Chef Talks Food, Fame and ‘Dirt Candy’

IMG_8264Helen Zhang Amanda Cohen at work in the kitchen of Dirt Candy.

In October 2008, Amanda Cohen, fresh out of culinary school, ventured into the high-risk restaurant business with a novel but untested concept: all vegetables, all the time. Not vegan, not vegetarian. Simply vegetables. This month, she will celebrate the second birthday of Dirt Candy, her restaurant on East Ninth Street that revolves around what she calls, “candy from the earth.”

Ms. Cohen ascended to food blog notoriety over the past year, thanks to her recent appearance on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” dueling Masaharu Morimoto in a battle of broccoli. Since then she’s claimed her own hash tag on, turned down the chance to be on The Next Iron Chef and gained a few admirers expressing their affection via Craigslist. She draws 7,000 visitors on the restaurant’s blog each month.

We caught up with Ms. Cohen earlier this month as she briskly chopped dozens of stalks of celery in preparation New York City Wine and Food Festival.

There are dozens of dining options for vegetarians in the East Village. How is Dirt Candy different from a typical vegetarian restaurant?

There are fish restaurants in the city, and steak restaurants, and you know, fried chicken restaurants, and we revolve around vegetables and there is nothing like us in the city. So we happen to be vegetarian, but that’s not our focus. Our focus is vegetables.

You’re no longer a vegetarian, given that you eat fish. Would you ever serve meat at your restaurant?

We’re doing just fine without it and the vegetables can stand on their own. Meat is such a strong flavor that it takes away from vegetables and we’re trying to show you how good vegetables can be on their own.

What ambiance do you want people to associate with Dirt Candy?

We’re known for being sort of fun and silly and having a good time. So that helps, we don’t take ourselves very seriously. We take our food very seriously but everything else not so much. Going to a restaurant should be fun, it shouldn’t be serious. You wanna laugh.

IMG_8259Helen Zhang Diners at Dirt Candy.

Have you ever encountered any sexism in your own experience as a chef?

I’ve noticed that at many restaurants, the females tend to be out front serving the food, but the kitchens are almost always male-dominated.

I mean there’s always sexism rampant in almost any industry still. I had one chef who was horrible to me, definitely because I was a girl. I was in charge of the prep kitchen and he was in charge of the line upstairs and he would say the meanest, most horrible, cruel things to me. And the owners would just let it go because they didn’t want to lose him. We would have screaming fights across the dining room floor.

But you stuck with it. There’s a perseverance required for working in a restaurant kitchen – there’s a reason why it’s called the “heart of the house.” What’s it like working back there in a kitchen line?

A really good line is like a perfect ballet; everybody just works in sync together. It’s really neat to watch. You’re not even talking to each other, you just know what the person’s gonna do next. It’s a really fun feeling.

Is it tiring being on your feet all day?

It’s intense, it’s physically super hard. And it is hot and you don’t get a lot of breaks and you’re always in pain and you’re hot and then you get these adrenaline rushes and you’re paying attention to the tickets and making sure you’re drinking enough water so you don’t die.

You have gotten a lot of attention on the blogs and on television and become quite the food personality. Is there a down side? We couldn’t help but notice the “Missed Connection” ad that a fan posted about you on Craigslist.

It was very weird and very surprising and very sweet. And then it’s sort of weird when maybe part of your personal life is picked up on a food website. Then you think, maybe I am a little more known in the public than I thought I was. No more falling down drunk on the street.