Arizona’s First Alfresco Dining Adventure
Writer Lara Piu
Photography Courtesy of Constance Higley, Kate Nelle Photography and Suzie Goodrich
At 6 p.m. approximately 50 people will sit at a well-appointed dinner table laid out amongst the Superstition Mountains’ desert expanse. These grounds rarely see people, but tonight a gourmet dinner and the breathtaking landscape are on the menu.
This bespoken meal is one of many held by Olivia Laux and Matt Cooley, who launched Cloth & Flame last December. The couple was inspired by the remote locations they enjoy through ballooning, as well as Matt’s former employer, a Portland high-end ice creamery that combines ice cream flavors with gourmet chefs.
“We thought, ‘What would a five-course dinner from a chef in the desert look like?’” Matt recalls, noting their combined passion for adventure, people and land preservation. “Community and access to land are such important things for us. We had an idea that people would be interested in dining in the extraordinary locations that we’ve explored with balloons, and that we could encourage landowners to keep their properties wild and undeveloped by paying them as a partner venue.”
Both outdoorsy travel-lovers, Olivia, now 27 years old, and Matt, 31, met on couchsurfing.org, which pairs travelers with a place to stay. At first they were friends, but it didn’t take long for the duo to discover their shared interest in the great outdoors.
“We loved going on adventures together; we both have exploratory souls,” Matt explains. “We’ve always taken the path less traveled. We want people to step out themselves and take the road less traveled, too.”
A year and a half ago, the couple got engaged. Cloth & Flame will organize their wedding, but the trick will be to fit it in. Matt reports that nearly every Cloth & Flame event has sold out, and the rest of the company’s calendar is filled with wedding and corporate events.
“We post them on Instagram and then they sell out,” Matt says, noting that the company’s email subscribers get first dibs on seats.
Whereas their balloon tour business experiences steady growth, Matt says that Cloth & Flame, like its namesake, has caught fire.
“Cloth & Flame is the hare; we pushed on the door and it flung right open,” he reports. “It’s wonderful. It feels good.”
Now, the couple hosts one public and about 10 private events a month. They’re scaling capacity up to one or more shared events per week and many more private events.
Held in desert, mountain, forest and other extraordinary wilderness settings, Cloth & Flame’s Instagram-perfect, alfresco public events are set along dramatic, long communal dining tables, lit with bistro lights and embellished lightly with fresh greens and flowers. All of the public events are created either by the outfit’s in-house executive chef, Aurore Yasinsky, or by a rotating cast of guest chefs who have local ties to the destination.
At this dinner, Chef Aurore serves a multi-course meal with Southwest flavors. Those in attendance paid $135 per person, while other public events go for up to $145.
While Cloth & Flame has held events in Utah, Oregon and other states, Olivia and Matt are committed to Arizona and the Southwest.
“Phoenix is our home,” Matt affirms. “There’s so much to create and explore here first. We love it because there is an often-untold story available here. It’s an iconic Arizona experience.”
Expansion will be thoughtful, he adds.
“We don’t want to be a state fair-style troupe. We really want to offer something that is slowly developed and trusted locally, and then expand more like a restaurant chain,” Matt maintains, noting plans for development of multiple locally rooted teams and chefs.
Tonight’s dinner also kicks off the opening of Tela Peralta, one of the lights slated to expand Cloth & Flame’s fire. In partnership with Amy and Lauren Doyle, a mother-daughter pair whose family owns 200 Superstition Mountain wilderness acres, they will create a luxury camping resort, conference center and destination. Slated for 14 static “glamping”-style cabins, the rooms will feature soaking tubs, heated floors, luxury mattresses and other unexpected creature comforts in a fully immersive remote-desert setting.
“There’s nothing like this in Phoenix and that’s the most exciting thing about it,” Matt says.
The partnership is made in heaven, he explains, considering the family’s strong stance on conservation.
Their family has been quietly and carefully protecting their land for 40 years, headed by Amy’s dad, Chuck Bakus, who also helped found the Superstition Area Land Trust and still sits on its board.
Matt reports they’re on the hunt for new and extraordinary locations. They’re thinking mountain overlooks, rooftops, gardens and any other scenic lands, and are accepting location proposals and partners.
“We want to be known as the company that provides access to the extraordinary,” he champions, assuring, “We pack in and pack out. We leave no trace. It looks like we were never there the next day.”
In another series of firsts, in 2018 Olivia and Matt plan to become the first United States company to offer occasional in-flight hot air balloon dining, combining their balloon tours and dinner savvy for private events. The new business owner admits that their goals are lofty, but big-sky thinking is what they’re good at.
“Sometimes I think we’re crazy, that we may have lost our minds. We work sun-up to sun-down,” he says, reminding us that it’s worth it in the end. “We’re fortunate to have done a lifetime of exploring, and now we want people to take the road less traveled too. We want to be a cause for being outdoors.”