As the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen has over the past year and a half done more to promote the cause of vegetarian cooking than a slew of lascivious PETA commercials could ever hope to, simply by cooking vegetarian food that actually tastes really, really good. At her 18-seat restaurant, located on East 9th Street, Cohen eschews fake meat and preachy rhetoric to turn out lustily-flavored, cheerfully caloric dishes like carrot risotto, jalapeno hush puppies, and grits with tempura-battered poached eggs, all of which have charmed vegetarians and skeptical meat-eaters alike.
Cohen’s been pretty damn busy lately, between receiving various awards, holding a sold-out honey-pairing dinner with Savannah Bee‘s Ted Dennard in February, and preparing for our very own Choice Eats party on Monday. She took some time out from working on her restaurant’s new spring menu to talk with Fork in the Road about her new carrot buns, diners who take photos of their food, and her enduring love for the late and lamented Paula’s Party.
How’s the new menu coming along?
We’re really excited. We’ve started working on new dishes, and have some really fun things coming.
We’re working on carrot buns — they’re like dim sum-themed Chinese pork buns, but without pork. We use carrots instead. The buns will be different colors based on the different colors of carrots — there’ll be pink, orange, and yellow. They’ll have a slightly barbecued carrot filling and come with a little carrot cucumber salad, and I’m trying to figure out how to make sesame halvah to sprinkle on top. I feel like I’m going to be standing over the stove for four hours, stirring something. [The buns] are replacing the kimchi doughnuts.
Your customers are going to riot.
It’s hard: At the beginning, I don’t think the doughnuts were that well received. But we fine-tuned the recipe, and people really started to love them. But now there’s no more kimchi being made. It takes us about a month to make the kimchi from start to finish, and we stopped making it about two months ago. So I’m going to get [the carrot buns] on the menu for March. So far, we’ve had good feedback — we given our regulars a sneak peak.
Blogging and Twittering are two totally different things. One of the things with Twitter is that it’s kind of instantaneous; my gut feeling is that people don’t sit there and plan out their tweets. With blogging, for me, I think about every post. We write it, we edit it, it goes through a couple of different incarnations before it gets posted. I have learned never to put up a post right away, even if I’m upset or angry about something. It’s like sending an e-mail to someone you might be angry at — just calm down.
Do a lot of your customers read your blog?
A lot of customers now go to any restaurant’s website to check it out before they go. For us, they start to engage with the restaurant before they even come. They start scrolling through, and they start to have an opportunity to engage and they come to the restaurant and want to talk about it. Or they want to talk about the wine — they read about it on the blog, and say, “I can’t wait to try the wine.” So the blog has been great for people to start their experience before they even get here.
Do you talk to most of your customers?
Pretty much I talk to almost every customer. I don’t go up to every table and go, “Hi, I’m the chef” — usually that comes out in conversation. Once that’s been opened up, they want to talk.
Your restaurant’s so small that you can pretty much see what everyone’s doing — what do you think of people photographing their food?
At first I was so upset by it, like, oh my god, what are they doing, that’s going to be on a blog, what if they’re reviewing me? It gets really stressful if there are seven reviewers in a restaurant. I wish people would ask to take pictures: I would never say no, but I feel like when you see people sneakily taking pictures and then they hide the camera when you walk by, it’s like, I can see you. Particularly here. Our dishes are so personal to us; we only have eight. They are like our kids, and it’s like, don’t take photos of our kids! [Laughs] I just wish they could ask…it’s like a battle, and we should all be on the same side. It’s like dominoes: Last week there were six tables taking photos of every course. But I’ve just accepted it.
Have you ever thought about moving into a bigger space?
There’s always the idea of expansion. But I’m never building a restaurant again. But let’s say someone came and offered me money — I’m not sure; I go back and forth. I love the restaurant and the size, and I love working here every night and talking to customers. I think it’s important that I’m the one calling and confirming reservations — it makes it seems personal for everyone involved. But at the same time, yeah, it would be great to be in a larger space, to have more storage, a walk-in, more seating. But if it was bigger it would lose that special Dirt Candy feeling.
How’s the recession been treating you?
We opened in the worst month, October 2008, which was basically the crash. It was a little slow at the beginning and then we were the new thing. We were really popular and it was good. Now, we’re doing great and definitely turning a profit, but it’s harder to get earlier or later seatings. But customers are spending the same amount on food. I’m lucky that I have a built-in audience.
What do you think of the new vegetarian fast-food places, like Otarian, that are opening?
I’ll be fascinated to see if it’ll work. Zen Palate tried it, and certainly it had loyalty in the city. I was surprised that it closed so fast; it just couldn’t sustain itself. I wonder about this new place — can it possibly work? I think there’s a market, and I think they’ve located themselves well next to NYU — there’s got to be a thousand vegetarians there. I’d be interested to try it; if there were fast food places I could go to, maybe I would. I think when people go for fast food they don’t want to care what they’re eating — to have a fast salad doesn’t fulfill that need. The one thing I wonder about is if non-vegetarians will go, if it will be of any interest to them.
Are there any dining trends you’ve had enough of?
As a vegetarian, I’m little tired of pork. I think it’s used so much. Even as a meat-eater, isn’t it time for something new? And I wish there were more creative and imaginative restaurants coming up now — it’s either very animal-centric or very upscale comfort. They’re great, but it’s all fried chicken. That’s great, but it’s not pushing ideas of what food can be. It’s hard; customers know what they want and it’s hard to change their ideals.
So what sort of imagination and creativity would you like to see?
Right now, the flavor combinations you’re seeing on every menu are the same; I would be interested to see people pushing flavor combination boundaries.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not working?
It depends on how tired I am. If I’m super tired, I’m probably eating take-in Mexican or Grand Szechuan. But I want to try all the new restaurants. I very rarely go back to one; I just keep going to see what the competition’s like. I went to Colicchio & Sons; I thought it was really good. And I went to the Breslin; I got French fries and grilled cheese, and I eat fish so I had the Caesar salad as well. It was great. I can’t believe people think I use a lot of fat: my place is like diet food compared to [the Breslin]. But how can you complain? Your grilled cheese has fried cheese on it!
Do you watch TV?
I do. It’s so embarrassing. I’m a big fan of Lost, so that’s where my heart is this season, except I haven’t seen it for three weeks. I watch it on my computer. I have contemplated closing the restaurant for the finale. I’ve dedicated five years [to the show]. But I prob won’t close the restaurant because that doesn’t seem like the best idea. I really like the Real Housewives — all of them. We discuss these all day long.
I have to admit that I’ve never seen any of the shows.
You have to just sit down and watch them. I’m so confused how these people exist: how do you get into these fights? How do you wear that much hairspray? Sometimes I think the hairdresser might be the scriptwriter.
I also like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The food looks good. You just have to watch for the food. People come to Dirt Candy and they’re like, “Oh, it was really good, but the portions seem small,” and you see this show and I’m like, I get it, you have a mountain of food on your plate. Of course the food I give you seems small. But it’s neat seeing what people eat across the country. And I like Paula Deen. I’m very sad that Paula’s Party isn’t on. I think that Paula might drink a lot before the show starts; she’s very sexual on the show. I love her. I read her autobiography; she’s a pretty spectacular woman.
Can you give us a hint of what’s on your menu for Choice Eats?
We’re making acorn mousse with maple-smoked butternut squash and roasted curried pepitas on a brown butter crostini. Out of all the events we done, this is prob the most fun and also the most insane. You have a line of about 1,000 people and you’re like, take the food, don’t take me!