When Amanda Cohen opened Dirt Candy (430 East 9th Street, 212-228-7732) in 2008 — an era, you may recall, in which America’s love affair with pork was reaching maniacal heights — she emphasized that her spot was not so much a vegetarian restaurant as it was a vegetables restaurant. At the time, she says, it didn’t matter: People still looked at it through the vegetarian lens, lumping it into the same category as the lifestyle restaurants that serve up meat analogues. But over the past five years, that’s changed, and she’s been integral in pushing the industry to focus more on the food groups that were once afterthoughts and garnishes. Vegetables are beginning to have their due moment in the spotlight in every echelon of the dining industry — and Dirt Candy has been an undisputed leader in pushing omnivores to think more about produce.
With her success, Cohen has also gained a national platform to talk about the other issue about which she’s incredibly passionate: women in the kitchen. And with last week’s issue of Time magazine — which caught flak from the fooderati for its failure to include even one woman chef in its extensive coverage of the lords of the restaurant industry — her points are particularly salient.
The chef’s run-up to her current leadership role started during childhood, when, she says, she learned she loved to cook. She didn’t think about doing it professionally, though, until much, much later. “In my early 20s, when I was sort of floundering (as all 20-year-olds should be doing), I realized I loved to travel,” she explains. “Right out of college, I lived in Hong Kong for almost two years, and I loved being in Asia. I thought, I really want to keep doing this, but I need to figure out how to support myself. Maybe if I do this other thing I love to do, which is cook, I can travel around the world and cook. And I came to New York and went to cooking school and never really traveled again.”
Instead, she worked in the city’s vegetarian restaurants — “At the time, I was a very serious vegetarian,” she says — before she went away to cook at a summer camp and returned the day before 9/11. In the aftermath of the tragedy, she recalls, there were no jobs available, so she took a line cook position at a diner in East Harlem, where she had to cook everything. That didn’t turn her off, though. Instead, her eyes were opened. “It taught me so much about expanding my horizons,” she recalls. “It was a great learning experience about being on the line. The nights were crazy. All of sudden, I was a real line cook.”
She’d return to vegetarian restaurants after that, but she was becoming less vegetarian herself. After a meal with her parents in which a fine dining chef served her a tasting menu composed entirely of salads, she decided to start eating fish. Around the same time, she realized she’d need to work in an omnivorous kitchen if she wanted to learn about what omnivores eat. “It was a whole new world,” she says.
In the middle of the last decade, she’d reached the growth limit in the city’s vegetarian restaurants, and after a consulting project went awry, she decided it was time for her to do her own thing. So she landed her space in the East Village and began putting together Dirt Candy.
In this interview, the chef talks about the evolution of the vegetarian restaurant scene in New York City, her proudest moments at Dirt Candy, and how we can get more women into the kitchens — and women chefs into the media.
Talk to me a bit about the evolution of vegetarianism in the city.
For years and years, the only sort of vegetarian restaurants you had in New York were lifestyle restaurants. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at those restaurants, it didn’t matter what restaurant was serving so long as it was vegetarian. And up until the last couple of years, at mainstream restaurants, vegetarians were the afterthought. You’d order vegetarian, and you’d get a plate of the sides, and no matter what kind of restaurant it was, the sides were always the same. You’d get grilled eggplant, grilled peppers, a side of rice, couscous, grilled zucchini. Unless, of course, you went to an ethnic restaurant with a better idea of what vegetarians like to eat.
Here’s a fast history of vegetarianism and how we ended up these vegetarian lifestyle restaurants: The rest of the world, there’s this amazing vegetarian tradition. The norm is for the people to eat more vegetables because meat is more expensive — it’s a luxury good. It’s not that way in America. Meat has been a sign of wealth. So starting in the early 1900s, we had the health nuts, and they believed the only way to be healthy was to not eat meat. You had all these sexual feelings inside of you that were not good, and the only way to not have them was to not eat meat. So they had this whole idea of vegetarians as a way to save your body. You also had these ethical Jewish societies in New York that thought you couldn’t be a good person unless you didn’t kill animals.
There were a ton of these restaurants: The original Union Square was a Jewish cafeteria. Resorts in the Catskills were Jewish vegetarian resorts. Then in the ’60s, you had the hippy, granola, crunchy lifestyle start to develop. That landed us where we were. None of those eaters cared about the food — they couldn’t care less about what you ate as long as it was healthy or more ethical.
