Brian Konefal of Coppa Cafe in Flagstaff: "People Should Travel for Food"
Brian Konefal Executive Chef/Co-owner Coppa Cafe 1300 S. Milton Rd, Flagstaff www.coppacafe.net
Considering that Coppa Cafe has been open for more than three years, it's pretty surprising how little attention the restaurant's received. There have been articles written in local media and even some national mentions, but on the whole, Coppa Cafe's following remains limited to northern Arizona diners.
And that's too bad, because the food here is really, really good.
The fact that the cozy, European-style restaurant is located in a generic Flagstaff strip mall is probably to blame. But chef and co-owner Brian Konefal believes good food -- and yes, his food -- is worth the drive.
"People should travel for food," Konefal says.
See also: 7 Things to Eat and Drink in Flagstaff
That idea is just part of the European mentality the chef picked up during his years spent living and working in Italy and Spain. After earning a degree in Spanish from Northern Arizona University, Konefal sold his car, took out a loan, and headed to Italy to enroll in culinary school. It was there that he met his future wife, Brazilian-born Paola Fioravanti, who co-owns Copppa Cafe and is the restaurant's pastry chef.
The couple spent the next two years knocking around Europe, both working in Michelin-starred kitchens before heading back to the states. They landed in San Francisco, where Konfel met and began working under Michelin-starred chef Daniel Humm, now of Eleven Madison Park in New York. Though Humm was only three years his senior, Konefal credits the chef as being "the man who taught him how to cook."
Konefal spent six years working with Humm, eventually moving to New York to work as sous chef at EMP. The chef's next move brought the couple to Boston, where they opened Bina Osteria in 2008 as executive chef and pastry chef, respectively. The restaurant received rave reviews, but when the recession hit and the owners wanted Konefal to ease up and cut back, he resigned.
"I was so sick of working for other people," Konefal says, so he and Fioravanti decided to take some time off to decide what to do next.
Seared Foie Gras with Local Bolete Mushroom, Aged Balsamic, AZ Orange, Lavender, and Toasted Brioche
Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravati
They were on a six month backpacking trip through South America when Konefal's brother called with a proposition. There was an opportunity to open a bar in downtown Flagstaff; the couple jumped.
The Piano Room, though successful, was a bar before its time. In 2010 the speakeasy-style bar was doing craft cocktails, house-made bitters, infusions, and inventive small plates. It was successful, though, and the couple began to wonder if Flagstaff was ready to support their dream restaurant.
Coppa Cafe opened on July 4, 2011, serving lunch under "embarrassing" florescent lights, Konefal says. These days the restaurant oozes homespun charm, thanks to décor sourced entirely from local vintage and thrift shops. There's an inviting back patio and a pastry case showcasing Fioravanti's delicate and delicious creations.
A year into it Konefal added dinner service to the mix, with a menu that highlights locally-soucred, sometimes foraged ingredients.
Konefal admits it hasn't been easy making the restaurant work in the northern Arizona city. But says it helps that the summer travel season brings tourists from Las Vegas, Sedona, and the Valley. During the slow season he's able to close the restaurant for two weeks at a time for much-needed rest and relaxation.
The chef says he's not closed off to the idea of moving again, but for now the emerging dining scene in Flagstaff is encouraging.
"I just believe if you make good food, it should work," Konefal says.
Chef Brian Konefal
Five words to describe Coppa Cafe: Modern, classic, European, casually refined.
One thing you want people to understand about the restaurant: We'd be nothing without our customers. While our seating area may be small, our list of loyal guests continues to grow and we're extremely grateful for it.
What dish on the menu right now do you think best represents your style of cooking? Veal Agnolotti. It's classic, yet re-imagined, like many of our most popular dishes.
The hardest thing about owning a restaurant in Flagstaff is...it's a small town, so right off the bat you've got a smaller customer base. While tourism is gaining traction, it doesn't yet have the draw of larger, more food-focused cities, so filling chairs every night typically takes more effort.
The best thing about being a chef in Flagstaff is...Access to local mushrooms. The ones we have growing right here in the forests of Flagstaff are among the best we've ever worked with.
Your biggest mentor in the kitchen and the best thing he/she taught you...Swiss Chef and Restaurant Owner Daniel Humm - he's the man that taught me how to cook - and therefore the man that got me where I am today.
Do you remember the moment when you first felt like a true chef? It was when the Boston restaurant opened, but to this day I still feel like a cook first, and a chef, second.
Inside Coppa Cafe in Flagstaff.
"Kelly Beef" Veal Agnolotti: Local, Humanely and Pasture Raised in Prescott, AZ Mesquite Pasta, "Nopalitos", and Local Baby Vegetables.
What made you want give up working in some of the best kitchens in the country? I needed to become a chef in my own right; to fail or succeed exclusively on my own terms. I also wanted to create my own menus and have complete creative control, from start to finish.
Your best advice for a young restaurant owner: Schedule vacation time! The work and the industry are both extremely taxing, and you'll get burnt out if you don't make the time to rest, relax and recharge the batteries.
Would you ever consider leaving Flagstaff to open a restaurant elsewhere? Yes - anything is possible, and we've been known to get a bit of wanderlust every now and then.
Your favorite restaurant in Arizona right now: I haven't had a chance to try too many; this industry doesn't leave a lot of free time.
Your most memorable meal: A tasting menu from San Francisco's Campton Place Restaurant.
What do you think is the biggest difference between American and European diners? Speed. Generally speaking, Euros spend far longer eating and enjoying a meal among friends and family than their overworked American counterparts.
How would you characterize the Flagstaff dining scene: Limited, but emerging. It's been somewhat stagnant for awhile, but in recent years has started heading in a new and exciting direction. I'm eager to see where it goes.
What national/international chefs and restaurants do you admire right now? San Sebastian, Spain's Mugaritz, featuring Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz; Daniel Boulud, the award-winning restaurateur behind New York City's DANIEL and Café Boulud, among many others.
Your favorite thing to eat growing up: Garlic bread and salad.
Your favorite thing to eat now: Anything someone else cooks for me.
Your guilty pleasure: Dill pickle potato chips.
The most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you as a chef: Sleeping in and having my sous chef call to wake me up.
What should be written on your headstone? "He's probably still hungry."
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