A popular guidebook advises “fussy big-city epicureans” to tone down their expectations for dining in Flagstaff, Ariz. Time for a rewrite! Husband and wife Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti are the classically trained, sustainability-minded chefs who are changing minds at Coppa Cafe, starting with everything from fresh bread and ponderosa pine-infused butter to pasta flavored with mesquite.
After years of training in Europe, followed by a stint under chef Daniel Humm in San Francisco and New York City, Konefal decided in 2011 that it was time to bring Fioravanti — a pastry chef whose own impressive résumé includes a gig with Joël Robuchon — back to his home state of Arizona to start a restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their Flagstaff bistro is not, however, in the historic downtown area so popular with tourists. It is tucked away in a strip mall along South Milton Road — the main drag through town leading from Interstate 40 to the Grand Canyon. In short, Coppa Cafe is a discovery.
The larder and the grow room
At 7,000 feet above sea level, the local ecoystem has posed challenges for indigenous people and settlers for millennia. The weather is cool and even cold eight months of the year, and Konefal summed up the harsh reality of the Flagstaff winter as his predecessors might have: “If we have no larder, we have no kitchen.” In the storeroom that he keeps at 65 degrees, he dries, smokes, brines, pickles and ferments foods to preserve them at the peak of their freshness.
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Konefal started with what he knew: the 18-month process of air-curing pork shoulder in the Italian style to make coppa, also known as poor man’s prosciutto — and so the cafe was named. Then he added a chorizo-style sausage using native Navajo-Churro sheep instead of pork. His Coulommiers cheese, customarily made with cow’s milk, is here made with goat’s milk because goats thrive in the backyards of the Colorado Plateau. Meanwhile, Tammy Kelly of Kelly Beef, who raises grass-fed beef in the Williamson Valley north of Prescott, supplies choice cuts for Konefal’s diced steak tartare.
But the chef has learned to be sensitive to the production capacity of independent suppliers. For example, when I visited Coppa, quail was off the menu because his quail breeder was on vacation for three weeks. And when he ran into difficulty sourcing microgreens such as the sweet pea tendrils and sunflower sprouts he uses to add tang, crispness and surprise to his dishes, he started to grow his own indoors. In a perfect demonstration of his commitment to local and sustainable ideals, Konefal gives 40 pounds of compost a week to an innovative local company called Roots, which makes the super-premium organic growing medium that he then uses to tend his greens.
Locavores and foragers
Other organic produce comes from local farms connected through the Flagstaff CSA, from tepary beans and Hopi corn to nopalitos (cactus pads) and the earthy, nutritious greens known as lamb’s quarters. But in their search for ingredients, the couple spreads their net far and wide. Longtime Flagstaff residents who consider locavorism a necessity rather than a fad come to Coppa to share their own work. They’ve planted fragrant red roses for Fioravanti to use in sorbet and dropped off elderflowers to decorate her most popular dessert, the Raspberry Dome. Recently, Konefal was delighted to be given a pale-pink jam made with Queen Anne’s Lace and is incorporating it into a new dish. He has been invited to pick peaches in the abandoned orchards at Lee’s Ferry, a 19th-century settlement across the Colorado River 120 miles north of Flagstaff. And when we met, he was waiting for a call from Sedona to let him know whether wild blackberries were ready for harvest. Friends and family contribute too. Konefal’s brother, who owns local hot-sauce and mustard company RisingHy, lends his resources, and his mother helps pick olives from the ornamental trees planted all over Phoenix. A family friend recently sent preserves made from the prodigious bounty of the fig tree in his garden.
Such forays into foraging are not without risks. For instance, the warm days, cold nights and monsoon rains of late summer provide the perfect growing conditions for innumerable varieties of wild mushroom — not all edible. Konefal recalled the moment earlier this year when he believed he had found a highly prized Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea), but those mushrooms are not known to exist in the United States. So was it the Amanita jacksonii (sometimes called the Slender Caesar)? Or one of the 10 toxic species of Amanita? It proved to be nontoxic, and he has taken to affectionately calling his new ingredient the Amanita caesarea Coppa — while keeping its growing location a closely guarded secret.
At 34, Konefal still has the infectious enthusiasm of a schoolboy. Standing in front of a table of colorful screwtop jars, Konefal discussed the ancient chemistry of preserving fruits and vegetables. He inspected his kombucha culture, tested the progress of the vinegar he was making with orange and yellow baby carrots, and checked a jar of mustard seeds fermenting with lemon. But his face lit up as he swirled a dun-colored liquid around in a white plastic bucket — the makings of hard cider featuring apples scavenged from the tree by a nearby Discount Tire outlet. A perfect local concoction — in this case designed to sustain the chef himself through a long winter of hard work. Even as we left the dark, cool storeroom and stepped into the blazing Arizona sunlight, Konefal turned back: “Oh, hang on — I forgot to ‘burp’ the tomatillos.”
Main photo: Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel