Amanda Cohen is the lauded chef and owner of New York’s ‘vegetable’ restaurant, Dirt Candy, as well as columnist for Eater, and author of the graphic comic book cookbook, Dirt Candy.
Where did your passion to open a “vegetable restaurant” come from?
I love cooking; I love food; and I’ve spent my life eating mostly vegetables. When I started working professionally, and realized how few chefs cared about vegetables, I felt like there was a huge hole in the market that I could fill—even now, there are so many steak and seafood restaurants, and there’s just Dirt Candy and a handful of others that simply cook vegetables. I had reached a point where I was exhausted by how similar everyone’s approach to cooking vegetables was, and I was working for places that wouldn’t let me try my own ideas. When I came up with my broccoli dogs, I went through close to forty different kinds of dough for the buns before settling on one. It’s hard work, and there aren’t any short cuts. Opening my own place was the only solution. Fortunately, from the moment I opened, I had more customers than I could handle.
Why are the celebrated chefs so often male?
Women were some of the most famous chefs in France in the early part of the 20th Century, and New York had so many great female chefs in the ‘80s and ‘90s—Debra Ponzek, Katy Sparks, Diane Forley, Anne Rosenzweig—that in 1999 Marian Burros wrote a piece for the New York Times about the gap they were leaving behind them as they moved on. This industry is very good about writing women out of its history, and when women are quiet and act like good girls, and wait their turn, they get completely erased by the press. It’s no big deal, we just forget that it’s not enough to run a restaurant; we also have to fight for our column space all the time, too.
Does the proliferation of dietary restrictions affect your menu?
It doesn’t factor into how I create my menus, but it is something I have to deal with every night. We have a very complicated chart breaking down all the dishes we serve and what can be adjusted to address the needs of about 20 different allergies, and for people who are gluten free, and so on. It’s a constant juggling act and it puts a lot of pressure on a kitchen. Also, not to knock people who have actual allergies, but there are customers who claim to have an allergy when in fact they just don’t like something. It’s okay to say you don’t like a vegetable. In fact, I’d prefer you tell me that than pretend to be allergic to the white parts of scallions but not the green parts.
Are diner’s expectations changing?
When I started out, sites like Yelp didn’t exist. The internet wasn’t something we took seriously. It’s hard to ask people if their meal was good, have them say it was, then have them blast you on Twitter or some other outlet the next morning. But, in general, most diners are decent people who want to have a good time. The difference is that the whiners have a bigger platform. Here’s a Pro Tip: if you don’t like something in your meal, say so when your waiter asks if everything’s okay. Tell me you didn’t like something so I can address it by taking it off your bill or replacing or re-firing it. The last thing I want is for a single diner to have a bad time. I want my customers to relax, enjoy themselves, and have a fun dinner.
How have vegetables evolved from a side dish to an entrée?
Chefs are always looking for a challenge. Vegetables are the final frontier. Let’s face it: grilling a steak is delicious. It’s full of fat, which carries flavor, and the texture of tissue is varied across the cut. Vegetables have no fat; you have to add it. They have high water content to deal with, and their cellular texture is uniform. It takes a lot of skill to cook vegetables; you can’t just throw them on the grill. Dirt Candy was the first restaurant that really divorced cooking vegetables from a lifestyle philosophy. Some chefs who jumped on the Trendy Vegetable Train gave up on them because of how tough they can be, but some are sticking it out and doing amazing things. It’s been really encouraging seeing so many restaurants pushing vegetables further.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.