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People of the Year 2013 | Sonya Cote

Chef/Owner, Eden East & Hillside Farmacy

The chef and champion for local food brings the table to the farm.

According to Sonya Coté, restaurants should be a true reflection of the chef. Then you could say that her latest venture, Eden East, unquestionably embodies her personal dedication to community.

Occupying one of Austin’s loveliest settings, the unique dining concept is set at Springdale Farm, where diners enjoy a prix fixe, locally-driven menu of “elevated comfort food” under a canopy of twinkling lights hanging from oak trees. Both Eden East and Coté’s other restaurant, the French-influenced Hillside Farmacy, represent her “commitment to work with the best possible ingredients, and that’s usually local,” she says, which, in the case of Eden East, means that most of the vegetables are harvested just mere feet away. “Basing a menu on the ingredients is a big challenge,” Coté admits, yet she considers, for example, developing 15 ways to use sweet potato or fennel a cherished learning experience. She explains, “I don’t want to do things that are on any other menu. I don’t want to just recreate masterpieces.”

Fans of Coté’s stylish cuisine might be surprised that punk rock was the catalyst that brought her to Texas. “I ran away from home when I was fifteen,” she recalls, “I then traveled with a band of wild punk rockers. They were my community.” Perhaps she had left behind her large Italian family in Rhode Island to recapture the spirit of her early childhood on a transcendental meditation commune in Iowa. According to Coté, her father “rescued” her three years later, but her eyes twinkle as she recalls her adventures with the other children there, saying wistfully, “we were a band of wild children.”

In Dallas, Coté married young at age 18, and becoming a mother forced her to abandon her self-described “gypsy tendencies,” working at Whole Foods as a graphic artist while also attending art school. The job provoked “such a craving for food knowledge because it’s endless, like art,” Coté explains. “You can never know everything about food.” Her newfound interest motivated her to apprentice with several different chefs and catering companies in the Dallas area. Eventually she noticed, “people started to come to my art shows to eat the food, not look at the art.”

Coté left Dallas in 2003, moving to Austin with a teenager and $600 in her pocket. For years, she had nursed a dream to open a bed and breakfast, so she jumped at an opportunity to work at a boutique hotel and restaurant in Fredericksburg. Ultimately, though, she grew bored with small town life and returned to Whole Foods—this time in Austin. On a company trip to San Francisco, she toured farms and learned about local food, and while in the airport waiting to return to Texas, Coté found a copy of the book Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee. Inspired by the pioneer of California cuisine and local food, she vowed to adhere to a similar ethos in her cooking. “I wanted to keep money in the community, create an environment where people can have a better experience, and increase their quality of life,” she remembers.

Another chance encounter lead Coté to become executive chef at East Side Showroom after running into the restaurant’s co-owner Mickie Spencer, an old friend from Dallas. Although at that point Coté had been cooking professionally for years, she had to overcome a steep learning curve, working 12-hour days nearly every day of the week. Despite the challenges, Chef Coté became a local food champion while working at the Showroom. “I was Glenn’s first customer ever,” she says proudly, referring to Glenn and Paula Foore of Springdale Farm. “I hated leaving, I just wanted to hang out there all the time.”

That feeling was the impetus to open Eden East earlier this year, explaining, “I wanted to help the farmers, so why not pay them rent?” Coté now spends most of her weekday afternoons at this restaurant on the farm, prepping for the weekend, and making stocks and pickles. Opening a fine dining restaurant on a farm could sound overly romantic to some, but Chef Coté insists the process only took about six months from the initial concept to fruition. According to her, “Opening a hotel gave me the stamina... It’s a piece of cake to open a restaurant.”

Credits

Photography by Randal Ford

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