The epitome of farm-to-table, one-year-old outdoor restaurant Eden East is located right at its food source at Springdale Farm. Only open twice a week on Fridays and Saturdays, chef and owner Sonya Cote's New American cuisine changes based on what produce is available, much to the delight of diners seated at the communal tables underneath pecan trees and draped lighting.
Eater spoke to Cote, who also owns Hillside Farmacy, about the importance of eating locally, the challenges urban farming in Austin faces, that time the Pixies stopped by, and more.
How is Eden East different now from what you originally set out to do?
It has been very consistent as far as what I've set out to do and what we've been doing. I tried a few different things, like opening on Thursdays, which I felt wasn't good because I wanted to create a more special environment that is weekends only. I used to cancel when it rained and now I have some indoor seating. We have certain policies in place that have been worked out within the last year. My original plan was to have 8 to 10 courses, and it just took too long. So I wanted to shorten that experience a little bit and also focus on six dishes. We basically have figured out our limitations as well, like how many people we can serve out of our small mobile kitchen [80 per night], and how to coordinate having a private event on the other side of the fence and also having the restaurant open.
What has been the neighborhood reception to the restaurant and Springdale Farm, and how has that changed since a year ago?
Really, the only problem that we've had is with PODER [People Organized in Defense of Earth]. They were targeting urban farms because of housing, which doesn't make any sense to me because it's zoned single family. They were saying that this should be single family housing, but really, to me, a farm is just as important to the community as inexpensive housing. This farm has been here since the turn of the century. It used to be a dairy farm. Where you're sitting right now was built in 1920. This is a 1920 farmhouse. I don't understand why PODER would be attacking a farm that's been here since the turn of the century and supporting the neighborhood with beautiful fresh organic food. There's no pollution. It just makes me so confused as to what the point is. When you go down the street to, say, Mueller Airport Development, you can't even get a house for under $400,000. That's on the east side, why aren't they saying anything about that? That's not affordable housing. I can't hardly afford to live in this neighborhood myself and I own three restaurants. We're still dealing with a lot of that. This is the only farm that's zoned commercial, so they were attacking us not knowing we're commercially zoned and saying that we're supposed to be single family housing.
They were lumping all the farms together?
They're lumping everything in. technically, I'm not a restaurant. I'm a food truck. And you can have a food truck on any property, private or not. That's the next thing that's going to be under attack in Austin.
Yes, definitely. People in Travis Heights are complaining that there's food trucks in their neighborhoods on private property, that are operating from that private property, and it just doesn't make sense. In our economy, we have to figure out ways for our entrepreneurs to make things happen. The food truck is a way that you can prove yourself in this industry and then eventually you can hopefully get a brick and mortar.
Which seems to be the cause in Austin.
It's part of Austin. The next thing is going to be, 'Oh, you can't have a food truck on private property.' I'm not worried personally, I'm worried about the future of entrepreneurs. Franklin's started as a food truck, LaV. There's so many places that have world reputations now that started as a food truck.
[Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/EATX]
How do you like changing the menu every week?
I missed that independence of being able to do whatever I wanted to do. I have Hillside Farmacy and that menu's limiting because it's every day, breakfast lunch, and dinner. At Eden, I have all this produce that I'm so inspired by. Going into the farmstand on Wednesday to look at the produce and being like, 'Oh my god, this is what we're making this weekend.' I love it. That's why I did this, so that I could create menus and platings and get more practice doing that. Because for me, as a chef, I felt like I was limiting myself with this New American cuisine, and I wanted to work on my creativity and my platings. So that's why it's not family style, too. For a while, I was doing family style supper clubs here on the farm under the Homegrown Revival, which is my nonprofit. That was my creative outlet before this. I haven't really done much with the Homegrown Revival in the past year because I've been here instead. So I took that concept and put it here permanently. It is like a supper club every weekend.
Is there anything you would've done differently in the beginning?
