At popular vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy, veggies may just be the new bacon.
Amanda Cohen is the visionary chef and owner of Dirt Candy — of one of the most highly-regarded vegetarian restaurants in New York City. Cohen opened Dirt Candy seven years ago to critical acclaim, and has recently relocated to spacious new digs on Allen Street in the heart of the Lower East Side, a foodie mecca and home to old-school Jewish classics like Katz’s, Russ & Daughters, Yona Schimmel and the Pickle Guys.
I spoke with Amanda about a wide range of topics, including her move to the new space, her favorite Jewish food memories, the importance of family and fun and how, in the right hands, vegetables might just be the new bacon.*
First of all, congratulations on the new space! What’s been the best thing so far about the move?
The size. That doesn’t sound like much, but the new Dirt Candy is approximately 3 million times bigger than the original Dirt Candy and that makes all the difference. We’ve gone from 18 seats to around 60. We have a full bar where people can wait for their tables, we have two bathrooms, our chairs now have four legs instead of three and, most importantly, we now have more storage. While that doesn’t sound very exciting, storage is everything. It lets us have a longer wine list, it lets us bring in bigger equipment to play with (like jackhammer-sized emulsifiers) and it lets us make the menu longer so we can experiment with more dishes.
Have there been any drawbacks to either the bigger space, or the amount of attention you’ve received since the opening?
People aren’t thinking of Dirt Candy as a new restaurant, but rather as a restaurant that’s seven years old. On the one hand, that’s flattering. But on the other hand, these are two totally different restaurants. The original Dirt Candy was basically an extension of my body with one server, two people in the kitchen and one dish washer, and I could see every single table (and hear all of their conversations). At the new place, I’ve got about 20 people on my staff and to get from my station to the furthest corner of the dining room is a half hour jog. So it’s been a real learning experience to make everything work in a bigger restaurant. But to my customers, I’ve been doing this for so long why are they waiting an extra 5 minutes for food? I get it, but it’s been like trying to figure out how to run a whole new restaurant while moving at 60 miles per hour.
The new space is ‘approximately 3 million times bigger,’ Cohen said.
You’ve received a lot of media attention since the reopening. How do you feel about the whole celebrity-chef phenomenon, which has skyrocketed since the days of your appearance on The Food Network’s Iron Chef years ago?
It’s crazy. I can’t say I don’t appreciate it. I can’t say it isn’t helping my career and Dirt Candy the restaurant, but it is bizarre — it’s not something I ever expected or thought this was where the cooking world was going to go to when I was in cooking school years ago. Celebrity chefs didn’t exist then. I think, as amazing as it is, you start to get caught up in that world — “Where’s my next interview? Why aren’t people writing about me?” — and you forget that what is important is your restaurant and being a chef and you start to get really far away from what your original goals were.
I’d like to talk a bit about your Jewish background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Canada, in Ottowa and Toronto.
Did you have any memorable Jewish food experiences in your formative years?
Yeah, I had lots. When I was five, I was on the front page of the newspaper for eating hamentaschen. You could see the smile on my face while I’m eating it. I’m, like, sitting on the table with my winter boots and snowsuit on, stuffing them into my face. Food was really important to my family, and that’s what the Jewish holidays were about. I have a big family, and so every holiday we would all get together and that would be close to thirty or forty people. And tons of cousins, and even in my own family —I have four siblings — so when we all got together, that was exciting. And that’s just one of those common stories, you know, it’s always around the dinner table.
And who did the cooking for those Jewish holiday get-togethers?
My mother, my grandmother, aunts & uncles. Everybody would pitch in.
Did you have Seders as a family?
Yeah, absolutely! Huge seders.
Any particular food favorites from Passover?
I have to say my favorite food was just matzo and butter and horseradish. And still those are my favorite flavors. There’s nothing better.
The crunchy, the fatty, and the spicy.
Yeah, all three together! And it’s so funny when you look at horseradish. Now, I think, on the tables it’s mostly white, but that bright pink color? Fascinating! And that’s so about the food at Dirt Candy — those bright, bright colors and bright flavor and, yeah, the fat and then the crunchy and all the textures… I think it’s one of the reasons that Dirt Candy is so successful — we appeal outside the vegetarian community, with omnivores and the like coming to us. They’re getting the textures and flavors that they may not have had before, but are familiar to them.
So there’s no “Omnivore’s Dilemma” when they come to your restaurant?
You were a strict vegetarian for sixteen years. What led to that choice?
It was peer pressure. I was sixteen and all my friends were becoming vegetarian.
So it was done in a social context?
Yeah, I’m sure my friends were becoming vegetarian because it was political, I was just like, “Well, it seems like a really good way to piss off my parents.”
[Laughter] Not eating meat was a rebellious stance in your house?
