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Chef David Smith.

Flagstaff Food Boom: Chef David Smith of Root Public House

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Q&A Issue: October 2016
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Once known for its lumberjack college kids, good skiing and decent drinkin' scene, Flagstaff is quickly making a name for itself as a foodie town (and we're not just talking about the phenomenal pizza). Today, we kick off the first in a series of Q & A's with the personalities behind the chef hats behind the town's restaurant renaissance we'll call the "Flag Food Boom."

Chef David Smith, co-owner of Root Public House. Photo courtesy of Awe CollectiveDavid Smith
Root Public House
101 S. San Francisco St., Flagstaff.
(928) 774-1402, rootpublichouse.com

When David Smith moved to Northern Arizona from Portland, Oregon, 10 years ago, Flagstaff wasn’t exactly a mecca for chef-inspired cuisine. But Smith and others have turned the tide and Flagstaff now boasts some of the best restaurants in the state. Smith initially became a chef/partner at Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar, now a Flagstaff institution, and then subsequently opened Criollo Latin Kitchen and Proper Meats and Provisions – all different concepts, but with a central theme of local, sustainable, organic. In July, Smith and partner Jeremy Meyer opened Root Public House in the south-of-the tracks section of Flagstaff’s San Francisco Street.

Tell me about your newest restaurant Root Public House.
I’ve taken everything that I’ve learned living in Flagstaff and applied it to this restaurant. We buy exclusively local if it’s available – protein, produce, beer, wine and spirits. We’re trying to bring elevated food and drink to the masses so we’ve got really aggressive pricing. I feel like it’s a place that you can come for a random Tuesday night or for an anniversary dinner.

What’s the significance of the restaurant’s name?
I’m from Virginia and my partner is from Arkansas. We wanted to be a kind of high-end Southern restaurant in the vein of Southern chefs who are trying to create this Renaissance of Southern food. It’s something that definitely does not exist (in Flagstaff). We wanted our Southern backbone running through everything.

Why is buying local an important philosophy for you?
I could shave 8 or 9 points off our bottom line if I started buying exclusively from one of those large national purveyors, but I just don’t believe in it. The quality, the accountability, keeping the money in your community, reducing your carbon footprint – all of those things supersede the amount of money I can put in my pocket and fortunately we have a clientele here who is receptive to that. We’re really proud to support local producers.

How does your restaurant fit into Flagstaff’s food culture?
When we opened Brix 10 years ago, there were two relevant restaurants here. Brix got national and international acclaim and I think that started [the current food culture]. We really have amazing talents in this town now. The difference between Flagstaff and certainly Phoenix and Tucson is that you don’t have to go very far to get to the next great restaurant. It’s all centrally located. So you could spend the weekend here and just hop around and have a different great experience for each meal. What we’re trying to do at Root House is offer really great elevated food at a price that’s not an impediment to get the locals in. It’s our take on what a public house should be in its truest sense – to be a house where the public is welcome.

You change the menu frequently. Do you have any perennial dishes?
The Arizona Hot Chicken has been really, really popular. We do a house-made cavatelli with Arizona Legacy Beef and local chilies, and shrimp and grits. The menu is varied. I can do whatever I want and I have very few rules. If it tastes good and looks great, I’m going to put it on the menu and that part has been really fun.