Chef Amanda Cohen begins her day three times. There’s the first start, when she wakes up at 6 a.m. to exercise. At 10 a.m., it starts anew when she gets to Dirt Candy, her Lower East Side vegetarian restaurant, to do a kitchen walk-through, answer emails, and talk to Dirt writers like me on the phone about how she spends her days. And then finally there’s the 5:30 p.m. start, when the restaurant opens to customers and she does “the job I actually get paid for.”
And she’s been doing it for a while now: 2018 marks a decade in the life of the restaurant that first opened at 430 East 9th Street in October of 2008 in the teeny-tiny space now occupied by Superiority Burger. Dirt Candy moved to its current, much bigger location on Allen Street in 2015, and last fall the restaurant mutated again, switching from an à la carte menu to two tasting options: the five-course Vegetable Patch ($57), or the nine- to ten-course Vegetable Garden ($83). A wine director, Lauren Friel, has been brought in to establish a more robust list, featuring all-women producers, and the whole affair now seems more worthy of both the expansive space, which seats about sixty, and Cohen’s food, which is at once whimsical and deeply considered.
“Most of our regulars have been with us since the very beginning,” says Cohen, “and when we made this new change, they were like, ‘You know, it’s weird, but this feels so much more like the old Dirty Candy.’
“One of the things that people really liked about the little Dirt Candy is that there wasn’t that much choice, and you had a lot of interaction with the staff, and it really felt like you were a part of something,” she says. Much of that intimacy had been lost in the 2015 move, despite the booming sounds of an open kitchen, silhouettes of flowers painted on the white brick walls, and a clientele open to brussels sprouts tacos letting you know that this still wasn’t a stuffy place.
Cohen, born in Toronto and educated at the Natural Gourmet Institute, cut her teeth in the kitchens of the late Pure Food and Wine as well as Heirloom — a few of the rare options available to her when she was a strict vegetarian (she’s since become pescatarian) — and has the distinction of being the first non-meat-eating chef to compete on Iron Chef America. The original Dirt Candy garnered Michelin Guide recognition five years in a row and received two stars from the New York Times. With the tasting menu move, she’s hoping to reclaim some of that luster.
“Early on, I realized I wasn’t a corner restaurant — a daily restaurant, a neighborhood restaurant,” she says. “People came to try something new that they wouldn’t come back to every night. With that in mind, I always thought we could be more experimental, we could do more fun things.”
About six months into the restaurant’s life in the bigger space, it became clear they weren’t making what they needed to, especially with the introduction of a no-tipping policy in order to pay all staff more adequately. “People stopped ordering appetizers and entrées; everyone wanted to share plates,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the best way to present my food. I adore my food and I know it’s fussy, and there’s lots of little dots, and that’s not necessarily the best for people to share.”
The à la carte experience could feel excessive, with the staff encouraging diners to order five or six dishes, which could seem daunting and disorganized for such a specific style of food: Even at an all-vegetable restaurant, it’s difficult to get people excited to open up their wallets for a carrot dish. With the tasting menus, you end up full and having had a much more coherent dining experience. Cohen says “99 percent of the time” customers are now impressed by how much food they’re getting for the cost, and she’s able to pay a living wage while still accounting for all the coals needed for a rather extravagant dish where diners grill peas themselves.
What arrives first during my experience of the Vegetable Garden is a tower crawling with nasturtium, the peppery leaves adhered to their platform with hummus. Savory green soups, topiary-like breadsticks decorated with peas, and small dishes of roasted squash round out the sylvan scene. A carrot burger comes out in a small box, as though you’re at a fast-food joint; the classic portobello mousse is as rich and silky as ever, an unpretentious triumph in the face of what most vegetarians would call faux gras.
The entire ten courses are tasty and compelling, especially when served with one of their bottles of pétillant-naturel (you can skip the cocktails), but there are spots where you crave a bit more salt, a bit more acid. We’re often too forgiving of how we taste vegetarian food, always expecting the least flavor where there’s no meat, but if Cohen seeks to leave that distinction in the past for good, bigger flavor would help.
Still, it’s clear that, after a decade, she’s gotten the confidence to put a fuller expression of her vision on tables. “I had a lot more to prove in the beginning, and that was overwhelming. Every time I put a new dish on the menu, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if it’s not good? What if it’s not as good as the last one? This is it. It’s going to sink my career.’ If you feel like a dish is the last dish you’ll have the ability to create, you put everything on the plate,” she says. “Now that I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I’ve had a really personal relationship with my customers for ten years, I’m much more comfortable in what I do.”
That comfort extends to her writing, too, with a recent piece in Esquire calling out the press for its unbalanced focus on male chefs that proved little had changed since she called out the same for Eater in 2013 (or since Marian Burros lamented the lack of women chefs in the city back in 1999). Cohen herself doesn’t get enough credit for establishing the viability of the vegetable-forward approach to dining we can now take for granted, which has been embraced wholeheartedly by male chefs John Fraser and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
She’s hopeful, though, that a permanent cultural shift is upon us, and that which chefs get attention will begin to even out along gender lines. “I think that we have enough concerned people who really do want to change it,” she says. “At this point, I have to believe that we’re not going to let it go again. People should be worried. That’s a good thing. If you’re worried, you probably won’t do something wrong.” And if a vegetable restaurant can survive a decade in New York, anything is possible.
86 Allen Street
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 19, 2018