Photo by Brent Herrig
“I just want to serve delicious food; and it happens to be vegetables” Amanda Cohen, Dirt Candy
Amanda Cohen is the chef and owner of New York City’s Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant located in the East Village. Her restaurant serves innovative dishes with vegetables as the star of the plate. Diners can find menu items such as “Cauliflower!” a Broccoli Hot Dog and “Beets!” listed on the menu. Amanda resides near her restaurant, which is relocating for expansion. The new restaurant, coined “Big Dirt Candy” by Ms. Cohen, will open sometime in November in Manhattan’s Lower East side. Amanda fittingly refers to the original Dirt Candy location as “Little Dirt Candy”.
I had the opportunity to chat with Amanda before she took her seat on a panel of chef’s and other business owners at Chicago’s inaugural Taste Talks earlier this month. Amanda is down to earth, opinionated and a bit shy. She doesn’t have a favorite restaurant in New York City and she isn’t buying into today’s hype surrounding restaurants and chefs as celebrities. She simply wants to serve guests a delicious meal when visiting her restaurant.
Ashley Gilday: What’s with the exclamation marks on your menu?
Amanda Cohen: I’m excited about food! I want other people to be excited about food too. It also helps the guest to understand what they are eating. When they see “Beets!” they know they are eating beets for dinner.
AG: You seem to have a great sense of humor. Do people get you or do people think you are strange?
Amanda Cohen: For the most part, people get it. However, there have been times when people think I’m being serious and I am not. I’m very sarcastic and sometimes when I am being interviewed people think I am being mean and I’m not.
AG: You offer your guests an option to make any of the dishes on your menu vegan. Did this pose any operational challenges given your tight quarters at “Little Dirt Candy”?
Amanda Cohen: Yes. It takes up more space to have a vegan option and a vegetarian option. Instead of having one hot dog bun, we have two buns. We have two kinds of mousse for dessert but most dishes were easy to make vegan by simply omitting one component, dairy. What a lot of people don’t know is most of our dishes are already vegan. We just don’t advertise it.
AG: Have you noticed an increased number in vegan versions of your menu offerings being ordered over the past six years?
Amanda Cohen: Actually, no. It has stayed pretty steady over the past six years, though we are definitely busier. More people are wanting to eat vegetables!
AG: What is the one dish that you serve at your restaurant that you were surprised that non-vegetarian and non-vegan diners absolutely love?
Amanda Cohen: The Broccoli Hot Dog. It tastes like a hot dog and…. broccoli. A lot of non-meat eaters have an issue with “fake meat” so I knew that vegetarians and vegans would love it, but meat eaters love it too. Many (meat eaters) have said they would never eat another hot dog again if they had this option.
AG: Do you cook at home?
Amanda Cohen: No. Never. I love to cook at my restaurant. I have a person that does the dishes and someone to prep the vegetables. On my days off I don’t cook.
AG: In your opinion, what do vegan or vegetarian chef’s need to do to make sure that the current interest in plant-based menu offerings continues to have momentum?
Amanda Cohen: It’s up to us to keep trying hard and to continue to explore the boundaries of this world and pushing past them by offering flavorful food. Veggies happen to be hip and trendy right now, so that’s an advantage.
AG: How do you address the stereotype that vegan and vegetarian food isn’t filling? What do you do to exceed expectations in that regard?
Amanda Cohen: Make it delicious. Make each course tasty and full of intense flavors and big juicy textures. At Dirt Candy if you order a snack, an entree and a dessert you should feel full. You may not be stuffed, but you will be satiated. I’ve heard meat eaters at my restaurant say, “Wow I am satisfied.”
AG: You worked at Pure Food and Wine when it first opened in 2004. Have you been back since you stopped working there?
Amanda Cohen: No, I haven’t.
AG: What is your favorite restaurant in New York City?
Amanda Cohen: I really don’t have a favorite restaurant. I frequent the bar around the corner from my house.
AG: I’ve heard people say they do not want to spend a lot money on a meal comprised of vegetables. Having knowledge of what it really entails to make a good meal and serve it in a large city, such as New York, is it really asking too much for a diner to pay $20.00 for a plate of vegetables?
Amanda Cohen: I don’t think so. When you come to Dirt Candy you are renting a seat in my dining room. If you are there for two hours, you are going to pay X amount to keep the building running. Vegetables cost money too. Someone has to grow the vegetables and they have to make their way to my restaurant. I also have to pay my staff a fair wage. There is a lot that goes into keeping a restaurant in business and there are people that are willing to pay.
AG: Though we may be paying what we deem as a fair amount for, say a filet, in your opinion are we paying an even higher price, in the long run, for meat to end up on our plate?
Amanda Cohen: I’m not sure, possibly. That is a hard question to answer and I’m not too informed on the subject.
