A Chat With Sonya Cote of Eden East
Chef Sonya Cote spent most of her childhood on a hippie commune in Iowa, ran away from home at 15 to be a painter and worked as an illustrator and then marketing director at Whole Foods for years. In other words, the passionate, brash chef is a lot more than just the brains behind operations like restaurant Hillside Farmacy, supper club Homegrown Revival and hyperlocal weekend eatery Eden East, situated literally on Springdale Farm. The self-proclaimed artist-chef is known around town for her commitment to keeping it local, and when we talked to her, she sounded even more sound on her vows, talking about her “gypsy mustache” from eating too many processed soy foods, the “fleeting” menus at Eden East and her ardent disdain for people who claim they are “over” the farm-to-table movement.
Zagat: Have you always been interested in food and art?
Sonya Cote: Yeah. I grew up mainly in Rhode Island, and my grandfather was a chef. My family hunted, and we’d go quahogging and clam digging.
But I wanted to be a painter. I ran away from home when I was 15 years old and traveled around the United States as a little angry punk rocker. I wanted to find a place that was completely different than where I grew up, and I landed in Dallas, Texas [laughs]. Which was kind of the opposite of going to high school in Providence, Rhode Island. I was going through a lot at the time. My mother lived in California, and I didn’t have a family. I was rebelling against that.
She lived in Rhode Island until I was about four, and then we moved to a hippie commune in Fairfield, Iowa. It was a transcendental meditation Maharishi Mahesh yogi hippie commune. It was totally vegetarian. I grew up thinking meat was just the most horrible thing you could do to your karma as a small child [laughs]. I got over that, but I still won’t eat meat that’s not grass-fed or raised humanely.
After working at Whole Foods as an illustrator and then the marketing director and working with chefs, I started getting into cooking. I went to macrobiotic cooking school and learned everything I could possibly learn about almond butter and making nut cheeses. Then I just decided that I didn’t want to eat any processed foods. Growing up vegetarian, I ate so much soy product that I had way too much estrogen in my body and started getting hormonal things. My son called it my gypsy mustache because it was like this dark discoloration on my skin. The doctors said it was too much estrogen. So I didn’t want to eat any processed foods. I tried to learn as much as I could without cooking meat, and finally I was like, “I have to learn how to make meat if I’m going to call myself a cook.” And I had to eat it to prepare it. I sought out Andrew Brooks to learn to cook meat and Jessie Griffiths [of Dai Due] to learn about sausage and charcuterie.
Zagat: Going back to Whole Foods, does your marketing background play into what you do at the restaurants now?
SC: It’s always an underlying thing with me. I have an OCD compulsion to make sure the product looks good. Honestly, though, I am that artist-chef. I tried to be the numbers chef, and I’m just not. I have to hire people who know how to do that better than I do. I can create menus all day and write recipes all day long. I don’t want to be in the role of corporate-minded restaurant chef anymore. That’s why I opened Eden East, because I wanted to take myself out of that environment that I thought I wanted to be in and free up my time and lifestyle a little bit more and be able to create pieces of art and have a team that I am comfortable working with.
Zagat: What does it mean to you to be an artist-chef?
SC: When I was making art, I always fell in love with art that was fleeting. I would build these huge elaborate structures out of found objects and take a picture of it, because then it would be gone. And then I would take that photo and paint it. Food is the same way as far as an art form, because it’s gone. My cooks and I are out here starting on Monday morning, and we prep for five days for two dinner services, because there are so many elaborate pieces for the palate to put on the plate. We balance it with color and texture. Most chefs do that. It’s not just a pile on your plate, like, “Here’s a lasagna” [laughs].
Zagat: What are the other parts of food art besides plating?
SC: It’s not even using the entire animal but also the entire vegetable. Like, what can you do with butternut squash? Last week we roasted it and made a bisque out of the flesh. We peeled the peel and fried it and garnished the salad with that. Then I roasted the seeds and crunched them up and rolled okra in it. If I’m going to commit myself to using these urban farms, then I have to use everything that they have over and over again. When a chef at a restaurant gets sick of the season, he can be like, “Screw eggplant. I’m going to order from California.” But we’re a restaurant on a damn farm [laughs].
