirely. You’ll now find Christensen cooking northern European and Scandinavian-inspired cuisine on Thursdays and Fridays at Sauvage Wine Bar and Shop with his pop-up concept Nordborg.

“Now I’m able to paint more and this little Nordborg is a fun way to get that creative cooking energy out,” he says. “That’s been my goal for a long time now.”

He approached Sauvage owner Chris Lingua about the possibility of a cooking residency. Lingua, who first got to know the “super talented” Christensen through a wine event with Bacanora, says he didn’t even have to think about it.

“That’s what this place is about – welcoming in people that do things that make people feel good and sharing them with the community,” Lingua says.

Christensen says the whole concept for Nordborg was inspired by Sauvage. The wine bar and bottle shop is located in the historic Helen Anderson House, an English cottage revival style home built around 1920. It features curved roof lines and a breezy patio outside, with cozy rooms inside where you can settle into vintage furniture.

“It has kind of a northern European vibe to it,” Christensen says. “I was literally sitting there one day and I was like, 'Oh my God, I should do some Nordic food here.'”
click to enlarge
Nordborg's salmon smorgas features cherry wood-smoked salmon with salted caraway butter and beet-braised cabbage with creme fraiche and dill atop Danish-style rye baked at Source in Gilbert.
Mollie McLaughlin

Nordborg highlights fun, sometimes unfamiliar cuisine

Nordborg pays homage to Christensen’s culinary journey, some of his family’s Norwegian history and his own proclivity for simple meals like sardines on toast.

“I thought it would be fun to highlight some of those styles, those techniques, those vibes. It’s fun, tasty food that’s a little bit unfamiliar to some folks,” he says.

The opening pop-up menu was a collection of small plates that could be ordered individually or as an entire board delivered whimsically on a bed of pine needles. Though the ingredients and how they're prepared are paramount to Christensen, he says he doesn’t want to make the food too fussy.

“We’re surrounded by restaurants and chefs that take the wrong things too seriously, and I’m having fun with this for myself and I’m trying to relay that fun to the guests,” Christensen says.

The dishes on the board ranged from a bread course featuring an Irish soda bread recipe Christensen learned from his father-in-law, served with a luscious, tart sour cherry and rhubarb butter, to a rich play on a stroopwafel filled with a silky coffee, maple and chicken liver mousse.

click to enlarge Nordborg's frozen wafel.
Nordborg's wafel is a treat that eats like an upscale ice cream sandwich. The frozen center is a coffee, maple and chicken liver mousse that is sandwiched between two wafer cookies and rolled in dark chocolate and candied nuts.
Brookklyn Huberty
After about a month of service, Christensen transitioned the menu to a smorgasbord of Swedish open-faced sandwiches. The chef is following the traditional format of bread topped with butter. In addition to his soda bread, Christensen serves sourdough and Danish rye baked by Ryne Spracale of Gilbert’s Source.

Nordborg’s current menu features five fancy toasts to choose from. The mushroom smorgas is made with hazelnut butter, roasted mushrooms, a caramelly Norwegian brown cheese called brunost, and pickled beets with anise, atop toasted sourdough.

Among fish options is cherry wood-smoked salmon with salted caraway butter and beet-braised cabbage with creme fraiche and dill served on rye. An elk summer sausage smorgas is a carnivorous choice, served with juniper walnut butter, smoked blue cheese, tangerine and lingonberry preserves.

“When you think about it, having things on top of bread at a wine bar is perfect, but then in this way also it almost feels brand new,” Lingua says, noting that while carby wine bar snacks such as bruschetta are familiar to most diners, the experience or ingredients layered in smorgas are less so.

Although not listed on the current menu, Christensen will continue to make the wafels from his opening menu for dessert. The frozen treat eats like an upscale ice cream sandwich. Bold coffee and warmingly sweet maple drown out the potential metallic taste that chicken liver can impart. Instead, it gives body to a luxurious mousse, which is sandwiched between two wafer cookies and rolled in dark chocolate and candied almonds for additional pops of flavor and crunch.

Christensen teases that Nordborg's offerings will change in the future.

