Arkansas native chef Matthew Cooper earned his culinary training in the Pacific Northwest at Le Cordon Bleu. After opening the acclaimed Cache Restaurant in Little Rock, Cooper came to Bentonville as founding chef of the Preacher’s Son before opening Conifer in 2022. He was named a 2024 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: South.


AY About You: You could have set up shop anywhere in the country. Why did you choose Bentonville?


Matt Cooper: My focus has always been to build communities. I was in Little Rock, where I had just built Cache Restaurant, and I was approached by Ropeswing [Hospitality Group] when it was first started to come up here about what ended up being Preacher’s Son. I came up here and interviewed and saw what was happening here, and I was like, “Man, I could really get involved in this,” because community is so important to me.


AY: When the time came to open Conifer, was it a complete blank slate, or are there traces of things that carried over?


Cooper: I think that when you work for someone else, you’re never capable of being 100 percent who you are and what you want to do. The experiences in your past mold and shape the path for your future. Just taking those things from my core — being more local, more regional, more sustainable.

AY: You seem to have a remarkable philosophy toward the people you work with.


Cooper: I wanted to open a restaurant and be the sustainable model of a restaurant providing careers for people. It is a “we,” not an “I,” because I’m not successful without any of the people that have chosen to surround me. For that reason, we offer health care for all our full-time employees. We do two weeks paid vacation, even for servers. It’s unique that we’ve been able to do that and something we’re really proud of.


AY: What does James Beard recognition mean to you?


Cooper: The recognition is huge for all the people that have supported us. I get really emotional when I think about everyone who took a chance on this restaurant and came to work with me and believed in what we wanted to do. I think that’s where the justification is. It’s great for the community. It’s great for our restaurant. It’s great for everyone in it.