Since opening in 2008, Dirt Candy has been booked for reservations for weeks on end. Diners eager to head to the East Village to try out seasonal vegetable gems like coconut tofu and jalapeno hush puppies have to wait patiently for a reservation. Why are New Yorkers willing to wait for vegetables? It’s all in the love and preparation. Amanda brings experience from famous vegetarian restaurants Pure Food & Wine and Angelica’s Kitchen as well as plenty of non-veg spot to her own restaurant. Something’s working: Dirt Candy earned one of the prestigious 85 spots on the 2010 Michelin “Bib Gourmand” list. Check out our Q&A between NYU Wagner student Alisa Ahmadian and chef Amanda Cohen to learn more about making vegetables the focus of the meal. Then, get yourself a res at Dirt Candy for a special dinner!
NYU MM: You own a vegetable-focused restaurant, but you’re not completely vegetarian yourself. Do you think that there are a lot of persistent stereotypes about the in-superiority of vegetables compared to meat? How can we change this?
Amanda: The only reason to eat vegetables is because they taste good. My focus isn’t on converting people to the joys of vegetables, it’s on making great food. But people do come with a lot of preconceptions about vegetables and it’s my job to blow those out of the water by giving my customers vegetables that taste unlike any they’ve ever had before. When I make a cucumber dish I spend a long time thinking about cucumber, seeing what’s been done with it before, finding ways it hasn’t been used, trying to bring out its essential taste. Then I make it fun and unleash it on the plate.
NYU MM: Why should we be eating our vegetables?
Amanda: Vegetables are for thrill seekers. Think of how many steakhouses there are in the world. Steak has been done. But vegetables are relatively unexplored, especially in the West. You can still be surprised, shocked, tittilated and terrified by vegetables. Most chefs don’t care much about them, so every day in my kitchen is like a rock and roll rodeo because there are no rules, there is no one telling me how things should be, there is no competition. It’s just me seeing how far I can push myself and vegetables. Sometimes they push back, but that’s another story.
NYU MM: Do you have any tips for novice cooks interested in incorporating more vegetables and vegetarian dishes into their repertoire?
Amanda: People who are used to cooking with meat are often at a loss when it comes to vegetables because they are so radically different. Vegetables don’t use fat to convey flavor, their texture is more consistent and their water content is much higher. You can just throw a piece of steak on the grill and get away with it, but throw a pumpkin on the grill and prepare to have a lot of unhappy houseguests. Vegetables require more work, and there are a few things to remember:
-Most people cook vegetables too much or too little. Roast way longer than you think you should, and sautee way shorter.
– Use more salt and butter, or coconut milk, or olive oil than you think you should. Fat carries flavor and it rounds out a dish and binds it together.
– Hit your dish with some extra flavor at the beginning and at the end. Cook some onions and garlic or some ginger and onions in your olive oil before you cook your vegetables in it so that the oil has a little flavor. Use a splash of citrus at the end to brighten your dish.
NYU MM: What are your favorite NYC spots for good veggie-focused food?
Amanda: New York has an embarrassment of great vegetarian restaurants. Tiffin Wallah on 28th Street, or Chennai Garden or Saravanaas right around the corner, all have great Indian food. When I want my Cantonese Chinese fix I’m partial to the Veggie Dim Sum House in Chinatown as well as House of Vegetarian. Hangawi in K-Town is great for Korean food. And some of the best Sichuan food around is at Legend on Seventh Avenue. And if you want Thai, there are tons of vegetarian dishes at Zabb Elee on Second Avenue.
NYU MM: Having been to Dirt Candy as a vegetarian with meat-eaters, I’m curious about your personal transition from eating meat to eating only fish. What were your motivators for the switch and how did you do it? Gradual transition? Cold turkey?
I was a vegetarian for years and years (and a vegan for a few years, too) but about eight years ago I realized that the only way to keep up with other chefs was to eat their food and to eat the food they made that they truly cared about, which was rarely vegetables. So I started eating seafood. Vegetables are my true love and my real passion, but I think I have a professional obligation to keep up with what other chefs are doing. As for how the switch happened, it was pretty instant. I just decided that being a good chef was more important than my personal feelings and that was it. I still don’t like fish that’s super-pungent, like anchovies or bottarga, but everything else is fair game.
NYU MM: The Meatless Mondays campaign is about more than just cutting down on meat consumption: we’re trying to tackle some of the bigger issues associated with meat production like environmental degradation and scary public health issues that are unfortunately part of our industrialized meat system. I know that Dirt Candy uses organic dairy and eggs, is this part of a philosophy on environmental sustainability and health?
I don’t have a philosophy at Dirt Candy beyond making vegetables taste great. A lot of restaurants have a political or a health point of view, which is fantastic, but I don’t. I use organic where I can and where I think it matters, and dairy and eggs are one of the big places where I feel like you can tell a difference.
NYU MM: What are your recommended “must-eats” for a first time visit to Dirt Candy?
Some of the most popular dishes here are the Stone-Ground Grits with Tempura Poached Egg (or Tempura Watercress if you’re a vegan), Pickled Shiitakes, and Huitlacoche. There’s also the Swiss Chard Gnocchi, which is made with Caramelized Yogurt and Garlic Granola. And the Roast Carrot Buns are a big favorite. But the dish I’m the most proud of is one I just call Cabbage. It’s a salad made of about five different kinds of cabbage, each one prepared with a different technique, and fried wontons that are made with cabbage juice so they’re purple. It was a blast to put together and because cabbage is no one’s idea of a favorite food I always get a kick out of converting people to the cabbage cause.