‘When you go to an amusement park, it’s fun ’cause you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy in the East Village. “And maybe not at all restaurants, but at my restaurant, we want to shock you.”
Since opening Dirt Candy in 2008, Cohen has been shocking foodies with alchemical vegetarian cuisine that can hold its own against even the most beautifully bloody cuts of Pat LaFrieda meat. She faced off with Chef Morimoto in Iron Chef‘s first vegetarian battle, writes a witty, tell-all blog, and was the first vegetarian chef in 17 years to earn a two-star review from The New York Times. Her long brown hair tied back in braids beneath a purple bandanna, Cohen, 38, is a blur of continuous motion at the tiny kitchen station where she cooks and oversees the 18 packed seats of her studio-apartment-size space. Dirt Candy is booked solid two months in advance—because that’s the cutoff for reservations—despite the fact that people don’t quite know what they’re going to eat. “We specifically make the menus vague,” says Cohen. “We want you to be confused and a little ill at ease.” The descriptions read less as explanations of dishes than shout-outs to veggie superstars, complete with exclamation points: mushroom! beans! corn! cauliflower! cabbage! onion!
Amanda Cohen does not make prim eat-your-vegetables vegetables. She doesn’t run a health-food emporium. Her food is not all organic. She won’t help you cleanse. She isn’t even a vegetarian. (She eats seafood.) But she is redefining vegetarian cuisine, fighting off pious puritanism with jolts of creativity and humor. “What’s so exciting about her,” says Anita Lo, the chef at Annisa in the West Village and one of the sisterhood of prominent women chefs in the city, “is that she’s highlighting these vegetables as vegetables—and making them in fine-dining ways. There’s something geeky about her that I love.” Cohen is indeed geeking out, serving up superheroic veggies that appear to have been bitten by radioactive spiders or distilled, dehydrated, deconstructed, and then rebuilt, Tony Stark–style, into something with 10 times the punch.
Fittingly, Cohen even has a manga cookbook, Dirt Candy, published last August with an assist from her writer husband, Grady Hendrix, which eschews wide-angle food porn for comic-book illustrations by Ryan Dunlavey: A cartoon caricature of Cohen explodes with rage, steams with stress, and transforms into a giant panda and a knife-wielding, maniac monkey. Maybe that’s why, on a busy Saturday night in March, as she whirls in her jam-packed restaurant kitchen, it’s hard to see her as anything but the mad scientist poised to unleash mayhem.
These vegetables are mutating. Behind her counter, Cohen slips mild-mannered onions, encased in dough, into a tiny telephone booth of a Danish pastry cooker. They bounce out as pastry balls, fluffy as Tribbles, onto a grilled scallion salad decorated with pearl-onion rings so minuscule they could have been fried by fairies. In her ridiculous take on chicken and waffles, she arms fried smoked cauliflower stalks with waffle shields and pits them against a powerful horseradish sauce.
A plate of mushrooms and bread points seems entirely terrestrial—except for the dull gray, gelatinous cube that Cohen drops onto the plate like the mysterious monolith of 2001. This sci-fi tesseract of portobello mushrooms and cream blended into mousse is her PETA Award–winning veggie take on foie gras, and its implausible decadence is a showstopper that regularly makes diners gawp and grunt like Kubrick’s apes. She even serves up a blockbuster finale that Roland Emmerich could love: Next to a miniature building block of eggplant tiramisu, a nuclear plume of white cotton candy explodes up from the plate, scented with rosemary. Boom! The End.
Afterward, one diner steps out onto East 9th Street like a bleary-eyed moviegoer, a dazed grin on his ruddy face and an autographed cookbook in his hand (“Always remember—Vegetables are your friend, Amanda“). “It’s vegetarian,” he says, still slightly stunned, “but it’s not suck-ass!”
It’s vegetarian, but . . . is essentially Cohen’s business model. When she opened Dirt Candy in 2008, she deliberately called it a “vegetable restaurant” instead of vegetarian. “There are all these pork and charcuterie restaurants, fried-chicken restaurants, barbecue restaurants,” she says. “But nobody’s really taking chances on vegetables.”
The space is so small that the wine glasses are tucked on short shelves above diners’ heads and bottles of wine are stored in hidden banquet drawers under their feet. There’s only wine and beer to drink, because there’s no room for a bar. On any given night, the staff consists of just Cohen, a sous chef, a line cook, a waitress, and a dishwasher—because, she says, “there’s no room for anyone else. Where would we put them?” All night long, she cooks, plates food, pours wine, takes orders, hands out menus, rings up checks, and answers phones—almost always to say, “Sorry, we don’t have a table.”
On a Thursday afternoon in February, her small staff is prepping on the dining-room tables—the only space available, which makes lunch service impossible. Cohen is wearing a tight black Van Halen 2012 concert T-shirt. “I guess David Lee Roth really likes us,” she says. “After he ate here, he sent over a whole box of T-shirts and posters, and invited me to his concert.”
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.”
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.”