Chef Sonya Coté is on a mission. She speaks in semi-religious overtones, leaning on words like “believe” as if serving food requires a strict adherence to dogma. Her friends call her a purist, and while her punk-rock ethos might belay the seriousness of her endeavor, you can be certain that she won’t stop until she gets all of Austin to drink her kool-aid.
Coté is obsessed with local food, and, if her locavore crusade has the effect she hopes it will, soon you will be too.
Let’s cut through the clutter here and get a little clearer perspective on what’s next for the Austin food scene. Sure, unbelievable restaurants are popping up at unbelievable rates, but there’s not exactly anything unexpected about Tyson Cole winning another James Beard Best Chef in the Western Hemisphere award. Paul Qui is probably going to become the next Healthy Choice poster boy, and Aaron Franklin and John Mueller will soon have their proper place in the stars.
But we already knew all that. Where will the Austin food scene take the nation, and what do we have the New York and LA could never pull off?
To put it simply, New York doesn’t have Springdale Farms. Located in the heart of east Austin, this five-acre farm plays personal garden to the whimsy of Chef Coté and her ever expanding culinary ambitions. Starting in 2009, Glenn and Paula Foore of Springdale Farms began phasing out their landscaping company in favor of rutabagas and Swiss chard, thus joining Boggy Creek Farm and kick starting the urban farm scene that is quickly becoming Austin’s calling card on the national culinary stage.
Molecular gastronomy this is not. But who needs sci-fi frills when your tomato was resting on a vine earlier that morning?
When the W Hotel employs a full time forager in their hotel restaurant to cater to the needs of your city, you know you’re doing something right.
Springdale is Sonya’s home away from home, and it reverses the commonplace cooking process. Most chefs, whose years of schooling taught them lessons first developed in France and Europe, think in terms of the possible and then search for foods to make their ideas a reality. Chef Coté does the opposite. She heads to Springdale Farms, sees what has just come out of the ground, and goes from there. Molecular gastronomy this is not. But who needs sci-fi frills when your tomato was resting on a vine earlier that morning?
The Hillside Farmacy and Homegrown Revival
Coté, whose stint as executive chef at the Eastside Showroom earned her Edible Austin’s Local Hero Award, is more 80s rocker than 60s flower child. Voted one of the Top 10 Badass Women Chefs in America, she’s the kind of lady who could spend a half hour butchering a pig, give her hands a quick scrubbing and then pop open a Tecate and go about her day.
But her back-to-the-earth ethos also lends her a quirky matronly quality, as when her Twitter feed gives out helpful hints for daily life, such as “bananas don't grow in texas but if you have a peel, don't smoke it... use it to shine up that ol' silverware!” or more ominous proclamations such as “Always take a flashlight on a trip to Italy.”
While crafting the simple, traditionalist menu of the Showroom remains her day job, Coté’s next venture is the one poised to put her on the map. Opening in March, the Hillside Farmacy (the F is for farm-to-table) will be the Mecca of the Austin locavore movement.
Located in what once was the first African-American operated pharmacy in Austin, the rejuvenated space will be part artisanal eatery, part specialty grocery store and will serve beer and wine, house-made charcuterie and pâté, fresh breads, a specialty tea service, grab-and-go meals and coffee from Portland’s famous Stumptown Coffee (not local, just really good).
From gulf-caught fish to Texan goats, these five course feasts (hosted in conjunction with HOPE Farmers Market) demonstrate Coté’s expertise in the kitchen — even if that kitchen is outdoors and only a few feet away from your table — as well as her passion as an educator.
Between the retro soda fountain and throwback, neighborhood décor, Hillside Farmacy is Austin’s answer to Applebee’s. “There’s No Place Like the Neighborhood,” they say, and we couldn’t agree more.
Outside the confines of the brick and mortar, Coté’s true proselytizing campaign has just begun. With the Homegrown Revival, Coté is illustrating just how good local can taste with a series of gourmet dinners highlighting different locally sourced meats and produce. From gulf-caught fish to Texan goats, these five course feasts (hosted in conjunction with HOPE Farmers Market) demonstrate Coté’s expertise in the kitchen — even if that kitchen is outdoors and only a few feet away from your table — as well as her passion as an educator.
At the recent goat dinner, the farmer who raised the meat himself gave a brief talk on goat farming in Texas (Texas provides the U.S. with over 70% of its goat meat. Who knew?) and a member of the state congress spoke on local food initiatives currently making their way through the legislature. Mix this with a live DJ, beautiful table decorations and an out-of-this-world goat cheese chevre (not to mention the most succulent goat meat imaginable) and you have a dinning experience that practically force feeds you into loving local.
"The Homegrown Revival is my heart,” says Coté. “This is where I can express myself, where I can do whatever I want." At only $65 a head (and B.Y.O.B./W.), we’re happy to follow her lead.
Which, apparently, leads us back to Christmas Eve, 1840, on the banks of Boggy Creek. It was here that Sam Houston attended a wedding and dined in the farmhouse that currently stands today. Coté and Boggy Creek Farm owner Carol Ann Sayle planned a restaging of the historic dinner, an event that was eventually co-opted into the upcoming Foodways Texas Symposium, where Coté has been chosen as the chef representing Austin.
For a society whose goals revolve around preserving authentic Texas food, it would be hard to find a better ambassador than Coté.
Maybe Austin isn’t quite ready for the local food movement. After all, the recent bankruptcy of Hostess (the exact antithesis of everything that is local, fresh, and organic) brought out the nostalgia of a generation who grew up eating food in wrappers. But by the end of 2012, after dinners filled with rabbits, turnips and broccoli rabe and evenings spent lazily at the Hillside Farmacy drinking Hill Country wines, we think Austin will be showing the country just how good local can taste.
By then, Chef Coté might have taken the revival on the road, setting up her tent in local farming villages, and, stopping strangers at the general store, asking, “Do you know anyone around here who raises chickens?”