Flagstaff Food Boom: Chef Brian Konefal of Coppa Café

Marilyn HawkesNovember 3, 2016
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After graduating from Northern Arizona University, Brian Konefal sold his car, got a loan from his uncle and went to culinary school in Italy where he met his wife and partner, pastry chef Paola Fioravanti. Since then, Konefal has traveled extensively, working in kitchens in Italy and Spain as well as San Francisco, Boston and at New York’s renowned Eleven Madison Park. After 12 years of globetrotting, Konefal and Fioravanti moved to Flagstaff to “find a little balance” in their lives. The balance quickly disappeared when they opened their first restaurant, The Piano Room, a speakeasy bar and gastropub. Then, 5 ½ years ago, they opened the more food-focused Coppa Café, where the couple uses food foraged from local forests and valleys on their seasonally changing menu.Brian leading a foraging trip in the forest near Flagstaff. Courtesy AWE Collective.

What was your plan when you opened Coppa Café?
We started casually with lunch, more of like a European café casual lunch and then at year one we introduced the dinner menu. That’s where our focus has really been, pushing the dinner menu forward – definitely ambitious for this town, but we have a good local following. I think Flagstaff has more potential than anywhere I’ve ever lived. There are a lot of chef-driven restaurants opening up here.

Brian finds edible flowers on a foraging expedition. Courtesy Awe Collective.How have you developed a local following?
Flagstaff is a steak and potato town, but there are 35 year olds that have some culture and have lived in cities and want to go out and get some drinks and have something that tastes good. … It was hard to find good food – mature food that wasn’t chicken wings and fish tacos, which are great, but sometimes you want to eat a meal and a couple courses and chill out and have good service without it being pretentious.

How do you avoid being pretentious?
I will never drop tablecloths in Flagstaff. You can put sophistication on the plate and that’s what we’re hoping for – palate and sophistication.

Tell me about the foods you forage.
We find white morels, oyster and blond mushrooms in the Verde Valley. The first winter snow melt creates environments for mushrooms and at the same time wild mustard and wild rhubarb starts to grow. We put a dandelion dish on the menu because it was the first thing that grew and we really didn’t have anything else growing outside at that point. We’ve been putting agave flowers in salt brine and leaving them for a month or two and then cooking them. We’re attacking everything we can find that’s edible. I really am a firm believer that everything tastes good if it’s properly prepared. Everything. You can eat leaves if you know how to ferment them.

Locally raised beef tartare with wild greens at Coppa Café. Courtesy AWE Collective.Do you get any pushback from customers about foraged foods?
The first couple of years were definitely a transition period where people would ask questions and were a little scared. I said, ‘Trust me, I’ve been eating these for days,’ but people would laugh nervously every time.