AG: You have a new column in Eater,“Dispatches from Dirt Candy” where you explore and candidly share the realities of working in the restaurant industry. In the April column you said that “snobbery is replacing knowledge” when it comes to dining out. Can you elaborate on that statement?
Amanda Cohen: People have the idea that they are going out to a show when they go out for a meal. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors today in regards to dining out. The only thing that should matter is how good the food tastes. People are buying into the hype.
AG: What do you think of restaurants such as NEXT, where it’s a definite experience and has a lot of hype surrounding it?
Amanda Cohen: There is a lot of talent at NEXT. The people there are amazing. It’s fun to see chefs pushing boundaries. I haven’t been, and would have liked to have gone, for the vegan series. There is room for everyone.
AG: In your opinion, what are the most overrated, over hyped restaurants in New York and the country right now?
Amanda Cohen: I’m not going to touch that. It’s too small of an industry.
AG: Understandable – you bring up some sensitive political topics in your Eater column. You asked the question in the May issue if the people who serve you when dining out are worth what you are worth when it comes to pay and benefits. You also asked if they were your equals or inferiors. Did you take any slack for those statements?
Amanda Cohen: Um…some. Not everyone understood what I was trying to say. We don’t pay enough for the food we eat. I need to charge more money then I currently charge to take care of my staff. I’d like to give them benefits and pay for maternity leave, but I can’t. The restaurant industry keeps prices artificially low, so we can’t afford to pay our staff enough. Food costs go up and I’m not making a huge amount of profit on this restaurant (Dirt Candy). I have to charge my customers more.
AG: You offer liquor at your restaurant, right? Doesn’t that help with the margins?
Amanda Cohen: Yes, liquor definitely helps.
AG: You seem to have a knack for writing. Do you want to focus more on journalism in the future?
Amanda Cohen: No. I’d like to focus more on cooking. I like to share my opinion, but cooking is my passion.
AG: When not cooking, blogging or freelance writing for Eater, where can we find Amanda Cohen relaxing with a cocktail?
Amanda Cohen: The bar around the corner from my house.
AG: What is your go-to cocktail?
Amanda Cohen: White wine or beer. Or a really good bloody or Gin and Tonic.
AG: What’s it like being a female chef in a male-dominated industry?
Amanda Cohen: It’s the only thing I have ever known. I’ve never had an issue with my male counterparts. Most chefs are assholes, regardless of their sex. There is a lot of pressure being a chef. When we are working on the line and people want to ask us questions we may not be at our best at that moment. Don’t take it personally.
AG: Chefs tend to hang out with one another. What other chefs do you hang with that may be known for their “nose to tail” approach to service?
Amanda Cohen: Most of my chef friends are not vegetarian or vegan chefs. Last night I was hanging out with Frances Mallmann’s right hand man. He was talking about the pig they butterflied in ten minutes. I thought it was interesting. I do not flex my opinions.
AG: Let’s talk about the reopening of Dirt Candy. What factors went into choosing the new location on the Lower East Side?
Amanda Cohen: I started looking two and a half years ago for the new space to make sure I found a location that had all that we needed. The rent is more affordable on the Lower East Side and I didn’t want to go to Brooklyn. My base is the East Village and Lower East Side. I went to NYU and lived on 9th Avenue, so the area feels like home to me. The new location has a long, open kitchen in the middle of the dining room. This was a main factor in determining the new space. There is seating on all sides of the kitchen so guests can see everything, including the floor when food falls on it. And we finally have a walk-in cooler!
AG: There were 18 seats at the original Dirt Candy space. How many seats will there be at “Big Dirt Candy”?
Amanda Cohen: There will be 50 seats at the new location. We are almost quadrupling in size! We will have kegs! Kegs of beer, featuring local beers!
AG: Do you expect there will still be a two-month wait for a table at the new location?
Amanda Cohen: The wait should be less, but we hope to have a little bit of a wait list. It’s good to have a little wait.
AG: Can we expect any new menu items or drastic changes to the menu for your reopening this fall?
Amanda Cohen: The menu will be twice as big. We are going to start serving brunch and lunch! There will be some old standbys such as the Broccoli Hot Dog and hush puppies, but there will be a lot of new items as well.
AG: Will there be a grand reopening celebration that we should be on the lookout for?
Amanda Cohen: Yes, there will be a celebration of sorts. Not sure when or what yet.
AG: Where will you be eating and drinking while you are in town this weekend for Taste Talks? Are there any spots that you just have to try?
Amanda Cohen: I haven’t thought about it much. Do you have any suggestions?
AG: Why, yes I do!
Visit Amanda Cohen at Dirt Candy’s new location this November or check out her work on Eater or at Dirt Candy.
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