Flagstaff Food Boom: Chef Derek Christensen of Tinderbox Kitchen

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Q&A Issue: November 2016
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Chef Derek Christensen of Tinderbox Kitchen. Courtesy Awe Collective.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). To explore the burgeoning culinary scene up north, we're running a series of Q&As with the personalities behind the chef hats behind the town's restaurant renaissance we're calling the "Flag Food Boom."

Today we're chatting with:

Chef Derek Christensen
Tinderbox Kitchen
34 S. San Francisco St., Flagstaff

When Tinderbox Kitchen opened almost eight years ago on South San Francisco Street, the surrounding businesses included a strip club, a tattoo parlor and a dance club. At the time, Flagstaff didn’t have much in the way of fine dining restaurants, according to Tinderbox’s head chef Derek Christensen. The cuisine was centered on upscale comfort food – meat loaf, macaroni and cheese and Salisbury steak – but Christensen says the focus is now on a seasonally changing menu. He also oversees the kitchens of the adjacent Annex Cocktail Lounge and Tourist Home, a breakfast and lunch restaurant that also features to-go specialty items.

What kind of cuisine has the Tinderbox Kitchen evolved into?
We now call it progressive American food, which is made to make you feel slightly uncomfortable, but still be able to enjoy your meal. There’s a very odd balance in Flagstaff. You want to use fun, cool new ingredients that people haven’t heard of, but at the same time, the people who live here or people on vacation don’t necessarily want this crazy experience, they want to be fairly comfortable.

Can you give me an example of a dish that’s slightly uncomfortable?
One of our dishes right now is the charred octopus with a smoked potato ragout, pepita Romesco and a little pickled onion. It’s for the person who wants to try something new.

How often do you change the menu?
We change the menu almost every day. We like to change it up and keep it fun and exciting on both sides – fun for the kitchen crew, but also for the customers that might come in once a week.

Tell me about the chef’s tasting menu.
The idea is to make every tasting menu different. We’ll usually do fun things that aren’t on the menu yet. It’s five courses with a couple of intermezzos – palate cleansers. We just like to have fun with it. I like to think of it as the best and the coolest of the fun food we have at the moment.

Tinderbox Kitchen is known as a contemporary, but unpretentious restaurant. What’s the atmosphere like?
Because we’re in Flagstaff, mountain casual is the appropriate dress. That means you can go in jeans and a flannel or you can also feel comfortable if you wear a suit after work.

How does your restaurant blend into the Flag dining scene?
We’ve definitely found our spot. There’s definitely some solid competition now. I think being one of the original slightly upscale, hip restaurants gives us a little bit of an edge, because people know about us. They’ve been coming here for years. But beyond that, the restaurant is constantly trying to find itself. I think the Tinderbox is a great restaurant. It’s not getting old or stale by any means.