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Celebrated chef Matthew Cooper returns to Arkansas roots and opens a gluten-free restaurant


The name of one of Northwest Arkansas’ most popular restaurants is literal.

If Matthew Cooper, executive chef at Bentonville’s The Preacher’s Son, looks out the window of the church-turned-restaurant he presides over, he can see the church where his Methodist minister father preached his very first sermon before a congregation. Cooper was born right up the road in Eureka Springs.

“All of those memories and thoughts tie me to this place,” Cooper says.

Still, no one is more surprised than he to find himself so close to his roots at this juncture of his career. As a minister’s son, he found himself hopscotching all over Arkansas as a youngster; he says he had lived in “20-something” places by the time he was 25.

Later, he headed to Portland, Ore., to study at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. His resume since then belies his youth. In addition to heading one of Bentonville’s most popular and celebrated eateries, the not-yet-40-year-old helped open and was the executive chef and general manager of Little Rock’s Cache, an upscale restaurant in the River Market District. He also opened a spice and herb shop in the city called Dandelion.

After Cache’s positive reviews, a friend suggested he talk to Ropeswing, the Bentonville-based hospitality group behind some of the most high-profile establishments in the region, including Pressroom and the A Street event space Record.

“[Ropeswing] called me, and I was hesitant at first, but they said, ‘Just come up here and see what’s going on in Northwest Arkansas,’” he remembers of the phone call in 2015. “So I came up here with my wife, and it was a pretty quick decision. … I thought, ‘This is the right place to raise my family and to send my daughter off to college.’ It’s an amazing place — Northwest Arkansas will always be in my heart, but it’s funny to come full circle, to somehow find my way back here.”

There was another factor that prompted Cooper’s move back to his roots. Ropeswing was enthusiastic about his desire to make his next restaurant completely gluten free. After years of experiencing pain and discomfort from eating the pasta dishes produced in his kitchens, Cooper was diagnosed with celiac disease about five years ago — meaning, he has difficulty digesting food due to a hypersensitivity to gluten in his small intestine. There were clues before that — his younger sister had been diagnosed years before, and his mother passed away from pancreatic cancer when Cooper was finishing high school.

“I’m from that older generation where you trained under a chef, and you were barely allowed to talk, much less have an opinion of your own. I don’t rule that way. I never have. … No one learns by being screamed at or having knives thrown at them or being demeaned.”

“That was probably related; we just didn’t know,” he says.

Once the diagnosis was made, Cooper knew he had to make changes to his diet and lifestyle.

“I was coming from a classical background of making pastas every day, which I loved, but I couldn’t do it with my health any more — it was really starting to take a toll on me,” he says. “So I said, ‘I love everything that is happening up here, and I love what we’re talking about, but I have to lay it on the table. The next thing I do has to be gluten free. It can’t be my food if I can’t taste it.’ They didn’t even blink an eye. They said, ‘We’re going to open this amazing restaurant in Northwest Arkansas, and we’re going to let it be 100 percent gluten free,’ which is phenomenal, for someone to have that focus and understanding. For them to put that faith in me, and let me do this — it’s a little crazy.”

But what might have seemed like a risk at first has turned into one of The Preacher’s Son’s most salient selling points. Cooper says he started getting clues fairly early that the gluten-free menu was going to be popular. He was working outside of the restaurant before its December 2016 opening when a woman approached him from the sidewalk, asking what was planned for the building. When he told her it was to be gluten-free establishment, he says, she burst into tears.

“I said, ‘Are you OK?’” he remembers. “And she said, ‘My son just got diagnosed a year ago, and there’s nowhere we can go to eat.’ And there have been so many of those amazing stories. People come in and almost have this anxiety about not knowing if they can have something or not and asking, ‘I can’t have this or that, so what can I order?’ My servers love it — they’ll say, ‘Everything!’

“It’s a very serious disease, and it has been around for a long time. They’re just now starting to realize the long-lasting effects of it.”

JAMES BEARD AWARD FOR DESIGN

The Preacher’s Son is an architectural marvel, the beauty of which was nationally recognized this year when it received a nomination for a James Beard Award for restaurant design. It’s housed in a Gothic Revival-style church originally built in 1904, and the exterior and the interior retain that original majesty. The soaring ceiling gives a sense of airiness, and the bar is where the altar was. The seating (stylized, curved benches that suggest pews) and the magnificent windows (creations by George Dombek that bring to mind traditional church-stained glass) are clever nods to the building’s previous purpose. The space is inconceivably bright — how could it not be, given the enormous scope of its windows? — but the light is diffused to a soft, pleasant glow.

But no one knows more than Cooper that good design can only take you so far.

“People come into this space and say, ‘This is gorgeous,’ but that only works once,” he says. “They have to enjoy the service, the food. The people we have here have been with us since the beginning. They understand my vision, and they know I care about them, and they care about me.”

When talking about his relationships with his staff, Cooper uses some form of the word “nurture” frequently. In the kitchen, he says, his supervisory style is much less authoritarian than some more traditional, old-school chefs may allow. Wife Priscilla Fincher, who works as a therapeutic social worker, says that may be because he is eager to share his passion for cooking with those who are eager to learn.

“I never saw someone get so excited about cooking,” says Fincher of their early days together. It was at Fincher’s urging that Cooper decided to pursue a career as a chef — prior to that, he had vacillated between a pre-med and pre-pharmacy major. “I never saw someone get so excited about knives and chopping and different techniques and food profiles. And this was before the Food Network came into play — it wasn’t part of the culture.”

