The East Village is an awfully long way from Ottawa, where Cohen grew up. And she's been through a gauntlet of greenery to get here: She studied at the health-oriented Natural Gourmet Institute's Chef Training Program; cooked up veggie dishes at Angelica Kitchen and BBQ wings for Spanish Harlem's Dinerbar; created a vegetarian menu for Moby's café, Teany; worked at the raw-food mecca Pure Food & Wine; and was the chef de cuisine at Matthew Kenny's late Lower East Side vegetarian restaurant Heirloom.

When she opened Dirt Candy, she voiced her unguarded and perhaps best-kept-to-herself opinion that vegetarian customers can be "weirdos"—and paid for it. Vegan commenters raged online. "This douchenozzle should be taught a lesson!" And: "Maybe if she experienced the torture that MILLIONS OF OUR ANIMAL SISTERS AND BROTHERS experience every day she'd think twice before talking like this." Her outside menu box was vandalized. "Comparing me to Chris Brown was not OK," says Cohen, laughing, "but that was just at the beginning. It was always weird, because everything on the menu can be made vegan."

She mocks the foodie fetish for expensive "heirloom" vegetables and customers who desire to know the exact provenance of a stalk of broccoli. She is monomaniacally obsessed with cooking, but still a bit baffled by the ever-Instagramming hordes who follow chefs like bands and nitpick tomato varieties like stoners ranking strains of pot. "We try to use ordinary ingredients," she says, "not, like, the one special carrot from Sticky Blackbush Berry Farms or whatever."

Parsnip “pillows,” with watermelon radishes.
Megan Jolly
Parsnip “pillows,” with watermelon radishes.
Eggplant tiramisu with rosemary cotton candy.
Megan Jolly
Eggplant tiramisu with rosemary cotton candy.

Location Info

Map

Dirt Candy

430 E. Ninth St.
New York, NY 10009

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: East Village

Details

The only thing she wants is to do even more of what she is doing, and Cohen is dreaming of a new restaurant with a little more elbow room: 40 to 60 seats, she says. She's hoping to find investors. "It's harder for women to get funding," says Anita Lo. "Many guys who are less talented chefs have gotten places in Vegas, and I could name seven women who have cooked well, done well in the media, and have not."

On a Sunday morning so cold it feels like the weather's bearing a grudge, Cohen is back in the restaurant, all alone, broccoli and wonton wrappers spread out on her counter. She "never, ever" cooks at her little apartment in Murray Hill, she says; she does not have time for farmers' markets. She typically works 12 to 15 hours a day, Tuesday to Saturday, and even Sunday is not a day off. This is actually the fun part: It's when she gets to create. "I like to take on these iconic dishes people think you can't make with vegetables," she says. "Barbecue is a challenge—I really want to get that smoky flavor and make it work with broccoli. It will take a lot of practice." Today is the latest of many Sundays spent experimenting with a BBQ broccoli dish that she hopes will be every bit as good as one dripping with grease.

In her tiny kitchen, she whips up three sauces—Kansas City, South Carolina, North Carolina—and bakes fluffy brioche buns that have been infused with broccoli until they become a pale green. "Not green enough," she says. She wants them bright as clover. Cohen whittles down the long stalks of smoked broccoli heads until they look like the bony ends of a rack of lamb. She tries wrapping them in wonton wrappers, then dismisses that idea. Instead, she fries them with a light, crispy batter, and tastes all three sauces, with the broccoli and the brioche. The South Carolina mustard will make it to the next round of this in-house competition.

Then she pulls out a white cellophane wad that looks like something you might be handed in nearby Tompkins Square Park. "Try it," she says. Inside is a slice of creamy cake, with a crumbled green crust like bright, dusted emeralds. The filling is a spectacularly decadent peanut-based cream cheese. The green is, improbably, dehydrated celery, distilled to Crayola brightness, without the familiar crunch but with an unexpected kick of intense flavor so potent it practically glows. She calls it her celery cheesecake. "It's kind of like my ants-on-a-log," she says, with a self-deprecating shrug.

Ants-on-a-log? If this is Cohen's idea of an after-school snack, it's no wonder she named her restaurant Dirt Candy. She is the vegetable kingdom's Willy Wonka, obsessively searching for new ways to cook up her magical treats from the earth—and bored to tears by all the old, familiar ones. "If I see another kale salad, I'll cry," she says. "I'll kill myself."

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