Amanda Cohen is a vegetable rebel. The Canadian chef founded Dirt Candy to provide a ‘veggie-forward’ alternative for the carnivores of New York City. With a passion for wine, a hatred of relish, and a restaurant philosophy centered around fun, Amanda’s personality is hard to beet.
CONVICTS caught up with Amanda in her LES space and got her word on drunkatarianism, problems with tipping, and brilliant choice of last meal.
Hey Amanda. Let’s start with where are you from and how you ended up in New York City?
I’m from Canada. I was born in Ottawa, raised in Toronto and I moved to New York for university. I came here about twenty-five years ago.
Right on. Can you walk us through your own culinary history?
Food was really important, but my mom didn’t cook a lot. I was the youngest of five siblings and by the time I was here, mom was tired of cooking, so I cooked for myself. It taught me to be self sufficient. My best friend and I cooked recipes every afternoon after school but I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef then. I wanted to travel for a living but needed to be able to pay for it. I thought maybe I could travel on my skills, so I went to New York, went to cooking school and fell in love with working in kitchens.
Were you raised vegetarian?
My family wasn’t vegetarian. I started cooking vegetarian food at seventeen. It was kinda rebellious – it’s not like it is now where people are cutting meat out of their diet. Back then it was really serious. My parents thought I was going to die and I was a depressed fifteen year old so I was like ‘Thank you, that’s OK.’ I ended up sticking with it.
Why did you make that decision? Pure rebellion?
It was peer pressure. All my friends were vegetarian. So I was like, I guess I’m vegetarian now. Out of all of us, I actually missed meat the least. I actually don’t like meat, I wasn’t a big meat eater as a kid.
Talk a little bit about vegetarianism and how it affects you as a chef?
Being a vegetarian back then was really sad. Now it’s popular and chefs are much more into vegetables and there’s a lot of exciting vegetables dishes. Back then brown rice, a side of red peppers and a grilled portabello was the only vegetarian dish at any restaurant. Being a vegetarian hampered my career and that’s why I stopped being one fifteen years ago. I had an epiphany that I would never be a better chef unless I learned to cook the other way other chefs were cooking.
What’s the philosophy behind your cooking?
I have no philosophy behind my cooking except making delicious food. It’s not my job to be your medicine cabinet, it’s not my job to be your politician or your environmentalist. I was the first restaurant in the city to really focus on vegetables. We don’t consider ourselves a vegetarian restaurant. Most vegetarian restaurants don’t focus on taste and actually satisfying the customers. I’m just a regular restaurant that focuses on vegetables.
Talk about the space we’re in?
You’re sitting in my big restaurant, but about eight years ago I had a very small restaurant, only about 354 square feet. I had kinda hit the end of my vegetarian career in NYC. I had reached the top level at all the restaurants and gotten fired from a couple of them. I had a choice to make – I could open up my own or start at the beginning again and learn how to cook meat all over again. That’s when I made the decision to get my own place. I noticed that there were so many steak restaurants, seafood restaurants and not a single restaurant focused on vegetables.
Was that your “fuck it” moment?
I had no idea if I was going to be successful or not. I had this idea but I hadn’t done enough cooking in the space and I had to figure out how we were going to be a vegetable based restaurant. We were probably more of a mainstream vegetarian restaurant at the time. But within a couple of months, we became very busy and it got harder to get a reservation. We later started learning new techniques and testing different recipes. The restaurant became more like a lab.
Walk me through the obsession and passion for that.
Each dish takes about three months of testing. We were always trying to figure out what people like about it, what people hate about it, what the texture is… we discovered that vegetables are actually hard to work with, they are not like meat at all so we had to find different ways to pull out those flavors. We have a board where we add different techniques as we figure them out.
Did you have a Eureka moment?
Our most famous dish is actually our portobello mousse – it’s the dish that put us on the map. It’s the first time I think people came to a restaurant and had a vegetarian dish that was very decorative. We figured out a technique where we actually didn’t cook the mushrooms because when you cook the mushrooms you bring out the water and it starts to break down. We figured out a system where we could blend them in without breaking them down and keep it really decadent. PETA actually gave us a $10,000 prize for a contest we won.
What’s the dish you making for us today?
Today we have our popcorn beets – it’s our play on popcorn shrimp. We are always trying to take a familiar flavor or idea and redo it into something new and different. We pair the beets with a Thai basil sauce and ranch dressing – all together they’re delicious popcorn beets.
How does your creative process work?
This is always the hardest question. There’s always one or two ideas on my mind. I use whatever’s around me, or things I see on the internet and I tuck the idea away until we start to do it. Right now we are working on a onion dish and pureeing onions and putting them into a pasta dough for a spring onion pasta. I knew I wanted to do that but didn’t know how it was going to work and what pasta it was going to be. You just start to fit in components and hope it tastes good.
What was something that you put together that didn’t work?
The mistakes are as important as the successes because you keep learning from them. Very early I had a cauliflower and pasta dish that everyone hated but it was really hard for me to let go of. I realized it was really important that no matter what I like, I had to listen to my customers, so that was a great lesson.
What is the atmosphere around your concept?
What we are known for- apart from our vegetables- is that we are fun. We are not a very serious restaurant, a lot of restaurants take themselves very seriously and everyone speaks in hushed tones. We are totally different than that. We have an open kitchen, guests can hear us cry, laugh and scream and guest really enjoyed it. Everyone’s friendly! We will talk to anyone!
Can you explain the “veggie forward” movement?
It’s about moving vegetables to the center of the plate. We don’t use any meat, we do use dairy but our idea is to highlight every vegetable and hopefully people will discover a vegetable that they never liked before.
Tell me about your tipping philosophy?
The US is one of the few countries left that still has a tipping system and it sucks. The front of house would make a lot of money and the back of the house would make nothing! Cooks make about $12-13 which is really low in NYC. So all the cooks were moving out of NYC and to higher paying restaurants with a lower cost of living. Not only did I want to pay them more but I wanted to keep them, so we got rid of tipping. All the money comes to me and the money gets divided out. It’s a much better system.
You described yourself as a ‘drunkatarian.’ Talk about booze and food and how they come together?
I mean is there anything better? I don’t understand people who go out to eat and don’t drink. Unless they’re sick or an alcoholic. They go so well with each other.
Who are three important people in the industry to you?
I can’t do that, I’ll have other people that are angry. I will say this – the most important people are the people who work in the kitchen day in and day out. The people who come to work everyday. My dishwasher is the most important person in the restaurant.
Action Bronson, Anthony Bourdain, Alice Waters: fuck, marry, kill?
Kill Anthony, have sex with Action Bronson and marry Alice Waters – she’ll always cook for dinner!
What’s your death row meal?
An all-you-can-eat buffet.
What condiment would you eliminate from the world?
What’s your beverage of choice and is there ever too much?
My beverage of choice is wine and no, you can never have too much.
Can you tell me why you chose the name Dirt Candy?
We struggled with naming the restaurant. We knew we needed something that stood out. One day we were talking about what vegetables were to us and someone said ‘vegetables are dirt candy’ and we were like ‘That’s it!’ We knew some people would hate that we had ‘Dirt’ in our name but we knew it was something that people wouldn’t ever forget.