December 28th, 2020

Rooted in McMinnville: Red Hills Kitchen’s Kyle Chriestenson

Kyle Chriestenson is a long-time fixture in the McMinnville food scene.

It’s quiet inside Red Hills Kitchen. The downtown McMinnville restaurant is closed this day and chef Kyle Chriestenson is spending his morning planning menus and reviewing food supplies for the days to come. Like most restaurants, business is down right now due to the pandemic. Still, Red Hills Kitchen serves it loyal customers with outdoor dining.

Kyle remains upbeat. Sure, COVID-19 precautions may discourage some diners, but things will get better, he says.

Kyle loves his work. His restaurant resume includes stops at Michelin- and James Beard-honored establishments in Chicago and Boulder, Colorado. He’s been with some well-known names in McMinnville and Yamhill County: Thistle, the Blue Goat, and The Diner. Now he’s working with Jody Kropf, chef, and owner of both the Red Hills Kitchen and Red Hills Market in Dundee.

“I was dead set as a small child that I was going to open a barbecue restaurant,” he says, recalling growing up in Kansas, searching with his grandfather for the best barbecue joints in a barbecue-crazed state. “That was my childhood dream.”

He’s branched out since his early passion, “but I do love cooking with open flame by far more than anything.”

We asked Kyle a few questions:

Q: Jody Kropf is a key player in the Yamhill County food scene. You’ve been with him since March 2020. What do think of the experience?

Kyle: Jody is definitely a powerhouse with his (Red Hills Market) spot in Dundee. I would say he probably has the busiest restaurant in the county. They are just always rocking, even right now.

Q: Has Jody, in effect, turned the McMinnville restaurant over to you?

Kyle: He’s still the chef and owner and he oversees it but I make the menus. I do all the ordering and I’m actually cooking it all.

Q: You’ve been living and cooking in the McMinnville area for 10 years now. Are you establishing your own reputation?

Kyle: Yeah, I have quite a few people who follow me around. It’s been kind of funny to see a lot of real regulars from The Diner who now are coming in here. This is a small town. So, you recognize a lot of people right now. At this point in the off-season, I know 90 percent of our customers. I’ve been cooking for them for nearly a decade.

Q: You say you love cooking with an open flame. That must extend to fish here in the Pacific Northwest.

Kyle: I love meats, but I do love fish, too. I care about where things come from. I’m meticulously sourcing (ingredients), working seasonally with local farms. I feel the same way about salmon. It kills me with the depleting populations and everything. So, it’s really hard with salmon because I love it and its good fish.

One of our purveyors established relationships with some Native Americans in the Gorge and there’s this fisherman out there who’s been catching salmon and steelhead. We’ll buy from him; they’re beautiful and they’re delicious.

Q: What’s the difference between farm vs. wild salmon or steelhead?

Kyle: Most people are so used to farm fish because that’s what’s commercially available and more affordable. But it’s not the same. You can get a tomato year-round any time at the grocery store, but getting one at the farmers’ market, one that fell off the vine in somebody’s hand. The flavor explodes. Our fish is the same way. There’s so much flavor.

Q: My last question. There’s more to life than cooking. This has been your home for 10 years. What keeps you rooted in McMinnville?

Kyle: There are so many reasons. I feel like I’m really rooted here because I enjoy the community, the people. I like the food scene. I feel super attached to the state of Oregon as it is. I’m an outdoorsy guy and there’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff. Something about living here makes so much sense to me.

Dan Shryock

Dan Shryock regularly writes about McMinnville and Yamhill County.