EASTHAMPTON — The dusk light filters through the big windows of the dining room, and Billie Holiday sings in the background. In the open kitchen, chefs make dinner for young couples, multigenerational families, and white-haired professors entertaining acolytes. Outside on Main Street, lined with the charming old brick buildings of Western Massachusetts, a man capers barefoot on a traffic island, holding a sign that exhorts passersby to go vegan and stop using plastic.
It is autumn, the time of year to make a pilgrimage to the Pioneer Valley, to pick apples, look at leaves, and eat killer fried chicken at Coco & the Cellar Bar.
That is, if you can get a seat at the upstairs/downstairs restaurant where Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor have been serving their own decidedly non-classic New England cuisine for eight years. (The place is named for their daughter, Coco.) Abkin is a perennial semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast award. This month, the two release their first cookbook, “Curry & Kimchi: Flavor Secrets for Creating 70 Asian-Inspired Recipes at Home,” out Oct. 29.
Easthampton’s food scene has taken off in recent years, with new restaurants like Daily Operation, bakeries like Small Oven, breweries and distilleries, and Food Truck Friday events. On the horizon are projects like Hunt & Gather, from chef Aaron Thayer, who worked at Mooo. . . . and Clio in Boston and Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn, and Quince in San Francisco. Coco & the Cellar Bar is at the center of the culinary excitement. (Coco is the main restaurant, which takes reservations; the Cellar Bar, its more-casual subterranean sister, does not. Both spaces offer the same food and drink.)
“Restaurants will often go into a place with lower rent before it becomes totally gentrified,” says Deborah Christakos, the founder of Pioneer Valley Food Tours, which offers guided culinary explorations of the region. “When they succeed, as [Abkin] has done, they will often draw people to that place, bringing the entire city or neighborhood up. Easthampton was a perfect niche to do that.” There is plenty of space available in converted mill buildings; the location is good, surrounded by universities; the arts scene is also growing; and many people involved in the food industry live in Easthampton. “It’s a little more accessible rent-wise, and there’s this budding community of food people who want a place to go out,” she says.
The buttermilk fried chicken is Coco’s best-selling dish, but the menu is as embracing as it is tightly edited, bringing together macaroni and cheese, Korean rice cakes, papas Veracruz, and more. Whatever dishes are on it at any given moment, they all have one thing in common: They are made with ingredients from one of the many small farms that dot the valley. Taken in sum, they also create a portrait of the couple’s lives.
The rice cakes, or ddeokbokki, are served with spicy pork, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and sesame seeds. Abkin was born in South Korea, the daughter of an alcoholic father who made his living as a neon-sign artist and a mother who left when Abkin was still an infant. “A huge part of my relationship to food has to do with the lack of it,” she writes in “Curry & Kimchi.” “My family wasn’t wealthy or even particularly stable. More often than not, we were homeless and hungry.”
When she was 6 years old, Abkin was sent to an orphanage, where she was soon adopted by a Mexican woman and a Jewish man. She recalls seeing them come in; her mother had big brown eyes and her father was very tall. “I remember being startled because they looked so different,” she says. “They fell in love with me and took me home a couple of weeks later.”
Her culinary fortunes then reversed. “I grew up in a family rich with food,” she says. Both of her grandmothers were excellent cooks. Her father’s mother made borscht, latkes, and more for their family gatherings. Abkin would spend summers with her mother’s mother, following her around Mexico City, to the butcher shop, to buy produce, then home again to make dinner. If Coco & the Cellar Bar’s chiles rellenos may be the most legit version in the Pioneer Valley, this is the reason. They are made with poblano peppers and San Marzano tomatoes from Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland.
Abkin’s parents returned to America, eventually settling in the Bay Area. She graduated from UC-Santa Cruz, then attended California Culinary Academy, where she fell in love with food. She helped open chef Nancy Oakes’s acclaimed San Francisco restaurant Boulevard, traveled around Europe while she was waiting for a job at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse to open up, and then, instead, on a whim, decided to move East. She opened her first restaurant when she was 25, a Northampton taqueria called Cha Cha Cha. (She later returned to apprentice at Chez Panisse, and there’s a blurb from Waters on the cover of the cookbook.)
