Since 2008, Chef Sonya Coté’s name has been on the lips of local farmers, hunters and food producers. She has been a huge proponent of the farm-to-table lifestyle since her days in retail at Whole Foods Market, when a trip to California and tours of organic farms changed the way she thought.
"It was a really big turning point for me, because that’s the first time I discovered what local food is and means to me," says Coté. "On that trip, I discovered Alice Waters and [decided] I want to be like this woman, I want to do this thing!"
"I like to have something on my menu that is the past, the present, and the future, " says Coté.
As the executive chef at East Side Show Room and then Hillside Farmacy, she continued to develop relationships with local ranches and farms. She built impressive charcuterie programs at both restaurants, and is known for encouraging farmers to bring leftover produce to her kitchen after market, to see what she can salvage.
"We should be buying food from our local farmers because it helps our economy," she states. "It’s such a no-brainer, but a lot of people just don’t think about it. When I finally had that epiphany, I was doing all that I could to support farms with my craft."
Cooking, however, is not Coté’s first craft. After growing up in Rhode Island, she studied graphic design at the Art Institute of Dallas. And though she’s been in the food industry for the past 12 years, she’s been depicting food even before she was an illustrator for Whole Foods.
"I would do these really elaborate sets of naked people," she describes. "I painted their bodies while they were holding a lot of meat and animal parts. I would photograph them, and then paint my favorite images."
Coté started catering her own gallery shows and says with a laugh, "I realized people were coming to eat my food, not look at my art!" Soon, other artists started asking her to cater their shows and, before long, she had a steady gig with the Dallas Contemporary Art Museum, catering an opening every month.
Now, in her latest culinary venture, Coté is truly living out her dream. On Friday and Saturday nights, she serves a prixe-fixe plated dinner on-site at Springdale Farm. The artist within her is also satiated, as she has the opportunity to craft brand new edible creations each weekend, while focusing on presentation.
"I’m just trying to get better at it," she insists. "I am not, by far, the best at plating, or the most innovative with presentation, but that’s what I’m working on right now."
Coté plates each dish within a 38-foot mobile trailer and her waitstaff serves guests at long, communal wooden tables. Large windchimes and strands of glass beads hang from a majestic 40-foot elm and blue and clear glass mason jars, cloth napkins, and vintage silverware complete the upscale farm look.
"I like to have something on my menu that is the past, the present, and the future, " says Coté. "To make sure we’re representing last season, it could be a peach jam in a cocktail or stuff that we’ve pickled. The future would be flowers, or something that’s not yet ripe, like green tomatoes or grape leaves or green mustang grapes, pickled," she explains.
"I think it just balances out the season and gives us a lot more variety, instead of just sticking to what’s ripe right this second. And it’s fun for me to manipulate the product. I really enjoy that part."
Coté recognizes, however, that there are many challenges to cooking outside. "Rain, flies, heat. I mean, we’re just basically out here in the elements cooking," she says. "It’s like the Swiss Family Robinson," says one of her crew members, Tom Greene, with a smile.
However, there is some relief from the Texas heat: Fans churns in the boughs to create a gentle breeze within the dining room. And some guests arrive with a cooler of their favorite beer or wine; since Eden East lacks a liquor license, they encourage guests to bring their own beverages. However, a nearby bartender also serves a new cocktail created especially for each dinner. It's a food artist’s mecca.
Eden East is open by reservation only for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer; Sunday brunch will resume this fall. For more information, as well as past and current menus, visit www.edeneastaustin.com.