A Q&A with Chef Matt Cooper of Bentonville's The Preacher's Son 

On being an actual preacher's son, his gluten-free menu and more.

click to enlarge MATT COOPER

The Bentonville restaurant scene has blossomed far beyond plate lunches and chicken joints in recent years, with a host of new fine-dining options carried along by the Walmart-related bump in incomes. Already earning rave reviews — and a win for Best New Restaurant in this year's Readers Choice Awards — is The Preacher's Son, which opened in December at 201 N.E. A St. in Bentonville. Situated in the airy confines of a renovated former church built in 1904, The Preacher's Son is one of several restaurant concepts opened or in the works in the area by RopeSwing Hospitality Group, a company dedicated to localproduce, farm-to-table establishments, including the highly rated Pressroom and the Undercroft Bar (located in the basement of The Preacher's Son), and the 12,000-square-foot Record event center.

The literal preacher's son behind The Preacher's Son is executive chef Matt Cooper. A veteran of the Little Rock restaurant scene, including serving as the original executive chef of Cache, Cooper decamped to Northwest Arkansas a few years back to work on restaurant concepts with RopeSwing. Several years in the making, The Preacher's Son appears to be living up to the hype, featuring a highly seasonal menu that leans heavily on local meats and produce, buttressed by fresh seafood flown in from suppliers in the Pacific Northwest, where Cooper once worked. To see a full menu, visit thepreachersson.com.

Tell me about your background and how you got into the restaurant business.

I'm a native of Northwest Arkansas, but I grew up everywhere and have lived everywhere. I got my classical training in Portland, Ore. Cooked in Little Rock for years and years. I was the previous executive chef of Lulav, executive sous chef of the Chenal Country Club, executive chef and general manager at Cache restaurant — I opened that restaurant. I was heavily involved in the Little Rock community, then moved up to Bentonville to start this project. It's American cuisine focused on sustainability and the local movement. The menu happens to be gluten-free because I'm celiac.

I had heard about you having celiac disease [an autoimmune disorder that leaves sufferers unable to eat wheat, rye and barley]. How has that shaped your cooking?

It hasn't really changed anything. It just means I have to source better ingredients from better companies.

The restaurant is in an old church?

That's right. It's a church that was built in 1904.

click to enlarge A KIND OF COMMUNION: A former altar offers bar seating at The Preacher's Son,  where chef Matt Cooper says grace over local meats and produce.
  • A KIND OF COMMUNION: A former altar offers bar seating at The Preacher's Son, where chef Matt Cooper says grace over local meats and produce.

Is there a special resonance to you in having a restaurant located in a former church?

My father and grandfather were Methodist minsters in this state for collectively 100 years, so to be in a church, it's fairly comfortable.

In creating the menu for The Preacher's Son, did you have a general philosophy that you hoped to carry with your food?

We just wanted to source the most sustainable ingredients and the most local ingredients we can. We work with local farmers for our produce. Because we're heavily vegetable- and fish-driven here, I source a lot of the seafood from the Pacific Northwest, where I'm also from, because I have those relationships with the fish vendors from there.

You have a Spring Solstice Dinner coming up at 6 p.m. March 20. Can you tell me about that?

It's a wine dinner with Raptor Ridge Winery. The menu is still coming, because we're hyper-seasonal, so we're going to see what's available that week. Then we'll develop the menu based on that. It's a five-course tasting, $125 per person, excluding tax and gratuity. We're going to have a fun little dinner with me and chef Michael Robertshaw from the Pressroom. He's my partner in the company.

You said hyper-seasonal. I think I get it, but what does it mean to you?

I don't know if we're absolutely hyper-seasonal, but spring's coming, so different things are popping up each week. Something might be available next week that's not available right now, like spring garlic, wild watercress, wild fennel, things that we couldn't have gotten last week that we could get this week.

The Bentonville restaurant scene has kind of exploded in the past few years. Do you feel The Preacher's Son fits in with the general vibe of Bentonville or are you trying to do something different from everyone else?

I think all the places that are popping up in Bentonville are very complementary to each other. I think everyone is doing something a little bit different so that we don't compete. That's what I love about the vision of Bentonville.


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