Sonya Cote: My Kingdom for a Course

Framed by gray sky, Chef Sonya Coté’s eyes – a bewitching seafoam capped by long lashes – flicker towards a patch of green on Springdale Farm, which sits about twenty paces away.

“I wait every year for the asparagus,” Coté says. She leans her head towards the window and surveys the plants outside. “We have it for two weeks. It grows right there, and I watch it.”

It’s a cold day in February, and Coté and I are sitting in the comfort of Springdale’s heated farmhouse, which, during the winter months, serves as the dining room of Eden East, Coté’s restaurant-upon-a-farm in Austin.
As she looks out the window, Coté wears an expression that’s hard to read — it seems both wistful and fierce — and I sense that I’m not watching an urban chef gaze upon a few vegetables. No. I’m watching a queen behold a kingdom.

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Perhaps unsettled by her regal energy, I forget my tact and say something like, “Duh, asparagus doesn’t just grow two weeks out of the year. You can get it at the grocery store, anytime!”

Oops.

“Holy shit, I don’t go to the grocery store,” Coté says matter-of-factly, with a hint of curiosity. “I don’t live in a world where things grow year round. I live in a bubble. I do what I love. I support small family farms. I don’t think [our culture] has ever developed an American cuisine based on sustainable farms. We’re trying to reset that button.”

Long live Sonya Coté! Long live her sailor mouth! And long live the way she does food, which is always farm-to-table and always innovative.

“I don’t think [our culture] has ever developed an American cuisine based on sustainable farms. We’re trying to reset that button.”
Sonya Cote

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Coté’s resume speaks for itself: The chef co-owns Hillside Farmacy, a chic fresh-foods bistro just east of I-35. She also runs a supper club called Homegrown Revival, an outlet which allows her to flex her molecular gastronomy muscles. Eden East, though, is the jewel in her crown. Open only on weekends, it’s where she curates a menu she describes as “fleeting” — she changes it every week to reflect her use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Much of what Coté cooks is grown right at Springdale farm, where Eden is based.

I visit Eden for the first time a few weeks before meeting Coté. It’s night, and the light of the mobile trailer that serves as Eden’s kitchen beckons me. I greet Eden’s chefs, then slip past them towards the farmhouse. Inside, servers are prepping for the dinner rush. Staff scurry amidst wood paneling and benches. The whole place pulses with candlelight.

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Many days later, things feels different—more naked—when I stop by the farmhouse again to interview Coté. All the benches, brushed by stark afternoon light, are tucked against walls. In a corner, fresh eggs offer spare adornment. My eyes catch them as Coté and I talk.

I ask about her childhood and how she got started with cooking. She answers, “I don’t tell this story often because most of the parties are still alive, you know?”

If Coté enjoys reveling in her present kingdom, it’s partly because she used to be homeless — a teenager who scraped food off discarded platters from Denny’s in order to survive (Coté ran away from home at the age of 15 to become a painter, and also to escape a world of abuse and neglect).

“I had to learn how to take care of myself,” Coté tells me.

“But how did you get over?” I ask.

Coté answers without missing a beat, “Punk rock.”

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Music allowed her to find like-minded souls. It also helped Coté get her start in food. At the age of 17, she got a job working at a Whole Foods in Dallas. “I started at Whole Foods because they were the only ones who accepted me with a purple mohawk,” she says.

A talented artist, Coté was hired by Whole Foods’ marketing wing. “I illustrated food, did the chalkboard displays [for the store]. Before Whole Foods, I had no idea what organic food even was,” she adds. Inspired by the produce, Coté wound up training as a macrobiotic chef. She picked up charcuterie skills later on alongside Jesse Griffiths (Dai Due).

Coté’s tendency to mix food and visual art still remains.
“I think doing art helps me with my plating, my food palette,” says Coté.

Those lucky enough to sample Eden’s crusted cauliflower steaks with wilted ppinach, sweet pepper medley, saffron & cream might want to consider that they’re actually eating a 3-D painting executed with bright, quick strokes.

“I just do my mantra,” says Coté, “which is ‘One Plate at a Time’. And I’m gonna put out the most beautiful thing ever.”

Yes, she does plate in a manner fit for a queen. But, she cooks like a punk rocker.

She [plates] in a manner fit for a queen. But, she cooks like a punk rocker.

“I like grilling,” she says. “It’s dangerous. I feel excited when I cook over a fire. My favorite thing to grill is quail. You can tuck the wings, change its shape, the way you plump it up. I like the marks you can make on the quail, the lines.”

If Coté is an innovator, it’s not because she does one thing well — it’s because she showcases a cross-section of talent. Yes, she fixates on the physical beauty of food, but she also keeps her eye on multiple side projects (she’s planning to open a Basque restaurant within the coming year or so). Yes, she serves local produce, but she’s taken the extra step of planting her kitchen in the middle of a farm. As Kaycee Braden, one of the chefs at Eden East notes, “We have to work with the elements, we see the seasons change and watch how it changes us.”

Coté looks out the farmhouse window. Her hair is bright, curly, no frizz. She’s in queen mode.

“Do you see my cooks right there feeding the chickens?” she asks, nodding towards the coop. “I have an all-female kitchen, you know. And this happened by accident. I just hired the most qualified people.”

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“I don’t think it’s been that hard to make it as a female chef. I’m punk rock! A kitchen is really aggressive, hot, ball-busting. You’ve gotta be able to take criticism.”
Sonya Cote

This prompts an avalanche of questions. Does an all-female kitchen have more character than most kitchens? If you’re a woman, do you have to be twice as good at cooking to make it in the food business?

“There’s a lot of drama that goes on with ladies,” she answers, candidly. “But, honestly, I don’t think it’s been that hard to make it as a female chef. I’m punk rock! A kitchen is really aggressive, hot, ball-busting. You’ve gotta be able to take criticism. And I think I fit in more than most women.”

As self-admittedly ball-busting as she is, Coté also strives to make her kitchen a safe space: she has a reputation for taking staff under her wing and saving them from lives of hardship. I ask her why. “I don’t know,” she says. “That’s just how I am.”

She does explain that, during her childhood, she lived for several years on a hippie commune in Iowa. Though her own family situation was difficult, she observed as a young person that building community — especially food-based community — was possible. Even now, she puts her neck on the line to do this.

Some people say I’m an enabler, but…” she trails off. “But I like to give second chances.”

True queens, they are beneficent. Punk rockers, they are tough – little known is that some also have a knack for preparing asparagus.

“I like it simple, with a poached egg and Parmesan,” Coté concludes. “Just blanch the asparagus. You don’t have to cook the shit out of it.”


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Beth_Lebwohl_pic (1)Beth Lebwohl

 
Beth Lebwohl earned her writing chops here in Texas, where, for several years, she produced stories for EarthSky, a globally syndicated science radio program. In addition to her passion for the written (and spoken) word, Beth loves the graphic and decorative arts, tea, goat farms and the warm-hearted folks of Austin. She is a proud native of Queens, New York.

Writing: Beth Lebwohl
Photography: Chris Perez – @citygrammag
Images of Eden East Courtesy of Nom Nom PR


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