It’s that time of year again.
The Austin Food & Wine Festival is only weeks away, and a lineup made up of extraordinary local and national chefs is about to descend upon our capital. As in years past, the festival has set its sights beyond the city limits, inviting a slew of gifted food and beverage personalities from around nation to showcase their incredible talents. This year’s lineup is perhaps the best yet, with James Beard Award Winners Hugh Acheson and Aarón Sánchez, Austin’s own Tyson Cole and Bryce Gilmore, the ever-jovial Tim Love, Andrew Zimmern, and many more.
To kick off the festivities, Texas Monthly caught up with some of the attending chefs to gauge their views on Texas’s culinary scene, the pros and cons of celebrity chefdom, and the next steps in their careers.
Today, we pay tribute to Sonya Cotê, Austin’s most formidable locavore chef. Here, the sassy chef from Eden East and Hillside Farmacy discusses the art influencing her food, finding inspiration in the Northeast, and the infamous lady chef question.
Layne Lynch: I interviewed you a few years back when you were just opening Hillside Farmacy. A lot has happened since then. Did you have any inclination you’d be where you are now?
Sonya Cotê: Truthfully, I feel so lucky and honored to be where I am today. I am part of some great teams at Hillside Farmacy, Eden East, Cote Catering, and The Homegrown Revival. I was also honored to be a part of the Drawling Lines artists team this past year [for “A Table in The Garden”] as well.
LL: Are there goals you’ve set for yourself that are still forthcoming?
SC: I have set several goals for myself that I’m still working on. I want to continue learning as much as possible about the culinary industry and exploring my options will happen along the way, along with collaborations with other chefs and working on my art. I’m hoping to open another restaurant in a few years.
LL: I read that you’re branching into catering now. What made you move in that direction?
SC: I actually started catering my art gallery shows in Dallas fifteen years ago. And it’s funny because people came for my food more so than my art. It became so much fun that I continued it and was able to work with and learn from some really great chefs over the years. Recently, my catering company merged with an event-planning business, and we now offer floral design, hand-dyed linens, and the whole experience—in addition to great food.
LL: It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of how annoying it is to ask a female chef, “What’s it like working in an industry dominated by men?” Is that a question you’ve become accustomed to answering over the years? And if so, do you begrudge exhausting the topic in the first place?
SC: Presently, if I’m being honest, I don’t really think too much about it. I am just another chef in my eyes. I work the same hours, I have the same passion, and I want to share my food with each and every diner the same as any male chef.
The good news is most people do not ask that question of me anymore, as the general audience is the same that would go to any restaurant—male or female chefs.
LL: You’re a renowned farm-to-table chef. Perhaps the most prominent in Austin. What ingredients, cuisines, and trends are inspiring you right now?
SC: Recently, I am getting more and more into fermentation. Over the last couple of years, I have been lucky enough to be exposed to certain techniques that inspired me: Japanese art, Spanish food and culture, fermentation, and foraging with my friends. I am drawing from all of these inspirations and experiences and putting them towards my work and food art.
LL: What’s the most intriguing Texas dish you’ve pieced together recently?
SC: That’s a loaded question. Each month we change the menu at Eden East. The answer to this question could change very quickly. Working with seasonal ingredients and looking out from my kitchen at Springdale Farm and seeing all those ingredients inspires all of our dishes.
I think that the art of smoking meat is a Texas staple that I am constantly chasing. We have a dish this month that is a smoked pork rib marinated with Texas olive oil, kaffir lime leaves, smoked chili flake, and a little vinegar and citrus served with our fermented chili sauce—I only have a tiny bit left from last summer; come on pepper season—and a sprinkling of black radish, radish sprouts, and shaved fennel. I call this dish “Walking on the Moon” because the black radish reminds me of lunar craters.
LL: Do you mind sharing with us what you’ll be doing at the Austin Food Wine Festival?
SC: I’m not sure exactly what I will be preparing, maybe something similar to “Walking on the Moon,” but the season will be different [during the festival].
LL: Austin’s culinary scene has received countless accolades over the years, but is there another food city that you credit for their culinary landscape?
SC: I was born in Rhode Island. A few summers back, I spent the summer there with my family, cooking, exploring, and doing some research. The seafood there and the local foraging really inspired me at the time.
The southern parts of the state, where Westerly and Providence are located, have inspired me throughout the years. Again, my Spanish trip last summer really inspired because their landscapes are similar to that of this state.
LL: Who are the Austin chefs you admire at the moment?
SC: Two chefs in particular, Andrew Brooks and Jesse Griffiths, taught me so much in the past. I worked for both of them and have mad respect for them.
Also, Todd Duplechan from Lenior and Harold Marmulstein from Salty Sow. I just spent a weekend with Chef Harold in Nashville, and he cooked the most delicious beef cheeks that I’ve ever had.
LL: For all of the food that Austin has, what is it still missing?
SC: I think we are missing authentic old-world cuisine—Asian, African, and Indian.