In the late 1990s, early 2000s, and even today, you started seeing a group of people who became vegetarian for different reasons. Yeah, it was for health; yeah, it was the right way to eat, but they didn’t want to feel like they were denying themselves. In the last couple of years, you have restaurateurs saying, “You know, I have this clientele saying, ‘I’m vegetarian, what can you do with me?’ and I can’t keep serving them this vegetable plate. That crazy girl Amanda Cohen is going to come kill me.” And now, mainstream restaurants don’t consider vegetarians to be this huge problem anymore — they’re building menus around vegetarians as well as omnivores. Vegetarian restaurants all of a sudden have to compete with mainstream restaurants that are doing better at catering to the vegetarians, so we’re getting better restaurants.
You’re also seeing restaurants that aren’t catering to the vegetarian lifestyle and are instead catering to people who might want to eat vegetarian once in awhile or might want to eat more vegetables. The important distinction between Dirt Candy and other vegetarian restaurants is that vegetarian doesn’t mean vegetable — it just means absence of meat or dairy. Here, we’re celebrating vegetables — we just don’t happen to serve meat or fish because I haven’t tasted meat with vegetables and thought, wow, this meat made this carrot taste better.
Since Dirt Candy opened, has the general population changed its perception of the restaurant of the restaurant?
100 percent. You see it in our clientele. When we opened, our clientele was 80 percent vegetarians, 20 percent curiosity seekers. Now, it’s flipped. It’s probably 20 percent vegetarians and 80 percent people who are curious to see what we’re doing; they want to have a meal entirely made out of vegetables. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have gotten those people.
Do you think the way you’ve approached putting together the menu has evolved?
Yes, but not because of the clientele. I’m willing to take more chances because I’m much more comfortable with what we’re doing. I think back to five years ago and think, oh, I was a scared little kid! We can be a little ballsier. We have a lot to prove, but people are more willing to take chances.
How has the broader restaurant scene evolved in the last decade?
It’s a constantly evolving species. In terms of the dining experience, you’re getting so many more casual, honest restaurants. You get to see more inside the kitchen, including what’s going on and where food’s coming from. People pushed to the side the theatrics of what the restaurant scene used to be like. In terms of food, we have a more realistic idea of food and farm-to-table. Five to 10 years ago, it was really serious. Now, it’s the norm to incorporate local organically grown food.
What about this neighborhood?
It changes every day. I walk to work and think, am I on the right street? It’s still really neighborhood-y, but I’ve seen so many restaurants come and go. Two on this street may have changed five times each. You still have smaller restaurants and smaller stores coming in. These are young kids who can afford the rent and are trying to do something different. The neighborhood’s not conducive to big restaurants. What’s the biggest in this neighborhood — 40 seats? Fifty seats? We also know everyone in the neighborhood, and that’s really rare.
Tell me about your thoughts on women in the industry.
It’s such a problem. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating my head against a wall because I see other chefs talk about it but not a lot, and I feel like I can’t be the only one who feels this way! I just saw this picture from Food & Wine‘s 25 Best New Chefs. They’ve been doing this for 25 years, and still there are only two female chefs in the picture. I can’t be the only one who finds this incredibly depressing. It’s not all about the magazines or newspapers, but they are the first step. That’s most people’s introduction to this world. If you are a woman, and you don’t see yourself in those positions of power, how do you know you’re ever going to get there?
What about the Time story?
I think it’s so disappointing that we still have to have this conversation. Fortunately, in the last few years some publications have made a real effort to change, and this kind of laziness is no longer acceptable. And, to be honest, the real problem with that Time piece was how lazy it was. The gulf between the world that article described and the world I see around me in kitchens and restaurants every day is huge. The Time piece did accurately describe a very insular, very rarefied, very small corner of the food world that makes up maybe 5 percent of what’s out there. To pretend that it is the only part that matters or that has any influence seems to reflect a general ignorance about this industry.
But the problem is broader media — this happens in many publications.
I agree. I think [Time] didn’t know enough about this industry, and they walked in on the middle of a conversation that’s already going on, got everything wrong, then tried to pretend that they did it on purpose. I think any magazine or newspaper that doesn’t cover the food world on a regular and in-depth basis could make this mistake.
What’s the solution?
