Charmed by Amanda Cohen

Though Dirt Candy has been my favorite restaurant for a while, I might have recently formed a girl-crush on its Executive Chef Amanda Cohen.  Aside from being cute and all, she’s full of vibrant passion and yet still retains a bit of an outspoken edge. But what really does it for me is her take on vegetarian cuisine. While I respect those who adopt the lifestyle for political, ethical, religious, environmental and/or health reasons, I didn’t grow up with any those associations. Honestly, vegetarianism was simply the way I grew up and I didn’t really feel the necessity to question it much in my youth. But contrary to anyone I’ve met before, Chef Cohen became a vegetarian in order to rebel. Yes, you read that right.  What a badass! And besides that, her food is still out of this world. Off the current menu, the steamed carrot buns, eggplant fettuccine and especially the fried green tomatoes blew me away.  And of course, the staples that I love are still on the menu, including the jalapeno hush puppies, the Portobello mouse, and the crispy tofu. Anyway, to find out more on how I was won over by this petite fireball, check out the interview after the jump.

Your food is so eclectic and doesn’t fall into any one ethnic type. How do you decide what makes it on the plate?

I grew up on all different kinds of food. I’ve lived all over the world at various times and I’m really lucky: I can put all of these influences into one dish. People talk about it a lot as fusion cuisine, but to me it’s just food. It’s not even different kinds of cuisines; it’s what’s available in your neighborhood.

So how then, do you categorize your food? If it’s not fusion, then most people would call it vegetarian. What’s your take?

We think of ourselves as a vegetable restaurant, not just a vegetarian restaurant. We do whatever we can to make vegetables taste really good. A year and a half of working specifically with vegetables, we’ve learned that vegetables are really unique and sometimes don’t have a lot of flavor. So we do whatever we can to bring out the most flavor.

You became a vegetarian at the age of 15. But you clearly didn’t make this change for healthy-related, political or ethical reasons. Why did you become a vegetarian?

All my friends were vegetarians. It was peer pressure. I know…most people have friends that pressure them to drink or smoke. But I had friends who were all vegetarians.

Umm…where was this?

It was in Toronto in the very late eighties and early nineties. Believe it or not, it was the trendy thing to do back then. It was how you rebelled. And I wasn’t really a big meat-eater as a kid, so it wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t for health or politics. Anyway, I’m not a vegetarian anymore…I eat fish. But that’s mostly because I wanted to be able to experience other foods and styles of cooking at restaurants.

So you became a vegetarian and then became famous for frying Buffalo wings at a diner in Spanish Harlem. Yet you came back to vegetarian cuisines. What made you return to vegetarianism?

Well, when I was making the chicken wings, I was actually vegetarian. So I worked for years at a meat-centric restaurant as a vegetarian and I was really, really lucky that they let me get away with it. But basically, it was many years later that I became inspired to do something about vegetables. I had eaten just one too many vegetable plates at fancy restaurants. I thought to myself, “That’s it. I cannot have another vegetable plate. I just can’t.” I was tired of being charged $40 for a plate of grilled vegetables…done well, but still…grilled vegetables. I was just starting to figure out that there was something missing and there could be more to this kind of food, but I wasn’t yet good enough and  my palate wasn’t sophisticated enough. I knew I couldn’t compete with these chefs who do great work with meat when I couldn’t taste it. It wasn’t enough just to read about it anymore. So that’s why I’ve started eating fish.

So what’s your least favorite vegetable plate among those that you’ve tried?

Any grilled vegetable platter that has the Portobello, zucchini and the eggplant…It’s just so boring. You don’t have to go all out like we do here. You just have to try a little.

What’s your favorite vegetable dish?

I’m not a big favorites person, but I like the vinegar potatoes at Grand Sichuan. It blew my mind. The potatoes are half raw and really vinegary and the potatoes have Sichuan peppercorns in them. I’d never had anything like that and I thought, “Wow. Somebody is doing amazing things with vegetables.” I also love a lot of the Thai restaurants that do things like deep-fried watercress.

You don’t seem to be a fan of mock- meat but a lot of people think it’s needed to take the place of an animal protein in a dish. How do you make your meals filling?

It’s not that I don’t like mock meat. I think it has its place. I will eat veggie dogs…I think they’re great. I do think they make a meal more filling, but I think that you can’t do as many exciting things with them. Most restaurants see it as a direct replacement for part of a meat-based dish instead of doing something amazing with the mock-meat. I think in order to make a great meal, just treat vegetables (or grains or beans) with the same respect you give meat. If you put the same energy into cooking vegetables as you do meat, instead of treating them as an after-thought, you will have an amazing, filling dish.

Changing topics a bit, you commented recently about how you don’t think female chefs are being recognized. Who do you think should be recognized?

It’s hard to do a specific with that. I do think that women get overlooked in kitchens a lot and that there’s a boys’ club that is really hard to break into. The culinary world is an elitist place where the focus for the next big thing is on mainstream Italian-based or French-based kitchens. Those are the types of places that tend to be dominated by white men. There are lots of people, not just women, doing interesting things outside of that. You don’t see a lot of ethnic chefs celebrated or vegetarian cooks celebrated. I just think there are so many more chefs out there doing interesting things whom we’ve never even heard of because they aren’t part of this standard kitchen category. So I don’t know their names and I can’t tell you who should be looked at. But I know they are out there.

Speaking of ethnic chefs and chefs who sometimes get too much attention, I read that David Chang asked you to do a food stall for the Lucky Rice Festival. It seems odd, since he’s somewhat notorious for disliking vegetarians. How did this come about?

Well I’m not sure but I think it was because they needed a vegetarian stall. I don’t know if David Chang was part of the planning at all (he was there but I didn’t meet him), but I think they had read that for a while I was doing kimchi donuts, so it piqued their interest. I ended up not being able to do the donuts since I couldn’t fry in that alley-way. We ended up doing the steamed carrot buns that are on the menu now.

What are your plans for the future? Any new restaurants or book deals to look out for?

Right now I’m just trying to get through the day. I want to make the restaurant better. I think we are a great restaurant and that we do a great job every night. But I think we could always do better. There is so much more we could be doing and so much food I want to play with and I want to have more time to get creative before I think about opening a bigger restaurant. I’ve always had a problem with restaurants and chefs that do something sort of well and then go off to the next project. I want to feel more settled here and really put the time in to perfect what I’m doing here before I think about the next thing.

What expectations do you want people to come in with when they come to Dirt Candy?

None. I want people to come in with an open-mind about a different kind of experience. We are a different restaurant. We are small…tiny, really. The temperature is always wrong for the season, we don’t have enough servers because we can’t fit them in. Your server is probably going to be me and I’m going to look messy because I’ve just had some sort of disaster in the kitchen…while I’m in the middle of serving you, I’m also peeling beets and cooking your meal. With the food, I think it’s really different than what you’ll get at any other restaurant. You won’t get your three components on a dish. Instead, you’ll usually get one component done five different ways.  You’ll also get really different flavors. I don’t expect everybody to love it, but I hope it sort of opens minds to what could be done. We want to challenge our diners and have dialogues with them. We want to be interactive; all of our servers and cooks are really friendly and we want you to ask them questions. We want you to feel comfortable here and, though I don’t expect you to love it, I do want you to be happy here.


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