I found apples at the farmer's market this week, and I’m going to use them as a sneak preview of the future. I learned this technique from a Japanese chef. She said that how she teaches cooking, she does it like the Japanese scrolls. You can go to the past and to the present and the future. I’ve applied that technique at Eden East. We have pickles and jams and tomatoes in the freezer, these things in the past that we put on each menu in the present. And then in the future. It resonated with me. That’s art right there.
Zagat: Talking about being on the farm, terms like “farm-to-table” and “local” are really being thrown around lately. What do those terms mean to you?
SC: Right now it’s such a collective unconscious awakening of people realizing that we’ve lost our food culture. We want to get back to that. What we’re seeing now is a result of that, like, holy sh*t, this huge agriculture is destroying our resources. It’s polluting our land. People are tired of not knowing each other and the community. Farm-to-table is so trendy. I get a lot of sh*t from the internet trolls, like, “Farm-to-table, I’m sick of that.” Well, you know, you can go f#*k yourself. That’s what we’re meant to do as humans on this planet. Share food with each other, cook with each other, get to know each other. It doesn’t even matter what religion, race or background you come from. Everyone needs to eat, and everyone wants fresh food.
A lot of things piss me off. People saying that local food is for rich people. Food shouldn’t be cheap, in my opinion. People should stop paying for cable TV. That’s a huge priority for a lot of families, and that’s like $150 a month. Why not use that to support families in your neighborhood that are growing food? Yeah, it’s a little bit more expensive, because they have to put love and effort in, and they’re selling one vegetable at a time to make a living.
Zagat: How far does the term “local” go? Is it a certain circumference?
SC: “Local” to me doesn’t mean in proximity to where you live. It means how we can take our money and best support the people who are doing the right thing. That means these small farmers that are raising organic food that’s not necessarily organic-certified but is organic. You can tell their chickens are being treated correctly. I’m not going to give my money to a factory farm down the street that’s polluting. To me, that’s not local.
Zagat: Is it a big challenge to change the menu at Eden East every week?
SC: I’ve been doing weekly menus for a long time. That’s how I opened the Showroom, four years ago. I wanted to do a weekly menu. I wanted to do exactly what we’re doing at Eden East there. But the owners didn’t want that. They weren’t motivated by local food. They were motivated by making money. And not to say that I couldn’t have made money, but it was a lot of turnover for what it was.
With this type of hyperlocal food, I have to change the menu every week. The sweet potato greens aren’t going to be there next week. That’s fun for my staff, because we can learn how to cook everything we want. It’s not just one thing on the menu at this restaurant that I can master in a month. We did this crazy experiment last week where we took a lamb intestine and piped in raspberry jam. We froze it and rolled it in a chicken roulade for charcuterie. When you sliced it, you had these little pieces of raspberry jam. But we were like, “Is this going to work? I don’t know.” We learned a few things, like don’t cut it when it’s hot. That’s kind of a no-brainer, but we didn’t do it at first. So basically, it was like, do this a day ahead instead of the day of, because we didn’t have time to cool. Then the next day, we were like, “This is perfect.” My cooks get so pissed at me sometimes because I’ll see what another chef is doing, like right now I’m obsessed with David Chang, and I’m like, we’re going to make popcorn grits! And they’re like, “No.” And I’m like, “How about ramen gnocchi?” and they’re like, “No.” I’m always coming at them with crazy sh*t and we figure out how to do it.
Zagat: Do you get to keep certain things on the menu?
SC: Ideas reappear. We’ll do the chicken roulade again but do it a little bit different. We’ll take that technique and process and change it. I like the idea of not having the same thing twice. It makes it fleeting.
Zagat: What else are you working on?
SC: At Homegrown Revival, we’ve been working on a seasonal cookbook for about two years. Every dinner that we’ve done, we’ve taken photos of the dishes. It’s not even month to month, just dinner to dinner. Everything from that dinner will be in a recipe in a chapter.
We’re also working on a pilot. It’s a reality show. We went around and around about how to reach the most people in this movement. Television, it’s like, get them in their homes. The revolution will be televised [laughs]. We’re almost done with editing the pilot, and then we’re going to try to fund-raise to make six episodes. That way we can pitch it to a network. The premise isn’t necessarily Austin. We’re going to travel around the country and go cold into towns, find out who is growing food in that town and make a dinner out of it. Open a conversation with people and get them talking, try to influence them to share and prepare and come together. It’s called the Homegrown. It’s a revival, like a tent revival. You’ve gotta preach the word face to face.