Amanda Cohen took the New York City restaurant scene by storm in 2008 when she opened vegetable-focused Dirt Candy. At a time when vegetables were considered little more than a side dish, this aspiring chef took it upon herself to show the world the potential of plants.
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Amanda Cohen is the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, the award-winning vegetable-focused restaurant in New York City’s Lower East Side. When asked how she got her start in the culinary world, Cohen says, “I realized that I needed to do something with my life. Since cooking was the only thing I had ever really cared about, I enrolled in the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Chef’s Training Program.” Six months later, Cohen began interning just about everywhere she could. She became a private chef and “worked in pretty much every vegetarian restaurant in New York City,” she says.
Through this work, Cohen realized that no matter how many restaurants she worked in, she was never going to find a restaurant that let her cook the way she wanted to cook. “I thought so many more things could be done with vegetables than people were doing at the time. To be honest, I thought most of the vegetarian food I was seeing in restaurants at the time was deeply unadventurous.” That’s when Cohen decided to open Dirt Candy, to finally do vegetables her way.
“For a long, long time most vegetarian food was about saying ‘no’ to meat without saying ‘yes’ to vegetables. I don’t want to cook vegetarian food. I want to celebrate vegetables. I want to push them further, liberate their tastes from their textures, show people that they can taste better and be more interesting than they ever imagined,” says Cohen.
This passion for the potential of vegetables led to Dirt Candy to be considered the leader of the restaurant industry’s vegetable-forward movement. The restaurant’s original 18-seat restaurant was open for six years. In that time, it also became the first vegetarian restaurant in 17 years to receive two stars from The New York Times. It was also recognized by the Michelin Guide five years in a row, and won awards from Gourmet Magazine, the Village Voice, and many others. Dirt Candy’s new location opened in January 2015 and was the first restaurant in the city to eliminate tipping and share profits with its employees.
“Being in charge of every aspect of Dirt Candy lets me tweak it and refine it and get it as close to perfect as possible. I’m able to take chances and try new things that may seem crazy but may also pay off. In addition, I can treat my staff well. Restaurants are brutal places to work. Rather than trying to make them better, many chefs celebrate this fact. I got rid of tipping so I can pay my staff better, and they can share in the profits. It’s not the smartest economic decision, but it’s the right thing to do,” says Cohen.
Cohen’s human approach to running Dirt Candy extends to the layout of the restaurant itself. The kitchen is open and located in the middle of the dining room. Cohen explains, “I want everyone to know that they’re not eating magic or some kind of luxury treat. They’re eating food, prepared by human beings, who struggle, and sweat, and fail, and excel, and are alive. Dining out, it’s easy to imagine there are elves in the kitchen making your dishes, but the fact is that they’re made it human beings. I want to remind my customers that while the smoke and mirrors of fine dining are fun, these are real people, earning real money to pay their rent. And I want my crew to see the people who will eat their food not as a faceless mass of ‘customers’ but as human beings just like them. And, finally, I want people to remember that their food is made of gnarly-looking roots and plants that come out of the dirt and they’re transformed into something delicious by plain old hard work.”
In spite of receiving acclaim, Cohen says it wasn’t easy to alter the existing perception of vegetables and vegetarian food. “People tend to regard vegetarian food and vegetables in a dim light. While there are a lot of reasons for this, I think it’s important to take responsibility for how we’ve let this happen. Vegetarian food has become about supporting a lifestyle in a lot of cases. As a result, we’ve retreated and allowed vegetarian food to become a backwater of cuisine,” says Cohen.
In addition to challenging these perceptions, Cohen says she faced an onslaught of personal challenges during the early years of Dirt Candy. “I had to deal with cash shortfalls, failing air conditioning systems, bad plumbing, insane landlords, customers passing out in the bathroom, and people wandering into the restaurant and punching me at random (three times). I had other chefs steal my recipes, and in the midst of all that, every night I was on the line for eight hours, taking plates to tables, and making sure everyone had a good time.”
These days, Cohen says she stays sane by traveling — a lot. Cohen says, “The New York City food world is getting more conservative every year because the profit margins are getting tighter. When I travel, other food scenes in other cities feel more open, and people are, to be honest, a lot nicer and [more] willing to take risks that New York chefs would never take.”
Dirt Candy’s menu is a clear indication of this inspiration, serving up dishes like “Popcorn Beets,” which are salt-roasted beets with thai green curry, and Shanghai Shoots, served with fermented black beans and crème fraîche.
When it come to the politics of vegetarianism, Cohen says, it’s not about that. “I don’t care about your health or your politics. Your plate isn’t a medicine cabinet, my restaurant isn’t a soapbox. All I care about is making vegetables fun. And I love doing this. There are no rules out here in the vegetable world and very little competition. It’s like the Wild West — there’s no one telling you what you can and can’t do. Every day I find something new to play with.”
In spite of her achievements, Cohen remains modest, saying, “All I can do is what I do. I cook vegetables. Every day, I go to Dirt Candy and I try to do right by my employees and my investors. Every night, I show up on the line and try to do right by my customers. I feel like a lot of young chefs think there’s some kind of shortcut or glamour to this job, but honestly, it’s all about showing up and doing your best, night, after night, after night.”