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Q & A: Chef Amanda Cohen Dishes on “Iron Chef” and Jewish Food

The Jew and the Carrot recently caught up with Amanda Cohen, the visionary chef-owner of Dirt Candy – one New York’s most acclaimed vegetarian restaurants – who took on Chef Morimoto last month in a broccoli challenge on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.”

Cohen, who put up a good fight but was ultimately defeated by Morimoto, built her repetoir at Moby’s vegetarian teahouse Teany and at Dinerbar. Two years ago she opened Dirt Candy in the downtown Manhattan, which was named top vegetarian restaurant and called “the future of Vegetarian restaurants” by the Village Voice.

This week Cohen chats with us about competing on “Iron Chef,” the celebrity chef phenomenon and her Jewish food memories. Next week, in our second installment, we’ll wrap up with Cohen on making haute vegetarian cuisine at Dirt Kitchen, rebelling through vegetarianism and adding humor to her kitchen.

Here’s a sneak peak at Cohen on “Iron Chef America”:

Eric Schulmiller: You recently competed on Iron Chef against Morimoto. At one point, you worked for Bobby Flay (another Iron Chef) at Mesa Grill, did you want to compete against him?

Amanda Cohen: I was actually an intern in the pastry kitchen for about four months. I would have loved to pick him! You’re sort of guided into who you should pick, but yeah, that would have been awesome – the intern going up against the Iron Chef.

ES: How do you feel about the whole celebrity chef phenomenon, which was basically started by “Iron Chef” in Japan, and the Food Network here in the U.S.?

AC: It’s crazy. I can’t say I don’t appreciate it… 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 about 15 years ago. Celebrity chefs didn’t exist then. I think, as amazing as it is, you start to get caught up in that world 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.

ES: Did you have any memorable Jewish food experiences in your formative years?

AC: 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… always around the dinner table.

ES: I had read that you were in the process of obtaining kosher certification for Dirt Candy? Has there been any progress on that front?

AC: Being Jewish and trying to get kosher certification is actually a lot harder than not being Jewish. Every rabbi that I talk to will not let me work on Friday nights. And I’d have to “sell” the restaurant every Friday night. I don’t mind doing that, as long as the restaurant could stay open, but I can’t not work at this point.

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