I would've figured out a way to stay open, because, in the beginning, I had a manager that was like, 'Oh god, it's going to rain, let's close.' Then I'd be paying everybody labor and so it put us behind financially, because we didn't really figure out, 'Oh, we could seat in the farmstand and here's how we're going to be able to do that on a dime,' and training my staff to be able to move the entire restaurant to a new location daily almost. So I wish I had figured that out in the beginning. I love to employ people and give them a really good happy fun job to be in, and that drives me. I think that I could've paid people more if I had figured that out in the beginning. I'd like to pay off my business partners, too, because they gave me the financials to do this.
What was the most surprising aspect of opening Eden East?
I don't know, that I couldn't get a cab out here? [laughs] That's a good question. I've been doing this for so long and I've been doing outdoor dining for so long, I don't know if I have any real surprises. I guess plating that many plates at night. If I have a maximum of 80 people, that's 480 plates a night. That's a lot, and having not really a lot of space to do dishes. That was a huge surprise and keeping the space organized was hard. That doesn't sound like a very fun answer. We did have a stray dog that kind of was our pet for a while. We fed him and he lived in the corn stalks but he disappeared, Sasha.
What has been the weirdest moment?
When the Pixies showed up after a concert. My friend from L.A. was touring with them, he brought them here. A lot of weird stuff happens. That was kind of cool.
How were they?
They just came and we just drank. They came after service and hung out on the farm till 3:00 in the morning. We got drunk together and just danced on the tables. It was a blast. I don't even know their names, it's just the Pixies. I'm 40 so when I was in high school they were huge. Oh yeah, we had someone bring a baby goat out here. He was on a leash. It was so cute because we had all these little grass sprouts growing all along the perimeter and the goat just ate all of the grass. We're like, 'Yeah, we don't have to get a weed whacker.' And the goat was adorable.
How did you become involved in advocating for local sourcing?
It's been like a lifetime, honestly. It's weird, [two weeks ago], I was at Hillside and my old boss from Whole Foods walked in. That was in Dallas, and this was in '91. He was my first boss ever and i was 17 when I started. He's like, 'Can we hang out and eat?' and I was like, 'Sure.' So last night, we had happy hour and hung out with this guy. He's like, 'How did you get from being a 17 year old with a purple mohawk off the streets going to jail to where you're at right now?' I think it was like a lifetime of revolutions in my heart when I was young as a punk rocker and I think that food is so important and healthy food is so important and the quality of life.
How do you see the future of the food scene in Austin now and where would you like it to go?
I would like it to continue to go where it's going. I think that all of the new restaurants that have been opening are really raising the bar, so to speak, of what is quality food. There's so many options and it gives you a lot of challenges as a cook in this field. Hopefully, it will help develop the workforce a little bit more. There'll be more cooks that want to come to Austin to cook. I want it to continue to grow. I did not grow up in Austin. I don't have any sort of sadness towards old Austin that people always talk about, how like bohemia is dead in austin, which is bullshit because we're living it every day at this restaurant for crying out loud. We're inventing our own way. The true definition of bohemia is to invent your own way or whatever. I think that the future of Austin is bright for food. I just want to make sure that they're supporting our economy by buying local food and to grow it. Because to grow our farms, we could have so many more varieties of produce and people that are going to start making cheese. That's a huge thing that we lack in Texas: good cheese. There's goat cheese, which is fantastic, but try to find an aged cheese that's phenomenal. It's hard. You can't really find it. I like this city growing and there are more options. There's so many places I haven't tried.
I haven't gone to Haymaker, I've been wanting to go there. I haven't been to Qui. I've been there for a party for Zagat, but I haven't eaten there properly.
What is your next project?
I'm definitely going to do Mediterranean food of some sort, whether it be Italian or Spanish. I want to create a menu that reflects the same foods that grow there. Like, the Basque region is the same that grows here, artichokes, peppers, spinach, all of that. There's a regional crossover for the cuisine that grows in that region. So I want to use local food, but do it in a different way. Because I always do New American food, charcuterie and blah blah blah. But I really want to experiment with my roots and really go Italian. I'm French and Italian and Portuguese, so it's like I want to cook old world.
