Q & A: Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen on Vegetable Restaurants, Graphic Novels, and Bacon, Part 1
Courtesy of Dirt Candy
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.