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Chef Amanda Cohen Paves Her Own Way at Dirt Candy

February 15, 2018 by Niree Noel
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Amanda Cohen at Dirt Candy (Photographed by Sean Tracy)

Chef Amanda Cohen, owner of Lower Manhattan mainstay Dirt Candy, doesn’t cook for herself at home. Her fridge is stocked with condiments and booze — she prefers white wine or gin. “I’m just too tired,” she says.

We’re sitting at a table by the window, which overlooks Allen Street. A man in a canvas apron arranges flowers, and several women in kitchen uniforms prep vegetables. With nearly two decades in the business, many sharp editorials published in the digital pages of “Esquire” and “Eater,” awards from “The Village Voice,” “Gourmet Magazine,” and “The New York Times,” and a super-cute comic cookbook, too, Cohen’s current concerns skew more toward fighting for gender equality and fair wages within her industry and less toward foot traffic.

Dirt Candy recently switched models from à la carte to tasting only, with two menus for guests to select from: the five-course Vegetable Patch and the eight-course Vegetable Garden. Reservations are hard to nab, but just because she runs a popular place doesn’t mean she’s resting on her laurels.

“We haven’t broken the glass ceiling yet,” Cohen says. “I’m not going to quit until we’re at the top of our game. There’s still so much more to explore. We were dismissed for a really long time because we were vegetable-focused, or because I was a woman. Right now, finally, feels like a really great time where maybe we’ll begin to be taken seriously. Maybe we’ll be allowed to grow to our full potential. We’re great already, but I believe there’s always room for improvement.”

Since training at the National Gourmet Institute and developing her culinary voice at prominent vegetarian spots like Angelica Kitchen and Pure Food and Wine (both of which have since closed), Cohen struck out on her own in 2008 with the first iteration of her now-revered Dirt Candy.

That iteration, affectionately known as “Little” Dirt Candy, an 18-seater in the East Village, gained cult status as one of the earliest restaurants to feature an exclusively vegetable-centric menu. That’s when Cohen says she was really able to push herself creatively and put herself on the plate. In 2015, Cohen transitioned “Little” Dirt Candy into a more expansive, grown-up version of itself. With 60 seats, a full bar, and a central, open kitchen, Dirt Candy feels elevated, enticing. Black stenciled flowers sprout up from plush red benches along the white-brick walls, subdued and a little sexy all at once. This is the type of place you bring someone with whom you want to share an impressive culinary voyage.

A restaurant reformer if ever there was one, Cohen has spent the last 20 years redefining the perception that vegetables are just a lowly side dish with her avant-garde, award-winning creations, from the clever broccoli dog (a cruciferous riff on that classic American staple, the hot dog) to her signature portobello mousse — light and airy with an unparalleled depth of flavor. A former vegetarian, Cohen knew that to attract a wider customer base and place vegetables on the fine dining map, she had to eat meat.

“I realized I was never going to become a better chef because I wasn’t eating what chefs cared about,” she explains. “I wanted to know what omnivores cared about eating so I could compete in that weight class. If I had my druthers, though, I’d still be fully vegetarian. It turns out, I don’t really like meat that much.”

I ask Cohen what it feels like to have global impact across industries, specifically after her tongue-in-cheek “Esquire” article which begged the question: Why are you talking to me now? “This is something I’ve been saying for twenty years: Why aren’t we covering more women?” she says. “That lack of coverage sends a hopeless message to future generations. If we don’t put women in the news, how can we look up to them?”

The Menu

Photographed by Sean Tracy

Portobello Mousse with Persimmon
“We wanted to take back the portobello, show how delicious it could be when prepared differently. This was the dish that put us on the map. It’s evolved over the years in both presentation and flavor. It’s been in a cube. It’s been in balls. We change the seasonal fruits, from plums to peaches to persimmons. We’re constantly dressing it up, like our little Barbie.”

“Brassica is just a fancy term for cabbage and its relatives. I wanted to do a cauliflower dish that wasn’t necessarily focused on the cauliflower. So I made a treasure hunt. There’s ricotta dumplings and grilled Brussels sprouts. Sautéed mustard greens and pickled purple cauliflower and shaved cauliflower and tatsoi and kohlrabi. And a really amazing, smoky tomato broth with a little bit of seaweed in it.”

Spinach Spaetzle with Shiso-Spinach Broth
“I was ordering spinach from my purveyor one day, and he asked if I wanted regular or lilac. I’d never heard of lilac spinach before. I got it, and it was so beautiful. We really wanted to celebrate that. We’d done a spaetzle (a German pasta dish) in the past, so I knew we could do that. We added interesting and unusual flavors: dehydrated German cheese, shiso broth, sesame seeds. When it all gets stirred in, this amazing party happens in your mouth.”