Taylor, meanwhile, was raised in restaurants in Western Mass., where his father and cousin both worked as chefs. After high school, he moved around a bit, landing in the kitchen at chef Josiah Citrin’s Melisse in Santa Monica, Calif. That’s where he was working when he heard about a talented cook back home in Northampton who was opening a fine-dining restaurant. It sounded right up his alley.
“I typed up a resume, which I was very proud of, and faxed it across the country,” he says. “My would-be employer took one look at it and thought the guy who wrote that resume was very full of himself, so she threw it away.” When he didn’t hear back, he sent it again. She threw it out. He sent it again. She threw it out again. “But one of her employees saw my name on the paper in the trash and said, oh, call this guy, he’s decent.”
And so Taylor became the sous chef at Unmi, Abkin’s second restaurant. “It was a very special spot that did not last very long, but we did learn a lot about what you can do and can’t do with a restaurant,” Taylor says.
The business closed, but the relationship lasted. The couple returned to the Bay Area, where he attended California Culinary Academy and she got certified in nutrition education. “The restaurant business is so hard, I thought maybe I’ll try something different,” she says. “But you know what? Once you’re in it, it’s love. There’s nothing else that compares.”
There they might have stayed, but their daughter was born. It seemed easier to raise a child and open a restaurant back in Western Massachusetts. “It’s a gentler world,” Taylor says. “I’m not certain the restaurant we’ve created we would have been able to do in a larger city. We tried really hard to make a special, gentle place.”
Then, too, there’s less of a need to declare what kind of restaurant Coco & the Cellar Bar is. It doesn’t have to be an Asian restaurant or a Mexican restaurant or a fried chicken restaurant. It can contain all of those identities at once, fitting for who the owners are.
As for the macaroni and cheese on the menu, that’s one of Coco’s favorites. She is now 10. “I was a restaurant kid, so it’s neat to see the same thing happening for her,” Taylor says. “She’s kind and gentle but also confident and enjoys talking to people. She knows the regulars and they’ll chat about this and that. She explains the dishes.”
Coco also insisted the macaroni be included in “Curry & Kimchi,” but she taste-tested most of the recipes and says those are good for kids, too.
“The way Americans eat has changed a lot,” Taylor says. “We wanted to create recipes for the new American family.” The book also offers recipes for customer favorites Abkin served at previous restaurants, including a Thai-style peanut sauce that had a cultish following. Sauces, dressings, pickles, and other condiments are the basis for many of the dishes here; Abkin and Taylor believe that when there are a few delicious jars stocked in the refrigerator, it becomes infinitely easier to whip up something interesting for dinner.
Christakos of Pioneer Valley Food Tours says the area’s food community is special. “It’s so interwoven. Everyone is so collaborative and supportive of each other. . . . They’re working together. They share knowledge. It’s the ethos in the valley.”
Abkin and Taylor share this ethos. They’re the bosses, but come Saturday night, she may be at the restaurant making salads while he’s working the hot line, just like old times. Abkin’s first employee at Cha Cha Cha, dishwasher Jesús Ayala, was also the first hire at Coco; nearing 70, he still works days. The couple endeavors to create a kitchen that runs on positive energy, work-life balance for themselves and their staff, and a collaborative atmosphere. Coco & the Cellar Bar is here for that as much as for the delicious fried chicken.
“I would describe myself as an extreme optimist,” Abkin says. “I like to see the beauty of the world. It sounds very cheesy, but in our restaurant we’re creating a world that makes me happy. There’s respect and caring. You walk in the door and that’s what you feel.”
95 Main St., Easthampton, 413-203-5321, www.cocoandthecellarbar.comDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.