Coco & The Cellar Bar and Hungry Ghost Bakery nominated for ‘Oscars of food’ James Beard Foundation awards

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 8th, 2016, by Chris Lindahl. 

EASTHAMPTON — For Gary Temple, it’s chef Unmi Abkin’s dedication to crafting consistently good staple dishes that keeps him coming back to Coco & The Cellar Bar.

“Everybody’s doing buttermilk fried chicken, but not as well,” Temple said from his seat at the Easthampton restaurant’s bar Wednesday night. “It’s clearly the best food in Easthampton.”

And Abkin’s culinary prowess has put her in the running for the title of best chef in the Northeast in what is commonly referred to as “the Oscars of food.”

Abkin is one of 20 semifinalists for the honor, which is given by the James Beard Foundation each year. She joins another local duo, Cheryl Maffei and Jonathan Stevens of Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton, who together are in the running for “outstanding baker.”

“We just make food that we like to eat,” Abkin said. “It’s nice to know that people like it, too.”

Abkin, 46, opened Coco & The Cellar Bar with her husband, Roger Taylor, 37, about five years ago after they moved back to the Valley when they had their daughter, also named Coco.

Taylor describes the small, ever-changing menu as “honest” and inspired by their own personal philosophies — “trying to do a few things very well as opposed to a lot of things not so well.”

Abkin opened her first restaurant in Northampton, Cha Cha Cha, in 1995 and her second, Unmi, in the city around a decade ago.

Abkin described a process of developing dishes that’s careful but not uptight.

“We have a lot of fun in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s a very cooperative kitchen. I’ll have an idea for a dish and we’ll work on it for about a month or so.”

Among Abkin’s team, all of whom can be seen by diners working inside the small kitchen, are pastry chef Miranda Brown, line cooks David Banno and Tim Dawson, and Taylor, who runs the line. And there’s Laura Briggs, the restaurant’s general manager, who could be seen running food to the downstairs Cellar Bar on Wednesday night.

Abkin said no dish makes it onto the menu “unless everybody agrees it’s great.”

Brown “and I work a lot together to create new menu items,” Abkin said. “She’s my creative recipe-developing partner. We’re together every day.”

Among Abkin’s favorite dishes in recent memory is a hot and sour soup topped with Sichuan oil, which took her and Brown “probably three months” to perfect.

“I took the idea of hot and sour soup — spicy, tangy, sour — and kind of created our own version of it,” Abkin said.

Temple, who gave high praise to Coco’s fried chicken, ordered the fennel sausage ragu Wednesday night. Even in the restaurant’s dim light shed from unique free-hanging bulbs, the rich red color of the sauce and the white grana cheese shone bright.

“I was actually hoping this would be on the menu,” he said.

Temple, a clothing designer and writer who splits his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Easthampton, said Coco stacks up well to the endlessly inventive restaurants of Gotham.

“I think this compares well to some of the best places in Bushwick,” he said, referring to the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood.

Many of those dining at one of Coco’s 50 seats Thursday were regulars, and Taylor had no trouble pointing them out.

Among those return diners were Allison Page and Steve Dillon, who were sitting at a candlelit table reading menus.

“Every single thing I’ve eaten here is amazing,” Dillon said.

“It’s definitely, we think, the best restaurant in our area, hands down,” Page said.

After Page and Dillon moved to Northampton from Minneapolis around three years ago, they said they searched for a kind of culinary home away from home, a place where those serving them would recognize them.

Luckily for them, Briggs proved that could be Coco.

“The second time we came she remembered us, she remembered what we ordered,” Dillon said.

It was the ambiance, friendly staff and certainly the inventive food that kept them coming back.

They both said they love any soup at Coco (Thai coconut soup was on Wednesday’s menu), so much that Page has written twice to Bon Appétit magazine, requesting that it feature a Coco broth in a column of restaurant recipes.

“I’m so glad for them,” Page said of the Beard award. “I feel like it’s really good they got recognition for their excellence.”

‘Not just the bread’

This is the fifth time Maffei and Stevens have been nominated for a Beard award for their work at Hungry Ghost Bread on State Street.

“It’s always a little bit of a mystery of how we’re nominated,” Maffei said. “We make great things — that’s not a mystery.”

Anyone is eligible to nominate a person or establishment for a Beard award online beginning in October. A committee of critics and writers sifted later through the 20,000 submissions to determine who would be named a semifinalist.

A panel of former Beard award winners and others will vote to determine which five semifinalists will go on to become nominees. The overall winners will be announced on March 15.

“It’s really exciting to be nominated for such a prestigious award or for any award for that matter,” Maffei said.

She said it’s rewarding to be recognized for their baking, which she said is based on a dedication to using local, quality ingredients.

“That’s what our focus is always going to be — to produce the best artisan loaf we can, the best pizza, the best pastries,” Maffei said.

But it’s also about the community, she said, whether it’s supporting the bakery’s staff or filling a need in a community that’s committed to eating local.

“It’s a whole picture,” Maffei said. “It’s not just the bread.”