No Smoke and Mirrors: chef Matthew Cooper runs the Conifer restaurant with conviction

You might think it’s a food thing. And it’s. But it’s also a story of realizing a vision and leading with conviction.

Chef Matthew Cooper opened its new restaurant in Bentonville Coniferous to much anticipation in August. There, the James Beard Award nominee takes simple local ingredients and makes them brilliant without turning them into something they were never meant to be.

“I’m not trying to make the salmon look like zucchini and taste like bubblegum,” he said. “We take the best products grown here and showcase them in their natural forms.”

The dining room bustles with people five nights a week, Tuesday through Saturday.

No lunch, no brunch – only dinner at this time. Securing a reservation can be a challenge. It’s obvious that Northwest Arkansas is excited about Cooper’s new venture.

Brian Sorenson
Chef Matthew Cooper

My wife and I were lucky enough to get a table on a recent weeknight. Our server recommended we start with the corn cakes with grilled peaches, squash, pickled red onion and cashew cheese. It was one of many small plates on the menu using fresh produce prepared in a simple yet elegant way.

Cooper and his team are on full display in an open kitchen concept. Guests can watch them perform a culinary ballet, floating gracefully between stations in a coordinated fashion that is almost hypnotic to watch.

“I love the transparency of the kitchen,” the 43-year-old Arkansas native said. “There is no smoke and mirrors. You can sit at your table or at the bar and see everything we do.

Cooper loves watching his clients as much as they love watching him.

“I can see everyone’s facial expressions,” he said. “And if I think something is wrong, I’m at this table to check how I can fix it.”

He didn’t need to worry about me and my wife when we visited. I savored the coffee-rubbed tri-tip with cabbage and cherry mostarda, which caught my eye from the first glance at the menu. The beef was perfectly cooked and the smoky, nutty and candied fruit flavors of the accompanying ingredients created complexity while bringing balance to the dish.

Brian Sorenson
Tri-tip rubbed with coffee.

My wife was also impressed with her selection – a brilliantly cooked half chicken with heirloom fonio (an ancient African grain), pickled peaches and heirloom tomatoes.

Conifer is the culmination of Cooper’s 25+ years in the kitchen. He was the founding chef of Bentonville’s The Preacher Son and Little Rock’s Cache. Conifer is the first restaurant he owns. So he relished the opportunity to put his stamp on the space, the food and his team.

“I’ve worked for other people my whole career,” he says. “Even with the restaurants I was responsible for, there was always an outside influence. When I designed this restaurant, I wanted to make sure my vision came true.

Conifer occupies the ground floor of The Howard, a mixed-use residential complex located at the east entrance to downtown Bentonville. Cooper opted for a dining room-to-kitchen ratio of 50-50 compared to the 80-20 approach used in most restaurants.

While impressive, Conifer’s interior isn’t overwhelming. Local artisans have added subtle touches throughout the space to make it warm and inviting.

But even more remarkable than the food and atmosphere is Cooper’s passion for being a leader and treating people with compassion. “If I’m cocky about anything, I’m not a terrible person,” Cooper said. He is the son of a Methodist preacher and comes from a long line of humanitarians. His grandfather was an advocate for church integration during the civil rights era.

Cooper was widely celebrated during his time at The Preacher’s Son, where he spent a total of six years. Despite the success and acclaim there, he knew he had to go out on his own.

“It was time to give my heart to the community – to have the time, space and energy to build what I wanted without the influence of another company,” he said. “I did everything I was supposed to do at The Preacher’s Son. We built an amazing restaurant there.

One of the accomplishments Cooper is most proud of is the 97% retention rate he has achieved while leading the staff at The Preacher’s Son.

“If a cook left, it’s because I trained him well and the company took him as a sous chef somewhere else,” he said. “They left out of opportunity, not because they were mistreated.”

Cooper said he learned important lessons from leaders who didn’t care about their people.

Watching tyrants and miscreants run kitchens early in his career taught him how he shouldn’t behave when it was his turn to lead. He decided his goal as a leader was to get to know the person, his family and his dreams.

“The idea is to be inclusive, encouraging and empowering – not only for the community, but also for the people who live and work here in the restaurant,” he said. “We spend so much time with each other. We need to have cohesion and a family environment for this to work.

His caring for his employees is one of the reasons so many staff have followed him from The Preacher’s Son to Conifer. Another is the voice it allows them to have in decisions.

“All of my employees have a say in the menu,” Cooper said. “We have amazing bartenders here, and they wrote the drink menu. We are a democracy here, and we all participate in it. I expect the most experienced people in the kitchen to help with the dishes when needed.

Coniferous
Evergreen staff.

The egalitarian approach in the kitchen extends to the dress code. Many locals are intimidated by the increasingly upscale restaurant scene in Bentonville. With so many out-of-town businesses calling Benton County home these days, there’s pressure to look good when heading into town for dinner or a drink.

Despite this, Cooper wants everyone to feel comfortable at Conifer, no matter who they are or what they’re wearing.

“I don’t care if you come here with a t-shirt and a baseball cap,” he said. “I don’t care if you walk in with flip flops. Conifer is for everyone.

Much has already been written about Cooper’s dedication to a gluten-free menu and his reliance on local growers for ingredients. Farm-to-table is a growing trend in Northwest Arkansas, and Cooper is at the forefront.

The region, however, is still in the early stages of self-sufficiency. There are a number of quality farmers in the area, but there is also a shortage of some basic ingredients needed by restaurants. Cooper sees the need for more, and he plans to meet some of those needs himself.

“I’m going to build a farm here for this restaurant and to serve the needs of the community,” he said. “Even though it’s only 2 acres where we grow carrots, onions and celery.”

Cooper has a long-sleeved tattoo on his left arm that features mushrooms and foliage from different places he’s lived. At the top, near his shoulder, rests a phoenix.

“My life has been so much about moving, it’s about dying and being reborn when you come to a new place,” he said.

Before the restaurant opened, thinking of a name, he glanced at his tattoo. There he saw evergreen images and knew that planting seeds, sprouting and growing into a fully realized form was symbolic of his goals for the new restaurant.

“It was as simple as looking at my arm and saying, ‘We’re going to call it Conifer.’ ”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: