Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen: "We Have to Include Women in the Dialogue"
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.