“It will continue evolving,” he says. “The menu will, in theory, always change a little bit because that’s the nature of what I do.”
click to enlarge An open-faced sandwich.
Nordborg's current menu of smorgas includes an option with elk summer sausage. It is served with juniper walnut butter, smoked blue cheese, tangerine and lingonberry preserves.
Mollie McLaughlin

A passion for two creative endeavors

Christensen grew up in the East Valley in a family of “relatively terrible” cooks. But, his interest in food began as a child after watching an episode of “Great Chefs” on PBS, where someone made bananas Foster.

“Seeing that just blew my mind,” Christensen says.

His interest in cooking dovetailed with his interest in art. But, he saw a career pathway in food that he didn’t initially see in painting.

After graduating from high school in 2007, he cut his teeth at Ristorante Tuscany, a former restaurant at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, working under chef Brian Archibald. He then headed to Flagstaff, where he worked as a line cook at Tinderbox Kitchen.

After he won the Food Network competition show “Cutthroat Kitchen,” Christensen and his wife Caitlin bought a camper and took off for the Pacific Northwest, cooking and exploring the great outdoors. About two years later, Christensen returned to Flagstaff and Tinderbox to lead the kitchen.

“That was the first turning point into the chef I am today,” he says.

He and Caitlin launched a roving outdoor culinary pop-up business called Moonrise Standard in 2017.

“I love nature, I love the outdoors, I love being outside, I love cooking outside,” he says.

That business came to a screeching halt during the pandemic. During that time, they traveled to the border to cook for migrants, and Christensen picked up work at Arcadia Meat Market. It was there that he connected with Andrade, first delivering meat to Bacanora and then joining him in the kitchen.

“It felt like Moonrise Standard but with a roof over it,” Christensen says of the revered Sonoran restaurant known for its open-flame grill.

Before helping open Andrade’s second project, Huarachis, Christensen was tapped by Wren House Brewing Co. to design the menu for its Ahwatukee taproom, Wren Südhalle, where he continues to consult.
click to enlarge Derek Christensen with his artworks.
Derek Christensen creates naturalist-inspired folk art under the name Dero.
Brookklyn Huberty

Throughout his cooking career, Christensen made art in his rare free time, often waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. to paint or doing so after getting home from the kitchen. As he found success cooking, it made him question, why couldn’t he do the same with painting?

“Nobody is born a good artist or a good cook. You can have passion for it and that helps, but it takes years of practice,” he says. “If I dedicate myself to painting, to the arts, do that for 10, 12, 15 years, there’s no reason why I can’t be an artist and hope for the same results.”

He’s shown his work – which he signs with the name Dero – around Phoenix at gallery spaces including Belhaus and aftermarket, as well as the Santa Monica, California, gallery Dorado 806. He sold out almost all of his work from a recent show in Arcadia. Each step forward encouraged him to make the switch to painting full-time and cooking on the side.

Christensen is self-taught and describes his work as “optimistic art.”

“It follows suit with a lot of other parts of my life, it is driven by nature,” Christensen says. “It’s generally playful, there’s a lot of use of color, at times relatively maximalist. It’s art that makes people happy.”

In addition to his culinary residency, Sauvage will host an opening reception on June 14 to show his latest works, titled “WILD ISLE.” It’s the first time that Sauvage has showcased two creative endeavors from one person, Lingua says.

“When you get a great person who’s very talented, not in just one field, it feels natural to want more and to see another dimension into this person,” he says.

The paintings that will be shown at Sauvage will have Mediterranean, tropical and seafood elements depicted throughout the art. The works were “inspired by the friction between an island’s natural elements and raw disarray or wilderness," Christensen says.

Though the show will be on a Friday, Christensen won’t be in the kitchen. He’ll be mingling, but promises there will be on-theme small plates and bites.

Christensen says he intends to run the Nordborg pop-up at Sauvage “until Chris kicks me out.” And, while he doesn’t plan to turn Nordborg into a restaurant, he does see an overlap between cheffing and painting, particularly in how both can make someone feel.

“Restaurants exist for hospitality,” he says. “At the end of the day, that same feeling you get from good hospitality, I want people to get from looking at my paintings.”

Nordborg at Sauvage Wine Bar and Shop

Thursdays and Fridays, 5 to 9 p.m.
149 W. McDowell Road
"WILD ISLE" art show
June 14, 7 p.m. to midnight at Sauvage.

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