Dining

For Two Chefs, Respect Is Key Ingredient

For Unmi Abkin and Roger Taylor, Easthampton’s Coco and the Cellar Bar offers chance to be home

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013
paul shoul |
Preview-Coco's the cellar bar

When you ask Unmi Abkin—co-owner of Easthampton’s Coco restaurant and the Cellar Bar—about her philosophy surrounding food, you may be surprised by her answer: “Respect.”

Her husband, Roger Taylor, co-owner as well as partner in the kitchen, expands upon this notion: “We try to work with respect for the food and for the people in the restaurant, diners and staff.” Abkin elaborates, “I want the transfer of energy to be peaceful. I want a respectful kitchen.”

In line with this perspective is Taylor and Abkin’s commitment to balance. Central as the restaurant is in their lives—it’s their livelihood, after all, and their passion—they are determined to ensure the work should not be so all-consuming that it overtakes their lives—or their staff’s lives. By conscious design, the restaurant is open four days a week—Wednesday through Saturday. The four-day week means that everyone involved has enough time away from the restaurant for other pursuits.

For Abkin and Taylor, that balance is found with their 3-year-old daughter, Coco. Abkin explains, “It’s important to us that we have plenty of time with her.” Taylor adds, “The employees at Coco all have other commitments; they are painters and contractors and new parents.”

A benefit to this approach is it assures staff loyalty. The dishwasher at Coco worked in that position at Abkin’s first Valley restaurant, Northampton’s Cha Cha Cha. As soon as he heard of her return to the Valley, he signed on to work with her again. Taylor notes, “That’s a 17-year relationship with a dishwasher, which is incredibly rare.”

The menu, influenced by season and heavily reliant upon local food, continually changes. Winter brings more root vegetables and dishes like winter squash with salmon and chickpeas, mint and raita. Preparation methods include roasting and braising. With spring, different vegetables and ways to prepare them arrive. As Taylor explains, “A restaurant is a living being, and thus it changes all the time.”

Respect for the ingredients themselves is evident. Plates are plain; the food brings color. Dishes are served in a straightforward but artful manner with careful, even nuanced, attention to detail. Yet, the food isn’t “fancy.” If anything, Abkin and Taylor aim to keep dishes “as simple as possible.”

Taylor explains, “We want the food not to be too fussy. Respect for the customer means the food should be accessible to anybody. It’s important to us that when people walk in, they recognize the foods on the menu. Sometimes, in the name of fine dining, food can become pretentious and exclusionary. We’re interested in welcoming people into our restaurant.”

Northampton restaurants

During her years on the Northampton restaurant scene, Abkin had two restaurants. Cha Cha Cha was a Main Street mainstay and her dinner-only establishment Unmi had an extremely loyal following.

She and Taylor left and spent nearly a decade in California, in Oakland and Berkeley. Taylor, who grew up in Northampton, says that as much as he and Abkin adored Northern California, they were drawn back to the Valley after the birth of their daughter. “Having family nearby seemed too important to justify living all the way across the country,” he says. “And this is such a special community. We’re really happy we returned.”

Abkin and Taylor are impressed by growth in the local food movement. Abkin says, “There’s much easier access to amazing local food now. We work with local farms and other local businesses. Today, for example, I’m serving Maine shrimp I got through BerkShore, which brings local seafood products from the region to market in the Valley. These shrimp are really sweet and have a very short season—just two weeks. I’m making Gulf Maine shrimp and arugula sandwiches for the Cellar Bar. I am using Challah rolls Henion Bakery in Amherst made for me. And I have a very long relationship with North Shore Seafood.”

Asked about a favorite dish, Abkin says, “Recently, I made quince jam with local quince, which I served with Manchego cheese, Castelvetrano olives and toast. It’s such a simple, delicious dish.” The restaurant gets its bread from Northampton’s Hungry Ghost bakery. She says that the Cellar Bar offers her a chance to play with more casual menu choices.

But don’t ask her to reveal her absolute favorite dish. She can’t. She explains, “I fall in love with each dish. I think of them as my friends. When I bring one back, it’s like reconnecting with an old friend. There are so many memories wrapped up in food.”

The same is true of many diners at Coco and the Cellar Bar. Abkin says that when the doors first opened at Coco “it was like a family reunion.”

Loyal customers from the Cha Cha Cha and Unmi days arrived at the new venue, glad to see her and Taylor—and their food—but also one another. “Everyone who had eaten at the old restaurants regularly knew each other,” she explains. “Nearly a decade later, many of them now bring their children. It’s one of the reasons returning has been so special.”

A family affair

The restaurant is family affair: Taylor’s sister, Moira, is the general manager and runs both floors and the bar. On Saturdays, when Abkin preps by day and cooks at night, Taylor’s mother—Coco’s grandmother—cares for the tot.

Abkin does all the prep work, creates the sauces and plays with recipes. She also focuses on the bar. “I’ve begun to make quinine syrup for the tonic water,” she explains. Taylor adds, “Our tonic water bears no resemblance to the manufactured stuff.”

Difficulties surrounding the liquor license meant that the restaurant had to shut down abruptly for a few months while the couple navigated bureaucratic obstacles in order to obtain the proper license. They reopened the restaurant and took over the Cellar Bar in the late fall, despite delays.

During that challenging period, in order not to lose all momentum—or hope—the couple offered weekly “pop-up” lunches that featured casual, seasonal food with emphasis on local ingredients, from leafy salads to gazpacho, along with pulled pork or buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches (according to Abkin, Coco’s favorite item on the menu is the fried chicken).

Taylor reflects that appreciation for the lunches from both old customers and new ones meant a great deal to them. “The lunches began on very short notice and received a great deal of grassroots customer support,” he says—and this was “extremely gratifying. We could not be happier with the way Easthampton has welcomed us, from the people who wander in to the city government that helped us so much and was so patient through our struggles.” Finally, they feel at home.•

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