Amanda Cohen: chef interview
Introducing Amanda Cohen, whose flavour-first, rock’n’roll approach to vegetarian cooking has won her fans (omnivores and veggies alike) across New York
Check out our expert interview with chef Amanda Cohen. Expect southern-influenced hush puppies with maple butter, kimchi doughnuts and celery cheesecake with celeriac ice cream. Interview conducted by Hilary Armstrong.
Amanda Cohen’s five-year-old self, as seen on the pages of her genre-bending graphic-novel-slash-cookbook, screws up her face and says: “I hate vegetables.” Poor little Amanda. She’d be shocked to see how things turned out, for fast-forward to 2017 and she’s grown up to become New York’s reigning queen of vegetarian cuisine.
She came to the attention of New York diners – vegan, vegetarian and omnivore alike – soon after opening her pioneering ‘vegetable-forward’ restaurant Dirt Candy in its original, pocket-sized form in New York’s East Village in 2008. Amanda puts the early raves down to her signature dish: a rich, decadent, foie gras-esque portobello mousse that is the antithesis of the hair shirt and Birkenstocks School of veggie cooking. But to ascribe her fame entirely to her cooking would be to underestimate the myriad other ways in which Amanda is, frankly, rad: she was the first vegetarian chef on Iron Chef America; hers was the first NYC restaurant to eliminate tipping and to share profits with employees; and she’s a prolific writer and speaker unafraid to tell it how she sees it.
Her restaurant, now in larger Lower East Side premises, is no patchouli-scented temple of tempeh. “Dirt Candy isn’t a lifestyle restaurant,” asserts Amanda. “We’re much more of a destination foodie restaurant than one that caters to the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle. I’ve always said, ‘I don’t care about your health, I don’t care how you feel about the environment, about animals. That’s not my job. My job is to serve you the most delicious vegetables’. Whatever my politics might be, that’s certainly not evident in the restaurant. I’m a chef. This is a chef-driven restaurant.”
Amanda’s conversion to vegetarianism came at the age of 15 in Toronto, where she grew up. She buckled to peer pressure, she freely admits. “One day all my friends were like, ‘We’re vegetarians now’, so I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m a vegetarian too’.” She hit upon cooking as a career after graduating from NYU when, bitten by the travel bug, she sought a skill that could take her around the world. She went to culinary school, started working in kitchens and, she says with a smile, “ultimately never really travelled again”.
With the exception of two years “frying chicken wings” in a Harlem diner, Cohen has spent her career in vegetarian restaurants. The impetus behind Dirt Candy was a posh dinner at a swanky New York restaurant. “The chef had promised me this grand vegetarian tasting and my parents were having the regular tasting. They were getting glorious course after course, and I was actually getting salad after salad. I couldn’t understand it. Do you just not care about the vegetarian? Oh. People actually don’t.”
The experience moved her to do better. “I had this moment, though, where I thought, I am never going to become a better chef until I can taste what other chefs care about, because I have no idea.” Her palate was, she says, ‘‘underdeveloped’’ and she started to eat fish. “At this point in time, I will try anything at least once. Over the past couple of months I’ve had ant eggs at Noma in Tulum, lamb’s tongue, really bloody partridge, raw venison…” She shudders. “I have put things in my body that I just didn’t know I could or would.”
Dirt Candy now serves around 50% omnivores, 30% vegetarians and 20% vegans, for whom there’s a separate vegan menu. The defining feature of Amanda’s approach is her resistance to the protein-first approach of meat-centric cuisine. Instead, she looks outside the French tradition to what she can cook, not what she can’t cook.
Dirt Candy classics include southern-influenced hush puppies with maple butter (she’s no stranger to the deep-fat fryer), kimchi doughnuts and Korean fried broccoli, while recent menus have introduced carrot sliders on carrot buns, ‘green huevos and no ham’, and celery cheesecake with celeriac ice cream. “My goal is to get people to eat more vegetables,” she says.
“Part of how we figured out our menu originally was what we could actually get at the corner deli. I’d like to say I went to the farmers’ market a lot there, but it was just me and one or two other cooks. We were all exhausted, the restaurant was too busy.”
“We’re pretty much a supermarket restaurant,” she jokes. “Our vegetables are pretty basic – mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower... then we just try to be really creative with them. A lot of people don’t realise how much labour goes into vegetables and how much time it takes. I have a huge labour force here.”
The approach certainly seems to be working. Dirt Candy’s on a high, the success of its tasting menu bucking New York’s fast-casual trend. “What I’d really like is to play with a larger tasting menu to give my customers an elevated vegetable experience. I’ve grown up a little bit, so I’d like the restaurant to grow up a little bit.”
Fans of the cookbook, a kitchen manual and laugh-out-loud read, now in its sixth print run, will have to be patient. A sequel is not yet in the offing. “I’m not sure I’ve had the next great idea yet. I don’t want to do anything that’s not greater than what we did before.” dirtcandynyc.com
Amanda Cohen in short
Favourite drink: A glass of white wine. Any.
Favourite dish: Chinese takeout on the couch, watching a movie.
Most memorable meal: I haven’t had it yet. I always want to be looking forward to the next meal.
Chef you most admire: All my cooks who have to work for me day in, day out. They have a lot of fortitude.
Guilty pleasure: Dill pickle Doritos. There’s a tradition of dill pickle chips in Canada, and Doritos came out with the ultimate ones.