8 Things We Can Learn From NYC's Hottest Plant-Based Chef

mbg Contributor By Leah Vanderveldt
mbg Contributor
Leah Vanderveldt is an author living in Brooklyn, New York. She received her bachelor’s in communications and media from Fordham University, and is certified in culinary nutrition from the Natural Gourmet Institute. She is the author of two cookbooks: The New Nourishing and The New Porridge.

Amanda Cohen is the chef and owner of the phenomenal Michelin-starred, vegetable-based restaurant Dirt Candy on New York's Lower East Side.

Since 2008, Dirt Candy has influenced and revolutionized the way diners and chefs think about the foods that were traditionally relegated to the sidelines.

Amanda is unique in her approach to plant-based cooking (Broccoli Dogs and Mushroom Mousse, anyone?) and running a restaurant, and was kind enough to share some of her wisdom about cooking vegetables and running a business with integrity with mindbodygreen.

Dirt Candy is about serving really good food, not a lifestyle.

"I think of Dirt Candy as a vegetable restaurant, not a vegetarian restaurant. There are terrific vegetarian restaurants out there that cater to the lifestyle, but I’m not one of them.

"All I want to do is make vegetables taste as delicious as possible. And from that point­-of-view, there’s no stigma [to having a vegetarian restaurant] at all.

"There’s no other restaurant in the city like Dirt Candy that does what we do. For me, Dirt Candy has always been a hardcore personal challenge: can I make vegetables taste amazing without using meat as a crutch?"

Constantly evolving and experimenting keeps things fun and exciting.

"I’ve been a chef for close to fifteen years and by now looking at an ingredient and starting to think of dishes feels natural. I develop dishes by making them, then remaking them, then tweaking them, then making them again. It takes a while for me to get it right.

"These days, what usually happens is that I’ll see something or hear about something or eat something and think “What could I do with this? What would the Dirt Candy version of this be?”

"And then comes the testing. With my Broccoli Dogs I spent three months trying to make them work before throwing everything out and starting from scratch, which took another four weeks. I experimented with 38 different doughs before finding the one I use for the bun.

"And even after dishes go on the menu, I’m still tweaking them. Everything can always be better. The vegetable monkey bread each table gets at the new Dirt Candy has been on the menu for six months, and I just discovered a way to make them lighter and fluffier."

Some people like it, some don’t, but everyone doesn’t have to like everything. That’s why they make more than one flavor of ice cream.

It's important to be honest and transparent in your work.

"Restaurants are like Broadway shows that dazzle you with smoke and mirrors and sequins and stardust. It’s fun!

"But I think there’s also room for restaurants that are honest and straightforward, and when I started out cooking I was tired of the fact that the industry I worked in was so different from what it presented itself to be.

"So I promised myself that when I opened my own place I’d be honest. Some people like it, some don’t, but everyone doesn’t have to like everything. That’s why they make more than one flavor of ice cream."

Restaurant owners should consider an alternative to tipping.

"I’d tell [restaurant owners considering paying their employees a higher wage] to make the choice now before the economy makes it for them.

"There’s a labor crisis coming for owner-­operated restaurants. We’re going to have to pay our back-of­-house staff better if we want to keep them.

"We’re going to see our labor costs go up as the minimum wage rises and things like paid sick days and maternity leave become law. Reclaiming that 20% of your revenue held ransom by tips is going to be the only way to survive."

NYC is a rough place for the restaurant business.

"Don’t open a restaurant in NYC. Almost every other city is a less expensive, less insanity-­inducing location for a new restaurant.

"If you must do it here, keep it small, find the cheapest neighborhood you can, get a good lawyer, and prepare yourself not to have a life."

Women in the food industry deserve more recognition.

"I think it’s already changing, but it’ll take time. Editorial staff has to turn over, younger writers have to move up the ranks, women need to start getting more awards.

"At the same time, when you look at how women played such a huge part in the New York City food scene of the early 90’s, and you see how that disappeared in only 10 years, you realize that it can swing back just as quickly."

Find ways to be grateful for your food — even if it's not the best.

Her favorite meal? "Anything I don’t have to make myself. I have eaten some truly dismal meals, but halfway through I say to myself, 'At least I didn’t have to cook it!' and then I pour another glass of wine, smile, and clean my plate."

Vegetables are pretty awesome.

"My favorite vegetable changes all the time, but right now I’ve been working a lot with cucumbers since it’s summer and it’s been fun to divorce their taste from their texture. They’re actually slightly bitter.

"Vegetables are always surprising me. I took cucumbers, roasted them, and turned them into a broth. It wound up being the most perfectly umami­-rich broth I’ve ever tasted. Who knew?"

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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