Fincher says one of the things that attracted her to Cooper right away was his impulse to help others, something she has seen him manifest in his role as executive chef.

“Looking back on how he interacted with others and how he can create these connections … that’s why he’s a good manager,” she says. “When you’re a chef, you’re captain of the ship, so to speak. A lot of chefs are portrayed on social media as fear-driven, and Matt’s not like that. He leads a lot like his father led his church, in a caring, compassionate way.”

“He’s very understanding, and he tends to put himself in the individual’s shoes that he’s talking to,” says London Daniel, who has known Cooper for eight years. Daniel started working with Cooper as a dishwasher at Lulav — a Little Rock restaurant where Cooper was executive chef — and then moved with him to Cache. He was born and raised in Little Rock, but when Cooper asked him to join The Preacher’s Son, Daniel uprooted his life and followed Cooper to Northwest Arkansas, living with Cooper and Fincher until he found a place of his own.

Through all of these transitions, Cooper was helping Daniel rise in position in the kitchen. Daniel is now the sous chef at Ropeswing restaurant The Holler. “[Cooper is] not an aggressive individual. He’s passionate, but he’s nice. The way he teaches is hands-on. He gives you a demo, and that’s the way he likes it. He kind of guided me and let me do my own thing, and if I ever needed help, he stepped in.

“I was 19 when I met him. I was very young and wild, and he helped me mature as a man and in the kitchen.”

NURTURING CHEF

“I’m from that older generation where you trained under a chef, and you were barely allowed to talk, much less have an opinion of your own,” Cooper says. “I don’t rule that way. I never have. I give my people more of a voice than maybe I should have, because I’m a nurturer, and I think that’s important. No one learns by being screamed at or having knives thrown at them or being demeaned.”

Cooper’s kitchen is small, and deliberately so.

“When you’re forced to work in a close environment, it allows people to communicate and allows them to have that peripheral vision and see what everyone else is doing,” he says. “It allows them to say, ‘I see that person over there is struggling.’ It gives them the opportunity to grow faster, and everyone knows that — at any point in time — they may need to jump over and do something else. Because it’s about the team, it’s not about the individual. We run a very small kitchen and a small staff, and we have since we opened. To be able to pump out the numbers and the quality of food that we do with that staff, everyone has to really and truly care about doing their job well.”

Cooper’s egalitarian philosophy means that, every day the restaurant is open, he’s still cooking on the line. Until recently, he says, he was even taking a turn as dishwasher once a week.

“I think it’s really vital for employees to see the restaurant industry is about being a family,” he says. “And I came from a family where hard work was instilled. My wife had to tell me for years and years to set boundaries … and after years and years of 14-hour days with these people, they’re my family.”

That extended family includes the people who run the Rios Family Farm, where Cooper gets the restaurant’s produce.

“Our kids play together,” Cooper says. “We take all of our employees out once a year, and we plant all the crops together that we’re going to grow for the restaurant. We have a huge party, we cook carnitas and get a huge copper pot out — one year, we did a lamb, one year, a pig. We spend the whole morning working and help them plant so [our employees] understand that relationship between the farmer and the restaurant and where our food comes from.”

Understanding that relationship — and appreciating the farmers who make it possible — are big themes in Cooper’s repertoire.

“We’re in a society where, since industrialization, food is just there — and we’ve lost sense of where it comes from,” he says. “I try to be very diligent and different about how I approach farmers and who we work with. With Spencer from Cross Creek Farms, I took a few of my cooks to the processing plant, and we processed all of the ducks with them that we used last year. It allows my people to understand that the duck coming in the door is not just a food item. It had a life.”

The role of executive chef can often be a solitary one. Restaurant hours are long and arduous, and a busy kitchen is a stressful kitchen.

“I’ll be 40 next year, and I’ve realized that 80 percent of why I do what I do is that the world is a hard place, and finding a creative way to enjoy what you do for a living on a daily basis is hard,” he says. “I love being able to create a family environment where I can grow, and I can nurture others and see them grow every day. Truly, that’s what drives me every day.

“A huge part of what I do and how I do it is that I believe in what Ropeswing is doing,” Cooper adds. “I believe in developing this community. I believe in being a part of it. And that’s not a sales pitch. You take those core beliefs out of who I am, and there’s no reason for me to be here. It’s all about surviving in this world and creating those little pockets of environment and family and nurturing that make life a little less terrible and a little more meaningful.”


SELF PORTRAIT

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: July 24, 1979, Eureka Springs

MY FAVORITE HOLIDAY OR EVENT TO PREPARE A MENU: Charity events with other chefs like No Kid Hungry and Thanksgiving with my wife and daughter helping.

MY FAVORITE WAY TO RELIEVE STRESS WHEN THINGS GET TENSE IN THE KITCHEN IS: Training Taijiquan (Tai chi) and driving my ’79 Ford truck through the Ozarks.

THE INGREDIENTS NO KITCHEN SHOULD BE WITHOUT ARE: Good quality sea salts and vinegar.

MY GREATEST STRENGTH IS: My ability to communicate with anyone.

ONE THING THAT MIGHT SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT ME IS: I am also a licensed locksmith.

WHAT GETS ME ENERGIZED IS: The energy of my staff and spending time with friends and family.

TAKE ANYTHING, BUT DON’T TAKE: My time away from my family.

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01 Nov 2018


By Lara Hightower
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