Amanda Cohen is the chef-owner of Dirt Candy, an all-vegetable restaurant located in New York City’s East Village that is recommended by the Michelin guide. Cohen, who has written about food for Saveur, Eater, Salon, and Esquire, was the first vegetarian chef invited to compete on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. She and her restaurant have been featured in the New York Times, Food & Wine, and The New Yorker. Dirt Candy: A Cookbook is her first cookbook.
We sat down with Amanda Cohen, of Dirt Candy Restaurant in New York City and co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, and asked her some pressing questions. See why Amanda chose the name “Dirt Candy” for her restaurant, find out what inspired her to write a graphic-novel cookbook, and learn why she is oh-so-obsessed with vegetables.
TRC: How did you come up with the name Dirt Candy? It’s genius!
AC: When I was opening Dirt Candy I had to do everything I could to succeed, and that meant people HAD to remember the name. A lot of restaurants go for a name that is a random assortment of letters and numbers (LB-12), a foreign word (Mangia), or a single noun (Fork), but I needed something impossible to forget. I went through a lot of names but the whole “vegetables are candy from the dirt” thing really stuck with me and so: Dirt Candy. People may think it’s the worst name ever (and some people go out of their way to tell me so), they may think it’s genius (thanks for that) but either way, they remember it. And that’s what I wanted. Now I can’t wait to open my all-fruit restaurant: Tree Meat.
TRC: Do you have one particular recipe in the book that people just beg for at the restaurant?
AC: I try not to make people beg: if they want to exchange their money for my food, I’m all too eager to make that happen. But I’d have to say that the Stone-ground Grits with Tempura Poached Egg and the Portobello Mousse have become Dirt Candy’s most popular dishes.
TRC: If you could eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
AC: That’s a really mean question. I eat anything and everything, and every week I try to eat something that I’ve never had before. So the thought of just having one thing for the rest of my life makes me want to shoot myself.
TRC: The graphic novel approach to a cookbook is so unique. What made you want to go down this route, as opposed to a more traditional look?
AC: I’ve opened a couple of restaurants for other people, and one thing that always blew my mind is watching them write a cookbook at the same time they were opening. I swore that I would never write a cookbook before Dirt Candy was at least five years old. I figured if you’re going to add to the glut of cookbooks on the market you needed to have something unique to say, and I couldn’t imagine what a one-year-old restaurant has to add to the conversation. But around Dirt Candy year two, people started talking to me about cookbook this, and cookbook that. I dug in my heels and held firm. Then, one sunny afternoon, I was walking down the street having a fight with my husband, as one does, and one of us said, “You might as well be stupid and write a comic book cookbook or something!” And we both froze and thought: that’s it. Two years later, we get to see just how stupid this idea is. Is it stupid-stupid? Or stupid like a fox?
TRC: How did you get your start cooking? Why vegetables?
AC: I started cooking because I hit a point in my early 20’s when I was drifting, and I needed something to do with my life. Cooking was the only thing I’d ever cared about and so I enrolled in the Natural Gourmet cooking school, then I got my first job in a professional kitchen, and I just refused to quit. Almost 14 years later, cooking still hasn’t found a way to kill me. Yet.
I cook vegetables for two reasons, one is that I’ve been a vegetarian since I was about 14 years old, and while I’ve worked on lines cooking meat (I cooked it by sound, smell, and touch – and I actually was pretty good) it’s not where my heart is. The other reason I cook vegetables is because no one else does. Professional cooking is an insular, status-driven world and all the cool kids like to show off their pork belly and offal to each other; vegetables are considered beneath contempt. They’re totally ignored, which means that these days, vegetables are the Wild West of food: there are no rules. Dirt Candy is my laboratory and every day I get to experiment with how far I can push vegetables, and what I can do with them, and there’s no one to tell me if I’m right or wrong, there are no other chefs to show me what can and can’t be done. I’m out here on my own, riding this roller coaster all alone, and having a blast. I’ve been cooking vegetables at Dirt Candy for four years now, and I’m not even close to getting bored.