Yesterday, we spoke with Dirt Candy Chef Amanda Cohen about her culinary style, her regular customers, and why even great vegetables just can’t compete against bacon. Today, we continue the conversation and hear about Cohen’s Iron Chef America battle, her graphic novel cookbook, and her ideal menu for a visit from the White House. We also gain insight to her dreams of seeing a vegetable Super Hero.
You’re seem pretty fired up for a vegetarian. It feels like no vegetable goes unpunished — or lacks some love — at Dirt Candy. How did your cooking personality play out when you competed against Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef America?
I know I was the first vegetarian chef who went on the show. I’m not sure if I was the first one invited, but I was the first one who took them up on the challenge. It was amazing and really great for the restaurant. I think it sustained us through three summers, because people were traveling, and they came in because they saw me on the show. Even though we didn’t win, I feel like we really represented [who we are] in the kitchen. We had a feeling that we wouldn’t win before we went on, so we just made a decision that we would have a lot of fun. Morimoto is very serious, very quiet, and we were just running all over the place and having fun with it. I don’t want to be that quiet chef — that’s just not our personality here. Maybe one day, if I have a bigger restaurant and you don’t see the cooks as much, then it would be a different feeling, but we’re loud here. We scream all the time, and we laugh in the kitchen. It’s just that personality of the restaurant.
What about the personality of other restaurants? Where are you eating when you’re not at Dirt Candy?
There are so many restaurants that I pass and think, I really wish I had time to go there. I love the feel of Porsena. I’s just really up my alley. I had a fabulous meal at Gwynnett St. I was just really, really impressed — just blown away — by what they’re doing. Mission Chinese is also terrific. All over the city people are doing amazing things, and I wish I had more time to go. One of the hardest things about being a chef and, particularly about being here [with an open kitchen], is that I see people enjoying themselves every night, and I want to be those people eating dinner at 7:30 on a Wednesday night. Sometimes I just want to pull up a chair and sit with them — but I’ve never done that.
I think your fans would be game for the company. Let’s talk about your book. It’s a graphic novel that’s masquerading as a cookbook — or maybe it’s the other way around. Can you tell me what it’s all about?
About a year into the restaurant we were approached by some publishers who thought there would be a market for a Dirt Candy cookbook. I really didn’t want to do it. We were only a year in, and it was just too soon. I’d seen other restaurateurs put out a book after [a short time], and their restaurants sort of failed a bit because of it. They just weren’t paying attention. Writing a book takes up an incredible amount of time, and I wasn’t sure what I could add to the dialogue of cookbooks, particularly to the vegetarian market. I felt that a lot of them covered Vegetarian 101, and that was not something I really wanted to do. I just wanted to be true to the restaurant and that meant putting our recipes, and our personality, in the book. It just didn’t seem like a traditional cookbook would work. So I was having a fight with my husband about it and he said, “You should do a comic book cookbook.” And the lights just went off for both of us. We saw it in our heads, and that is what you see on the page today. Within the narrative, we do give a history of vegetarian cooking and also a foundation that I think is missing in a lot of the other books that are out there. We also tell the story of our own kitchen.
Do you think you’ll see any vegetable super heroes this Halloween?
If I looked out and saw somebody dressed as a vegetable, that would be my moment.
While we’re talking about characters, let’s say that the presidential candidates decided to have dinner at Dirt Candy. What would the menu look like?
We’ve always laughed about it here — because of the White House garden — we think, “Maybe they’d want to come to our restaurant.” But really, it would just be [the Obamas] and eight other tables of Secret Service. We literally could not get anybody that famous into the restaurant. I think if I were for cooking them, I’d probably start with the hush puppies, then go to the portobello mousse or the tomato tart. These are our most popular dishes, so they would be a really good introduction to non-vegetarians.
Even vegetables can be victims of popularity contests. I feel like I can’t get away from kale right now. Is there such a thing as a trendy vegetable?
Kale is just so popular. I mean, who are the kale lobbyists? Because they’re really good at their job. Kale is really having its moment, but it will be on its way out soon. I want to bring back cabbage. We have a cabbage dish on the menu, and there are just so many fun things that you can do with it. I just hope that people will eat more vegetables and incorporate them into their lifestyle. I feel bad for vegetables — they’ve been overlooked for so many years and they’re always pushed off to the side. Who wants to be the side dish in life? You want to be the entree, and I want to give that to vegetables.