Photography by Meredith Mashburn
Matt Cooper believes in bringing people together, and his method is one steeped in tradition — food. Growing up, his family never ate out, unless they were on vacation. He found himself drawn to the welcoming atmosphere of the dinner table as they gathered to discuss their day. Even the process of seeing vegetables go from seed to the plate resonated with him on a deeper level, and that connection stayed with him.
The Road to Chefdom
The Arkansas native comes from three generations of Methodist ministers on his father’s side, but he found himself drawn to the pursuits of his maternal lineage.
“My mother’s side of the family were all food technologists,” he said. “My grandfather helped start the food technology program at the University of Arkansas. My mother did it at Riceland and my uncle did it at Mars and other companies. Food science has always been a big part of that half of my family.”
Initially, the culinary bug didn’t bite. In college, he majored in biology while working at restaurants to make ends meet. Little did he realize that learning about chemistry and biology was giving him a different kind of education. After marrying his wife, Priscilla, and becoming a father, he decided to relocate to Portland, Ore., and take the plunge to become a chef with her encouragement.
Having cooked on his own for 13 years and studied science in college, Cooper became a quick study at the Western Culinary Institute of the Le Cordon Bleu College of the Arts. He worked at restaurants that served a variety of food such as German at Gustav’s, French at Everett Street Bistro in the Pearl District and Italian at Aquariva. It wasn’t just the types of food that were important, but the way they were made.
Much like his boyhood days working in his grandfather’s garden, Cooper found himself exploring the origins of what he cooked. He knew the fishermen and the farmers, and sometimes he even planted seeds himself. The farm-to-table movement has since gone nationwide, but at the time, Portland was at the forefront, which gave the burgeoning chef an unofficial doctorate in sustainability.
“When I was there, we would come to work and sometimes go to the farm and literally handpick what we wanted – it’s amazing. The allure of the entire process is that you know where the food is coming from and you know what you’re doing,” he said.
Returning to the Natural State
After graduating, Cooper found himself restless and decided he needed to return to his roots.
“In Portland, I was one of many chefs doing the local, organic, sustainable movement so I couldn’t really make a difference,” he said. “We decided to move back [to Arkansas] so my wife could finish her master’s degree, and I could also really start to dive into the community and make a difference.”
Back in Arkansas, Cooper took a job as the executive sous chef at Chenal Country Club to get his foot in the door. He worked there for two years before moving on to Lulav Modern Eatery to serve as executive chef. Eventually, another opportunity arose and he got into Cache Restaurant on the ground floor and ran it for a year after it opened. During those years, he developed quite a reputation as a chef and caught the attention of Bentonville’s Ropeswing Group.
According to Rob Apple of Ropeswing, the restaurant had undergone a national search to find a chef for a new project, and after putting out a call for potential Arkansas candidates, Cooper’s name kept popping up. They hired him for an upcoming restaurant tentatively called the Belfry. As planning for this establishment was underway, Cooper worked as front of the house manager with Chef Mike Robertshaw in the new version of Pressroom, which Apple founded with his wife, Bea, before it was acquired by Ropeswing. This opportunity gave Cooper the chance to work side-by-side with his new employers and their brand development company, FÖDA Studio, to revamp the former First Christian Church in downtown Bentonville into a unique culinary experience. During this time, the direction changed and Belfry became The Preacher’s Son, which finally opened in fall 2016.
A Unique and Artful Experience
The restaurant stands out on its own among a town that has become known for top-notch eats. The group worked with FÖDA Studio and their architects to develop a multilayered, visual experience – the upstairs restaurant, Preacher’s Son, feels like a Sunday morning with it’s hardwood floors and art glass windows by the legendary George Dombek. The downstairs bar, Undercroft, has a dark, speakeasy vibe that lends itself to a night of fun without the guilt.
While it stands out in terms of design, Cooper’s menu truly adds the finishing touches.
“My biggest goal, because of beauty in this space, was to create a casual menu where anyone and everyone can come in dressed the way they want and enjoy a casual dinner that’s very thoughtful and sustainable in a beautiful space,” he said.
Cooper utilizes his connections to the Pacific Northwest to purchase fish from boats that he knows personally and has it flown in weekly. He works with Arkansas-based farms for produce, much like he did in his Portland days. Dishes like the gnocchi and the pork shank have become favorites, while he feels the tuna tacos are also worth checking out. The biggest challenge for Cooper came, not from any outside restrictions, but rather his own dietary ones.
Throughout his life, Cooper found himself dealing with pain of unknown origin. It wasn’t until he moved to Portland and had tests run that he realized his Southern wheat-based staples were the culprit. Being diagnosed with Celiac Disease came as a blow to someone who dealt with pastas and breads on a regular basis. Over time, he adjusted his diet and cooking style to accommodate. Now Preacher’s Son boasts a delicious, gluten-free menu – a source of pride for Cooper.
“Coming from Southern and European training, it’s all pasta and bread,” he said. “The challenge was being able to do all those things in a gluten-free environment and still be able to create things like those pillow-like gnocchis or that really good ravioli and maintain the standards of my training. It was a challenge sometimes but still fun.”
Besides excelling as a chef, Cooper has developed a solid reputation as a leader at work.
“His personal leadership style is different from a lot of kitchens,” said Apple. “He has a gentle approach to leadership that’s very developmental and educational. I really appreciate that about him. His staff does too.”
For Cooper, the admiration is mutual.
“My entire kitchen staff challenges me on a daily basis,” he said. “We come together as a group to plan. All of my cooks are my teachers as well. We maintain constant communication on how we can continue to improve. It’s the teamwork that keeps me from being complacent.”