How are you going about starting this project?
I'm going to Rhode Island this summer as a research project. I'll be gone for two and a half months to research the style of food. And seafood. I'm going submerge myself into some seafood. I don't get to cook seafood here because I'm a locavore, so I want to go and cook in New England this summer and come back with some new fresh ideas for the fall.
It's like taking a refresher.
I've opened three restaurants since 2008. I've gone to places but no, not for a long period of time to be able to really let go of everything and re-find myself and to learn. That's another thing I want to do: blow up my catering company, Cote Catering. I want to do more off site catering. I just got a commissary kitchen for that. I haven't done catering since I've had the restaurants. I really like catering. It's such an adventure to go somewhere new, and my staff is so great. I want to keep them employed, so I need more business on the catering side.
[Photo: Nadia Chaudhury/EATX]
How has your role at Eden East changed since the beginning?
We're a year old now so my sous chef is perfectly capable of running the restaurant while I'm gone. I'm still doing prep, I'm still working the line, I'm still creating the menus, which I'm going to continue to do. When I get back, I'll still be doing the same things. So my role really hasn't changed and that's like any new restaurant. I have to be here every day for a year. Same with Hillside: I was there for a year, and I'm still there. I'd like to keep it consistent. What I did discover about myself is that I have more of a routine that I've ever expected myself to have because i'm really against that.I'm like 'Ugh, there's a routine? I want to destroy it.' It's just in my nature. Now, Tuesday, I write the menu, Wednesday, I come to the farmstand and look at the produce and I change the menu depending on what I can get, or i'm inspired by, like the parsnips today, so I'm going to go back and write those into my menu this weekend. Then, Thursday, we prep and then Friday, we prep and we work and then we set for service and then do the same thing on Saturday.
How do you balance everything?
I have such a great team. It's easy. That's why I can leave this summer. To have your business run efficiently when you're not there is really important. I don't think you can grow and develop if you can't get to that point. Because then, you'll kill yourself trying to do everything yourself. Who wants to do that? I don't. I want to enjoy my life and i want other people to enjoy their lives as well.
How was your relationship with Springdale Farm developed?
They're just wonderful people. We hang out on their porch, drink wine, and tell each other secrets. I don't think I've ever gotten into an argument with them or ever been upset with them. We have a great communication. If something's not cleaned up the way they expected it to be or the walk-in's a mess or something like that, they come to me and are able to voice these things. I have their best interests in mind as well. I keep an eye on the sound and to make sure our neighbors aren't upset with the noise levels. The chef and farmer relationship is a time-tested relationship. It's been going on for a long time. I think that we understand each other. I'm taking their product and turning it into another product, but I can't have that without them. It's like photography. If you're going to take a picture of something that's created, then you couldn't do it without that person creating that already. It becomes your art even though you're taking a picture of somebody else's art.
Where would you want Eden East to be a year from now?
Sold out every weekend. I want it to be sold out months in advance. I think that would be awesome.
Does it fill up fast now?
Yeah it does. I'm hitting my maximum and I want it to continue to do so. In the winter, we have to go down to 45 reservations a night because of the space and nobody wants to sit outside. I don't really want to put a tent up because it ruins the whole ambiance. I want to, a year from now, I want all the kinks to be worked out. Just fine-tuning everything over the next year and doing it perfectly every time. Executing everything perfectly and maintaining a really high level of service as well.
What advice do you have for others looking to start a restaurant?
Do it. Don't be afraid. If you can find financial backing if you don't personally have money to do it, then do it. Don't be afraid to chase what you want. Do what feels right for you. Don't try to do something that's not you. Like I wouldn't open a taco stand or something. Oh wait, I did that once.
— Nadia Chaudury
· More Eden East coverage on Eater Austin [-EATX-]