Totally. It’s not like my parents were force-feeding me beef every day, but it was 22 years ago, and being vegetarian wasn’t common then. Now, not eating meat is much more common — it’s not weird. But nearly 30 years ago, it was bizarre. People would say things like, “What are you going to eat? You might die!” Now I don’t think anyone would care. Now, I think if a teenager went vegetarian his parents would be like, “Yeah! I was a vegetarian when I was your age!”
Jews have often embraced the role of outsider and rebel. New York Times Dining section recently said, “There still aren’t many chefs in New York City who can top Amanda Cohen when it comes to thwarting our assumptions.” Do you view yourself as a rebel, either in the food world, or specifically in the vegetarian world?
Definitely. In both. More than just a rebel but an outsider, too. In the vegetarian world, we’re one of the few vegetarian restaurants that actually uses butter and cheese and eggs — most vegetarian restaurants are actually vegan restaurants, so what I do already in the community is different. We can make everything in the restaurant vegan — it’s important for people to know that — but just having a [vegetarian] restaurant that doesn’t have a political stance, and isn’t health-oriented — that’s really different in this community as well. In the regular food world, being a vegetarian restaurant is totally on the outside of it. We’re always trying to be like, “Hey! Look at us! We’re doing just as good things as you’re doing at that regular, mainstream, famous restaurant. Pay attention to us.” Because people don’t. They want to disregard a restaurant that is only about vegetables. You know, what’s really cool right now is still… pork. That is still the coolest thing. Even with all this talk about “meatless Mondays,” and chefs putting out vegetarian tasting menus, it’s still more popular to go out and eat a steak.
It may be hard to push bacon off that pedestal that it’s currently on in the food world, but maybe — who knows? — vegetables could be the next bacon?
Well, that’s what I’m hoping for, but from what I’ve heard, bacon is really tasty [laughter].
When you’re bringing vegetables to people’s attention as being worthy of their serious consideration, how much are you trying to surprise your eaters with the experience of eating vegetables, versus the goal of simply presenting something that tastes great?
Well, that’s what we try to do with every dish. I think a lot of what we do is about comfort food. The first reaction I want people to have is, “This tastes really good.” And that’s about being comforted. You want to be happy when you eat, and hopefully we make really happy food. But at the same time, I don’t want anybody to sit down at our restaurant and say, “This tastes really good, but I’ve had this before.” I’d rather they have that feeling at another restaurant. When they come here, I want them to say, “This tastes so good, and I’m really happy, and I’ve never eaten this before,” or “I’ve never seen it look this way.” I really want people to be challenged when they’re eating here. They don’t always have to like it, but at least they’ve had to reconsider what they’re eating, and what they’ve eaten before. Every dish here is based on a vegetable — a single vegetable. So, let’s say we have a tomato dish. We present tomato in three different ways, and it’s all unified, but it is three different ways. With that, I want people to sit down and say, “OK, I’ve had a tomato before, and this tastes like tomato, but what I’m getting out of it is, like, five extra tomato tastes that I kind of thought were there or I never knew where there but, boy, putting it all together — this is an experience.”
As a Jewish vegetarian chef, have you heard about the growing appreciation, even in mainstream Judaism, of the idea of “eco-kosher?” The idea that, as Jews, what we consume should be an articulation of our values, as a Jewish approach to sustainability. Have any Jewish diners spoken with you about this idea when they’ve come to eat at your restaurant?
No, you’re the first person who’s ever said “eco-kosher” to me. But one of the more interesting components of Judaism to me is how it is an evolving religion, that it’s not just stagnant.
You wrote the Dirt Candy cookbook in the form of a graphic novel adventure, and Gourmet Magazine once awarded you a Golden Egg for “funniest in-house blog.” What role does humor and a sense of play have in how you approach your relationship with both food and your customers?
Well, if you’re not having a good time at the restaurant, then I’m really sad. It’s like you’re at my house, and I’m, hopefully, a funny person. That just comes naturally.
Is your family funny?
Yeah, actually [laughs]. My father is incredibly funny, and so are my siblings. My husband’s funny. We all like to laugh a lot. When you sit down at my restaurant, I want to make you laugh; I want to make you smile. We got a lot of letters after we did Iron Chef about how we looked like we were having so much fun, and that our restaurant looks like so much fun, and that’s a restaurant I want to go to. I want to go to the restaurant where people are laughing and smiling and when you look into the kitchen you can see my sous-chef and I are laughing and talking. I think food has become so serious, and people are like, “Okay. This is my heirloom tomato. I must approach it with reverence and I’m going to worship it because this is the best tomato.” And I think, yes, that’s true, but it’s also a tomato. You’re going to have another tomato the next day. Sitting down at the table and having a good time, and talking to your server and laughing — that’s what should be important.
It sounds a lot like your description of your family table.
Absolutely. Every day, that’s what we want to recapture. My family grew up, and we can’t all sit down to dinner every night any more, and it’s sad. So, yeah, when we get together now, those are the best moments.
Eric Schulmiller is the cantor of the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore. He has written frequently about culture for The Forward, as well as The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Slate.