There are two parts. One, the media has to step up. We have to include women in the dialogue. And two, you have so many women in kitchens — a ton of women working in kitchens — but these women leave, and they don’t come back. The industry isn’t conducive to keeping women in the kitchen. For all the reasons that it’s hard, this isn’t an industry that’s figured out how to get mothers back into the kitchen. The hours are hard, and there are no benefits, like insurance and 401(k)s. It’s not a long term industry. We have to figure out how to make that happen, and then you’ll see more women staying in this field.
Who are some of your heroes in the field?
Anyone who works in the field is my hero. This is such a hard job; it’s soul-crushing and time-consuming. So women and men who do it day after day are my heroes.
Proudest moments over the last five years?
One, that we’re still here. Five years, I feel like, is a long time. We’re here, and we’re part of the fabric of NYC now, and that’s very special. Getting the review in the Times was so amazing. We really didn’t know Pete Wells was in the restaurant, so it was nice to know that on an average day, we’re doing OK. And the cookbook. To have the book capture what we do in the restaurant is really amazing. I don’t think many cookbooks do that, and that was our main goal. Every once in awhile, I read a review that’s like, this book is crazy, and the pictures are crazy, and it seems like this restaurant is dysfunctional. And I’m like, yes! We did right by this book! We got it!
What are your goals, hopes, and aspirations?
We are thinking about expanding, and my only goal with that is not to have a nervous breakdown. (Editor’s note: On November 18, Cohen and her team are meeting with Community Board 3 in the Lower East Side in a bid to take over the space at 86 Allen, but she’s adamant that confirming that she’ll open a restaurant there is putting “the cart before the horse” since she hasn’t yet signed the lease.)
Would you open another Dirt Candy?
Yeah. I mean, I’m probably not going to open a steak restaurant.
Not a fast-casual offshoot?
Well, we’re already pretty casual, and we already look like an offshoot, so …
What’s the most challenging thing about working in NYC restaurants?
Size. All restaurant kitchens are too small. People call our kitchen a ship; I think it’s more like an airplane. There is no space here. The costs are really high, and that’s not necessarily food costs. I’m talking about electricity, rent, staff. We don’t make millions off this restaurant, and we can’t charge as much as we need to make this feasible for everyone who works here.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
Zuckers, across the street; it’s a really homey bakery.
Best place in the city for a beer:
Waterfront Alehouse on Second Avenue.
Best place for a special occasion:
Best place to be when you have no place to be at all:
Place that doesn’t get enough credit:
So much pressure. It’s like a pop quiz. Tiffin Wallah. I think it’s one of the best Indian restaurants in the city.
Person who doesn’t get enough credit:
Pressing industry issue:
Female chefs and tipping.
Person you’d most like to have cook for you:
Person you’d most like to cook for:
There are lots of famous people that I’d like to cook for, but I think that would be so intimidating that I would die. I’ve always thought it would be fun to come to my own restaurant never having been here before — I’ve always wondered if I would like my own food. Would I hate this place or love this place? I’m picky.
Person you’d be most nervous about cooking for:
Any chef who comes in. It can be a line cook or a famous chef. All chefs judge other restaurants. Some have been nice, and some have been like, “I could do this so much better.” And I’m like, “Yes, but you didn’t, so this is where we’re at.”
Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten:
Stir-fried pig snout. I was young. I was not a vegetarian. When I was a vegetarian, a bowl of congealed blood. I didn’t have a choice.
Dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life:
Bread and butter. I’m a bread fanatic.
Best bread in the city?
I really like Sullivan Street.
Thing you hate seeing on menus:
Something you love about NYC restaurants:
There’s always something new to discover.
Best hood in the city for food:
Whiskey or beer?
Beer. I’m Canadian.
They make whiskey there.
Yes, but beer flows from our taps.
Best place to get a vegetarian meal:
Thoughts on culinary school?
Yes. No. Both. Maybe. For some people, culinary school is great; for some, it’s not. You have to be able to afford it, because you’re not going to make enough to pay back those loans. As a learning experience, it’s terrific. For me, I’m really shy. I would have been so nervous in kitchens if I hadn’t had some technique.
Thoughts on the Cronut?
I had it. Eh. But I love his other stuff!
Thoughts on the review cycle?
Wish we all had more time, but reviewers are important. It was such an honor to get reviewed. It really does help your business.