Amanda Cohen doesn’t want to get political about vegetables. The chef and owner of the East Village’s Dirt Candy is more interested in offering an exquisite and innovative meal of vegetables than in convincing you to go vegetarian. This plucky attitude, combined with a moratorium on fake meat, has afforded Cohen quite a bit of spotlight. Most publicly, she appeared as the first vegetarian chef challenger on Iron Chef America. Although she lost that battle, she appears again — this time in print — as a character in her first graphic novel/cookbook.
Dirt Candy follows the animated Cohen as she opens her dream spot and navigates the hype of becoming a big-deal restaurateur. Oh, and she also shares her famed vegetable recipes along the way. Fork in the Road sat down with her at Dirt Candy to talk about the restaurant, her regular customers, and why there’s no way to beat bacon.
You’re a vegetable chef, Iron Chef competitor, successful restaurateur, and now a graphic novel cookbook creator. How did you get here?
We’ve been open for a long, crazy four years, but I was cooking for about 15 years before opening Dirt Candy. I had been vegetarian, and I really felt there was a need in the city for an all-vegetable restaurant. I’d reached the end of restaurants that I could work in before switching over to meat, and I felt like that was sad. We’re really focused on cuisine and not so much about lifestyle. We’re not very politically minded — we just care about the food. Frankly, I don’t really care what you eat as long as at Dirt Candy what you’re eating are my vegetables. I don’t care what you had for breakfast or what you’re going to have for lunch the next day. I just want you to come and see what we can do with vegetables.
Cohen’s restaurant is a tiny but inviting sunken space with blond wood and glossy white walls. The open kitchen is smaller than a standard galley and, during morning prep, half a dozen cooks are using every inch of the space to organize for dinner service. As we share a banquette, Cohen raises her voice just slightly to be heard over the background din of vegetables being pressed through a Chinois. She is clearly in her element in these tight quarters, and I ask if she thinks the restaurant could exist on a larger scale.
When we first opened, we couldn’t have done it. But we’re four years into it, and more and more people want to come and explore. And people’s diets are changing — slowly but surely — and they’re trying to incorporate more vegetables, so the notion of having an all-vegetable meal isn’t as offensive as it used to be. One of the things we do differently is try really hard not to label it vegetarian so that people aren’t as scared of the food. And that’s a sad fact for vegetarians. But I often say to people, “I bet you’ve had a meal that was just vegetables before and you’ve never really thought about it.” If you’ve just had spaghetti that didn’t have meatballs, you’ve had a vegetarian meal.
Vegetable cooking isn’t exactly a culinary style. How would you describe the food you make at Dirt Candy?
Labels can be very dangerous. I always just think of us as New American. We step outside of the traditional boundaries of American cooking, but we’re not within the boundaries of any other cooking, so we’re just this melting pot of influences. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia, so that really influences a lot of the dishes that we put on the menu. I’d love to spend more time in Mexico and Latin America, so I’m starting to study up on those places and trying to incorporate some more exotic ingredients into the food here.
As haute vegetable cooking is becoming more popular, I keep reading about chefs who are foraging for their own produce. Is that something that interests you?
Good for the people who have the time to do that and who can afford to do that. We operate on a very small budget here, and one of the things that we do is try really hard not to be intimidating. As much as I say I don’t care about what you eat, I do hope people come and are inspired. I want them to leave and say, “I want to try something like this at home.” We try very hard to use ingredients you can actually find. Our focus is kind of on supermarket vegetables. I do feel like there’s this moment in cooking where going out to restaurants can feel very intimidating. Just look at a menu and every vegetable has a fancy name attached to it. I want people to come here and think, “I’ve thought about a carrot like this.” I hope our meal stays with you for a long time.
That seems like a pretty big challenge during these bacon-ized times.
We cannot compete with bacon. We just can’t. Bacon will rule till the end of time. But I think that because the market has been so overstated with it, people are looking for a different experience. So, if six nights out of the week they want bacon, that seventh night they think, “Oh, I should go eat some vegetables.” And thank goodness we’re in a big enough city where there is always someone who wants some vegetables.
A gray-haired man in worn jeans and Birkenstocks walks into the restaurant to deliver a jar of a soupy-looking mystery food. Cohen, who not only recognizes him but remembers that he’d left his credit card at the restaurant the previous night, graciously receives the gift. Before leaving, the man opens to a dog-eared page of Cohen’s just-published book and asks for advice on a specific recipe. After he leaves, Cohen notes that the whole incident was a happy accident, but it’s obvious that she has serious fans despite offering only 18 seats. What’s the secret to getting a table?
We have a ton of regulars, and we see them every two to three months. And every night there are a few tables left open, but it really depends on how long you want to wait. And you can check our Twitter feed. But, sadly, the best way is to plan ahead.
Check in tomorrow to learn more about Amanda Cohen’s cookbook and what vegetable she’d serve the Presidential candidates if they showed up at her restaurant.