The plate is the canvas for this chef, artist and farm-to-table activist.
By Hannah Phillips, Photos by Hannah Phillips and Travis Hoggard
Sonya Coté is part chef, part artist and part storyteller. With a background in art and graphic design, Coté has had quite a colorful career. She began as a store artist at Whole Foods, then worked as a side-hustling caterer for Dallas art shows and is now the executive chef and owner of beloved Austin restaurants Eden East, Hillside Farmacy and Sinclair. Even as her culinary empire expands, she remains an artist. The plate is her canvas and each dish tells its own story.
Coté’s story begins in a coastal community in Rhode Island, where she grew up with an adventurous spirit, camping and clam digging. Eden East, her restaurant at Springdale Farm in East Austin, reflects her love of the outdoors.
“I don’t even consider this camping,” she says, gesturing to the canopy of trees that surround her quaint food truck. “It’s just living.”
Most profiles about Coté reference her French chef grandfather, as if to imply cooking is in her blood. At worst, the implication discredits Coté’s hard work, as she has fought to get where she is today with no formal culinary education. At best, it misses the real impact her grandfather’s cooking had on her childhood. His main influence was the way his simple meals brought the family together, like baked potatoes and steaks on Saturdays, Coté mentions.
“We never grew up with Hamburger Helper,” she remembers. “We always had a garden and went hunting. It’s still like that in my hometown.”
Coté has effortlessly recreated that community around the table at Eden East, the capital of her growing empire. Nearby, a family can be seen playing with their children, waving goodbye as they wander next door to see the chickens and herb garden on the farm. That sense of community is not manufactured; it comes naturally to Coté, and it’s what she most loves about Austin as an East Coast transplant.
She first left Rhode Island for Dallas in 1989, drawn by romantic ideals of Texas and a desire for something completely different.
“I was fascinated by the Wild West and its stereotypes,” Coté says. “But living in the city, I was surprised that people didn’t know their neighbors.”
Dallas is where she first fused her love for food with her skills as an artist, catering for her own art shows. Coté’s food became so popular that friends invited her to cater their gallery openings as well.
Meanwhile, in her day job at Whole Foods, she also infused art into her food, educating the public about the organic movement as an in-store illustrator.
“I drew the entire cheese department, describing the cheese notes in my sketches,” she remembers. “It enabled me to do heavy research, intimately getting to know food by intimately describing each product in pictures.”
After serving as sous chef and general manager for the acclaimed Hoffman Haus in Fredericksburg, Texas, Coté moved to Austin’s East Side in 2004 with just $600 to her name.
“I didn’t know Texas until I moved to Austin,” she says. “Here, I found the cowboys and the hunters, and it was the beginning of the bright-eyed, starry farm-to-table movement.”
In Austin, Coté crossed paths with Andrew Brooks of Spirited Food Co., and became his apprentice. A twist of fate brought Brooks’ catering business into the same commercial kitchen space as Chef Jesse Griffiths, already a legend in the first wave of Austin’s farm-to-table explosion. Griffiths’ famous supper clubs aligned perfectly with Coté’s convictions about buying food from and for the community.
“We all wanted to achieve the same goal of a more localized food system,” she says. “And we didn’t want that to be just another culinary trend.”
Working with Griffiths changed Coté’s outlook about sustainability.
“He showed me how important it is in Texas to eat what’s from here,” she says. “Wherever you are should dictate what you eat.”
That conviction forged the relationships that became the building blocks of her growing empire. In 2007, Coté met Glenn and Paula Foore of Springdale Farm, and became their first commercial customer in her new kitchen at East Side Showroom. A few years later, having successfully set up Hillside Farmacy, she worked with the Foore family to transform the abandoned food truck at their farm into what we know today as Eden East.
At Eden East, patrons can dine al fresco under the stars and are encouraged to BYOB. The menu is prix fixe and is based on what’s in season at Springdale Farm and what’s currently inspiring Coté.
Coté recently traveled through the desert and shared sketches of Utah sagebrush from her journal, her inspiration for future menus at Eden East.
“I was inspired by the story of water at Zion National Park,” she says, reflecting on her trip. “How can I recreate the earth and sky and water in a dish? I want the plate to transport people to a nostalgia for a place they’ve never experienced. There’s something universal about travel, even if you’ve never been to the same place. It’s the most important thing you can do.”
As Coté remarks on her travels, it’s clear Eden East is the perfect combination of her rural Rhode Island summers, her hard work and all her varied influences as both an artist and a chef.
“I am where I am today because of all these experiences,” she says. “From growing my own food as a child, my hippie parents, my rebellious art, the education from other chefs and my travels, all these little parts brought me here.”
And what lies ahead for the ambitious chef?
Her newest endeavor, Sinclair, provides new avenues to explore the same themes of community and creativity in small-town Texas. Situated 40 miles northwest of Waco, Texas, in a rural town of about 3,000 people is Clifton, Texas, where Coté founded Sinclair. With a beautiful vintage-car museum, renovated rail station, growing art community and a boutique hotel in a converted two-cell jail block, the town has all the makings of being the next Marfa, Texas. But food wise, Coté compares it to Austin in 2006, before the culinary boom. Clifton, Texas, is her next blank canvas.
“I would love to see the farm-to-table movement spread across the state, across the country,” she says. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I want an empire, but it’s true.”
Working as a woman in a male-dominated industry, Coté doesn’t feel at all hindered in her mission. She doesn’t draw attention to the fact that she’s a female chef.
“I just want to be recognized for what I’m doing as a person. Overall, my goal is to open restaurants that help communities grow and eat fresh food. Who says men are the only ones that can do that?”
Its crazy how much more attention I aquire from the other gender when I smoke cigars!