IT’S QUITE the night-to-day experience, climbing the stairs from the craft cocktail bar in the basement of The Preacher’s Son, a Gothic church turned restaurant in Bentonville, to its main dining room. The former is dark, cozy and speakeasylike; the latter is all height and honey tones and architectural marvel.
Once inside, the space’s simple tables and banquettes serve to focus your attention on a trinity of details: the massive king post looming overhead. The vibrant glass-window installations by Fayetteville artist George Dombek. The gold-bricked bar, tucked into what was once the church’s apse, aka the inset alcove where the altar once stood. It’s an extraordinary space, one that evokes reverence and serenity while at the same time feeling downright luxurious.Gorgeous as the dining room may be, the restaurant’s inner sanctum is the kitchen, where I’m headed on a Tuesday afternoon to chat with executive chef Matt Cooper, an actual preacher’s son. Today his dark brown Prince Caspian waves are pulled back from his boyish face. He greets me with one of his big warm smiles, then quickly ushers me into the kitchen.
The first thing I notice is that it’s much smaller than I expected. Its diminutive size, Matt says, was by design. “Having a smaller kitchen makes for better communication and efficiency,” he says. “It’s a well-oiled machine back here.”
Today that well-oiled machine is buzzing. Tuesdays are a major prep day after the busy weekend. His team of cooks—Zane, London, Josh and Caleb, all of whom have been with the restaurant since its doors opened some seven months back—are chopping, stirring and whisking around us like whirling dervishes. An earthy herbal smell fills the air. I instinctively wander off to find its source: a large pot of simmering purplish-brown liquid. Nuggets of pearly white onion and translucent celery bob across the surface.
“That’s the beginnings of the braise for the pork shanks,” Matt says, holding up a stainless-steel pan crammed with herb-dusted shanks just sprung from a two-day citrus brine. One shank is a glistening reddish-pink. “This one’s been smoked,” he explains, holding up the odd man out for my inspection. “It’ll act like a ham hock, giving the braise a smoky flavor.”
Matt then points out that the shanks are from responsibly raised pigs. He’s a chef who thinks an awful lot about how his ingredients wound up in his kitchen, aiming for a target of 90 percent local, he tells me. When local isn’t an option, he focuses on sustainability. And he attempts to use as many parts of a vegetable or protein as possible. Curtailing food waste is a bit of an obsession with him.
At one point, we take a break from the shanks to dip into the cooler, where he enthusiastically shows me components of his waste-management system: the buckets of veggie scraps reserved for the vegetable farmer’s compost heap, and the bins of chicken scraps that’ll feed the pig farmer’s pigs. “It makes for a more chaotic walk-in,” he admits as we make our way back to the stove. “But I can’t not think about how something was grown or raised. Once you understand that process, it’s so hard to stomach throwing anything away.”
Matt’s environmentalist bent was likely influenced by his time living in Portland, Oregon, where he trained in kitchens along the South Waterfront and in the Pearl District. (Not to mention his stint as a sous chef at the legendary—and recently shuttered—Der Rheinlander.) He brought his environmental awareness back with him to Little Rock, not just into the kitchens of Lulav and Cache, where he served as the latter’s original executive chef, but also to Dandelion, a tea-herb-spice shop he opened downtown. In its day, it was the go-to spot for ashwagandha root, nettle leaf, milk thistle seed and the like.
I’m hardly surprised when he starts rooting around for rose hip and hibiscus for the pork shanks. “Rose hip has a lot of really positive medicinal properties,” he explains as he measures out a pile of dried flowers. “It also has a really nice fragrance. And hibiscus—not only does it add a bit of tartness; it’s good for heart health.”
Pork shanks have been a menu staple of his since his time at Cache. “Even though we’re vegetable and fish-driven here at Preacher’s Son,” he says, “you have to think about your diners, and in Arkansas, we love our pigs.” Serving pork shank is a way for him to get that pork on the menu while at the same time adhering to his sustainable cooking philosophy, he explains. After all, pork shanks are a cut of meat some view as a throwaway. “Pigs aren’t raised for their shanks,” he points out.
While the shanks sizzle in the pan, London offers me a taste of the gnocchi he’s been working on. It’s pillowy and fluffy and tastes every bit the way gnocchi is supposed to taste, even though Matt’s is a 100-percent gluten-free kitchen due to the fact that he suffers from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that leaves him unable to eat wheat, rye or barley.
“How on earth do you make gluten-free gnocchi taste this good?” I ask.
“London and I just toyed with alternative flours until we came up with the best combination,” he says. Rice, sorghum, tapioca and corn flour are all part of that winning combo. Same deal with the spaetzle mac and cheese and the schnitzel, Matt says. (It’s a rice panko that enables him to pull off the schnitzel, one of the most popular items on the menu.) “It’s important to me to show that a gluten-free menu item doesn’t have to mean lesser than or subordinate to its counterpart,” he says. “But it’s hard. It takes a whole ’nother level of thoughtfulness and care.”
As we begin to chat about other menu items, I begin to better understand how Matt’s chef brain works. Take the eggplant hushpuppies Josh is mixing up in a gigantic bowl across from me. The genesis for those, Matt explains, was his desire to help out a farmer who had an overabundance of eggplant. At the time, Matt had been chewing on the idea of adding a hushpuppy to the menu, so why not kill two birds with one Ethiopian-spiced fritter, he thought.
That same level of thoughtfulness and ingenuity is evident throughout his menu. It’s in the gnocchi tossed with roasted carrots, brown butter and bits of actual honeycomb, and in the shaved Brussels sprout salad served atop a Gorgonzola dolce mousse. Thing is, while it’s true that Matt is indeed serving up casual “rustic, traditional” fare, as he describes it, the amount of thought and care he puts into each dish ultimately serves to elevate it. He succeeds in giving even the simplest dish a specialness that mirrors the grandeur of its surroundings, as I discover when I dig into my burrata-and-peaches starter a few nights later.
After the starter, I’m presented with a plate of those eggplant hushpuppies served with warm honey drizzled over zesty tzatziki sauce. The Ethiopian berbere spice is a revelation. And then the gnocchi, which is one of the highlights of the meal (not to mention my eating career in general): crunchy roasted carrots provide the perfect contrast to the dumplings’ fluff. Sage and parsley, along with a bright honeycomb nugget, take the dish to another level.
And then, finally, it’s time to try those pork shanks. “Praise the braise!” I think to myself as I take my first bite. The meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender; the sauce is as rich and layered as you’d expect given all that went into the brine and the braise. But it’s that special Matt Cooper touch—a watermelon mostarda—that brings it all together, balancing out the richness with a fruity zip.
After I’ve cleaned my plate, I sit back and take in the golden glow of the crowded dining room. As I wait for dessert, I think back to something Matt had told me when he was giving me a tour of the space. “If the food doesn’t measure up, no matter how amazing a space is, you’re not going to come back,” he’d said. I start to wonder, Does the food measure up?
As if I needed any more proof on the plate, dessert arrives—a cloud of peanut butter mousse atop a silky layer of blackberry cheesecake topped off with crispy wisps of peanut brittle—and gives me my answer.
In a word: YES.