Saying "Yes" Instead of "No": Q & A with Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen is the chef/owner of NYC's famous Dirt Candy restaurant, which most consider to be the best vegetarian restaurant in all of New York. Amanda gives us the dirt on why we need to say "yes" instead of "no" when eating vegetarian, her inspiration, and more. Or you can go see for yourself at her 18-seat restaurant, as her delectable and innovative cuisine has even the most ardent of meat-lovers ordering up seconds and thirds.

MindBodyGreen: What was your inspiration for Dirt Candy?

Amanda Cohen: I had worked in restaurants in NYC for almost ten years and I was tired of seeing the same things over and over again. I had some new ideas I wanted to try and so I came up with a restaurant that would let me try them. Dirt Candy is my laboratory for cooking with vegetables and thanks to a lot of business choices I made -- we're small, have a low overhead, a sustainable price point -- we can take risks without having to worry about going out of business. I made sure that I could break even on the lowest number of covers imaginable and so we're doing well in the recession. In fact, we were breaking even before our first year was up, and now, thanks to our customers, we're doing well enough to survive indefinitely.

MBG: How did you come up with the name?

AC: It's a cut throat world out there for a new restaurant and I wanted a name that would be memorable. New York restaurant names blur a little for me: Hearth, Print, Eat, Table, Tabla, Motorino, Momofuku, WD-50, North 40, Eleven Madison Park. So I wanted to stand out, and it worked. People may hate the name, or they may love it, but they remember it. And I've seen it popping up all over the internet as people use it more and more to describe vegetables.

MBG: If a non-vegetarian came into your restaurant, what dish would you steer them to and why?

AC: I would say that about half of our customers are non-vegetarian and since there are only four appetizers and four entrees, I wouldn't do much steering. There's no room to steer! Non-vegetarian customers are always surprised at how good the food is here. I take a lot of care with it, we make almost everything from scratch and we make sure that it's decadent and luscious. That said, the jalapeno hush puppies (pictured, right), the grits, the portobello mousse and the crispy tofu (below, right) have become our signature dishes.

MBG: What's the biggest misconception about eating vegetarian that you'd like to clear up?

AC: The biggest misconception is one that we in the vegetarian community have fostered. We've advertised eating vegetarian food as being about saying "no" instead of saying "yes." We've made it about what you can't eat rather than what you can. Don't eat meat, don't eat dairy, don't do this, don't do that. For me, vegetarian food needs to be about what you can eat: butter and cheese, truffles and corn, eggs and herbs, shallots, tomatoes, chestnuts and chives. When you get away from this fixation on eating meat all the time in every meal suddenly a whole world of flavor and taste opens up. A lot of people who fancy themselves foodies can tell you all about French cuisine or tail to snout cooking, but what do they know about Chinese Temple Cooking or Gujarati cuisine? There is so much great stuff out there that's part of vegetarian cooking, or vegetable cooking, but so much of it's been ignored.

MBG: It seems like going vegetarian/vegan has been picking up momentum -- why do you think this is so?

AC: People say this a lot, but I'm not so sure about those numbers. I do think people care more about where their food comes from these days, they care more about trying to eat local and organic. They care more about food being fresh. And, to be honest, this is a real triumph for the mainstream food world: they've successfully sold this idea to America. It's now part of the culture.

MBG: Are there any food trends that we should be on the lookout for? Do you have a favorite trend?

AC: I really hate trends. Seriously. Food should be about what tastes good and what excites you, not about being cool. Being excited is geeky, it's nerdy, it's girly and it's definitely not cool. But I'll take being excited over being trendy any day.

MBG: Has there been someone, or is there someone now, who's inspired you as a chef?

AC: Not really. When you're a woman working in restaurants there aren't a lot of people looking out for you, and so most of the people I learned from were other women. These are people who work on the line and do the job, day in and day out, and they're the unsung heroes of most kitchens. You don't know their names because they never get the attention or the sexy profiles in glossy magazines. But these women (and I can think of four I worked with off the top of my head) really taught me that ultimately it's not about your ego, it's about doing the work. I've been lucky: Dirt Candy has gotten a lot of attention and is doing really well. But I'm standing on the shoulders of some great female chefs who never got that attention or that acclaim, and who never got the respect that should have been their due. Not a day goes by when I don't think, "What would Glory do?" when I'm faced with a problem. When I power through some pain, I'm thinking about how Jessica dealt with it. And there's not a dessert I make when I don't wonder what Debbie would think of it.

MBG: What are your favorite places to shop for produce/food, or other restaurants where you like to eat?

AC: To be honest, I have two days off a week and one of them is spent doing the bookkeeping for the restaurant, so I don't shop for food or go out much. And I don't do grocery shopping because I'm never home! However, if I had to name one place I still go, it would be Kalustyan's (123 Lexington Avenue, between 28th and 29th Streets). It's an amazing place and truly inspirational. As for where I like to eat? The Mexican take-out place on my corner. It's not great, but at least I don't have to do the cooking.

MBG: What's next for you and Dirt Candy?

AC: To be honest, I need to get better and I need to keep changing. Dirt Candy has a committed crowd of hardcore regulars who come here a lot -- I would say around a hundred people. And they're my bosses. They have amazing palates and they like trying new things, so I spend a lot of time thinking up ways to make them happy -- new dishes, new wines, new hairstyles. I hear some chefs complain about their customers, but mine are great. To be honest, I struggle to keep up with them.

MBG: If it was your Last Supper what would you eat? Where would you eat? Who would be there?

AC: Oh, god. Really? How depressing. What did I do to earn a capital sentence? Cruelty to vegetables? If I had to pick something then I'd pick an all-you-can-eat buffet because a) I love all-you-can-eat buffets, and b) I can eat a lot so it would never end. As long as I kept eating my last meal could go on forever.

For more on Amanda Cohen and Dirty Candy:

430 East 9th Street

New York, NY 10009-4922

(212) 228-7732

Dirt Candy on Facebook and Twitter

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