Amanda Cohen has been a culinary pioneer from the moment she opened Dirty Candy on the Lower East Side. It was the city’s first vegetable-focused restaurant, the first to eliminate tipping for staff profit sharing, and probably the only dining spot in the world to say no to Leo Di Caprio. (Her original restaurant had only 18 seats and she didn’t want to turn away her regular customers.) Cohen opened a larger Dirt Candy last year at 86 Allen St.
How long have you had Dirt Candy?
I ran the original for seven years and the new space just turned one-and-a-half, so almost nine years.
What inspired you to start it?
I had a million ideas about cooking vegetables that I wanted to try and I realized that I was never going to find a restaurant owner who had the guts to let me try them. So I scraped together all the money I could get my hands on and opened my own place.
Why did you decide to go to the all-vegetable route?
There are thousands of seafood restaurants in New York, hundreds of steak restaurants, but not a single vegetable restaurant. There was a clear hole in the market. I haven’t had any regrets. Every day I spend playing with vegetables is like riding on the world’s greatest roller coaster while everyone else glumly goes around and around on a slow-moving merry-go-round made out of meat.
What were the biggest challenges when you started out?
Getting taken seriously by the press. You need a strong customer base and good press to survive, and while my customers have always been awesome, the press ….cling to their meat the way a tiny child grips his blankie for comfort.
Favorite vegetables to cook with?
I’ve never met a vegetable I didn’t like, but the biggest revelation to me was how essential parsley is. I never took it seriously before, but I’ve discovered that parsley is to vegetables what salt is to meat.
Toughest vegetables to cook with?
Rutabaga. When I finally defeated it and turned it into my savory Rutabaga Cake there was much rejoicing in the kitchen because we could finally all stop beating our heads against rutabaga. It’s basically a big, angry sweet potato and it’s tough to work with.
Are you a vegetarian?
I was a vegetarian for years, but I eventually realized that I would never get to taste what other chefs were doing as long as I refused to eat meat, because while they may be geniuses with chicken, their vegetable dishes were uninspired. My sense of competition is stronger than my commitment to being a vegetarian so I started eating seafood.
Guilty non-veggie pleasures?
I’ve never understood why anyone feels guilty about pleasure, but maybe that’s because I’m not an American. (Cohen is from Canada.)
What’s your favorite item on the menu?
The Cabbage Hot Pot. The smoked-cabbage broth we make for it is one of the best things I’ve ever created.
Most popular item at the restaurant?
In the summer it’s our Tomato Cake. In the winter it’s the Brussels Sprout Tacos.
Dish that’s become a signature for Dirt Candy?
The Portobello Mousse. It’s been on the menu since day one and it isn’t coming off anytime soon.
Have you noticed a shift in vegetarian tastes over the last 5 years?
There are so many restaurants doing so many different things that it’s hard to name just one thing that’s changed, but if I had to single out something, it’s that as mainstream cuisine has gotten more decadent in its embrace of offal and bacon, more and more culinary puritans have been driven over to the vegetarian side which means there are a lot more diners eating vegetarian who have no patience with pleasure. I strongly discourage them from coming to Dirt Candy!
Dirt Candy, 86 Allen Street, (212) 228-7732