Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Hillside Farmacy chef's locally-sourced dishes hearken to the past

Claire Canavan
Sonya Coté thinks that Hillside Farmacy carries on the original Hillside Drugstore's legacy because it offers 'good, healthy food as medicine in this community,' she said.

Sitting at a picnic table outside Hillside Farmacy, her new restaurant venture on East 11th Street, chef Sonya Coté points out the carefully chosen ingredients on the farmacy plate, a rotating array of meats and cheeses.

A dollop of creamy chevre hails from Wateroak Farms in Bryan. The rich blue cheese is a Bosque Blue from Veldhuizen Cheese in Dublin, Texas. Coté and her kitchen team made the rillettes and pâté using rabbit from Bastrop's Countryside Farm and pork from Richardson Farms.

Coté, a local foods champion and longtime art lover, has made it her mission to create simple but meticulously sourced plates of food like this one.

Hillside Farmacy, a space that merges Coté's love of food, aesthetics and community, developed through an unexpected convergence of events that involved two historic pharmacies.

While designing the bar Swan Dive during fall 2010, Mickie Spencer (also the designer and owner of East Side Show Room, where Coté is the executive chef), got a phone call from a man in Elgin who asked if she was interested in some cabinetry from Jones Drug Store, a pharmacy built in 1895.

Inspired, Spencer bought the antique cabinets, as well as old prescriptions and medicine bottles from the pharmacy, without knowing how she would use it all.

Meanwhile, Spencer and Coté (along with business partners Greg and Jade Matthews) were moving forward on creating what they hoped might be an Italian-style deli.

Coté, who lives in the neighborhood near East 11th Street, would often drive by the empty space formerly occupied by Gene's Po-Boys and wondered if it was available for the new project.

One day she saw the doors open and walked in on a meeting between people who planned to open an Irish pub in the space. Disappointed, Coté handed them her card telling them to call her if anything changed.

Two weeks later they called. Their investment had fallen through, but they passed on the phone number and address of the building's owners.

Coté and her partners had no idea that the space used to house Hillside Drugstore, one of the first African-American owned pharmacies in Austin. Yvette Turner, the original pharmacist's daughter, still owns the building and, along with her husband, granted the lease to Coté's team.

In what now seems like synchronicity, Spencer used the materials from Jones Drug Store to design the striking interior of Hillside Farmacy. Filled with artful touches — black and white tile floors, teal accents, a soda fountain — the space looks like a cross between an antique apothecary and a Parisian café.

Coté thinks that Hillside Farmacy carries on the original pharmacy's legacy because it offers "good, healthy food as medicine in this community," she said.

Hillside Farmacy's menu is heavy on sandwiches and small plates, sprinkled with comfort foods Coté grew up eating during her childhood in Rhode Island.

"Eggs in a bowl" (Italian bread with two poached eggs) is a dish her dad used to make. The sausage-stuffed, salt-cured peppers remind her of the Italian delis she went to when she was young.

In addition to the all-day breakfast and lunch menu, Hillside Farmacy runs changing dinner specials focused on using local food. Diners might find a roasted Hausbar chicken, parsnip puree with duck egg and pork belly, or a tangle of fresh vegetables stewed into ratatouille.

The restaurant also has a raw bar featuring Coté's all-time favorite thing to eat: "The oyster is the perfect food," she said. ‘It's like the ocean made flesh. It's a way to experience the beach wherever you are."

Oysters transport Coté back to Rhode Island, where she spent part of her childhood learning about good food from her grandfather, a French chef who studied at Johnson and Wales University.

As a child, she was also introduced to community gardens and vegetarian living in Fairfield, Iowa, where her largely absent mother pursued enlightenment at Maharishi International University.

A self-reliant and rebellious teenager, Coté was drawn to art, especially painting. In 1991, Coté enrolled at the Art Institute of Dallas and that same year got a job bagging groceries at Whole Foods.

Coté soon became the store artist at Whole Foods, a job that eventually morphed into a marketing and graphic design career with the company. Fusing together her interests in food and art, Coté catered her own art events, and as word of mouth spread, she started a small catering company in Dallas.

After a short stint in Fredericksburg as executive chef at the Hoffman Haus and the Natural Palette Cooking School, Coté moved to Austin and returned to Whole Foods while working in the catering business with chef Andrew Brooks.

What really changed her life, she said, was watching as Whole Foods began to source more locally. As the store merchandiser for Whole Foods north, Coté said she "started noticing that the local food was fresher and more delicious."

After a farm tour of the Bay Area in 2006, Coté found a copy of the book "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse" in a bathroom stall at the San Francisco airport. She picked it up and read it on the flight back to Austin.

As Coté read about Waters (a pioneer of the local foods movement), she recalled thinking, "I want to be like this woman and do something just as important for my community."

Coté's newest project, and one that perfectly marries her twin passions for art and local food, is called The Homegrown Revival.

A collaboration between chefs, farmers and food historians, Homegrown Revival throws one-night-only dinner parties highlighting specific farmers and their bounty. The first dinner, which kicked off in January, was called "The Story of a Goat" and focused on goats raised at Windy Hill Organics Farm.

An April "Salt Meets Pepper" dinner benefitting HOPE Farmer's Market featured produce from Johnson's Backyard Garden. Putting vegetables in the spotlight for an evening, Coté whipped up deviled beets with mulberry jelly and sweet potato mash as well as an amaranth salad with arugula, loquat vinaigrette and fried onions.

The "homegrown" part of the project is clear. As for the "revival" part, Coté said, "I feel like I want to revive traditions of the past, things like canning, pickling, preserving, cooking from nose to tail."

Her dream for Homegrown Revival is to take it on the road. "I want to do these dinner parties all over the United States," she said. "I'd go to different towns and start conversations about where people are growing food."

"Then," she said, " I would go in and start cooking."

Hillside Farmacy