We Chat with Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy

"From the beginning to the end it has to have a sense of fun. I want to put the food down and see my guests smile."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Dirt Candy is even tinier than it looks in pictures—the kitchen and dining room in their entirety could be the coatroom somewhere else. But the restaurant exudes personality and professionalism; ingredients are being stacked and prepped on every possible surface with diligence and care. The air smells like, well, vegetables. Which makes sense, as the entire restaurant is meat-free.

Chef/owner Amanda Cohen is a similarly tiny package with talent to spare. A tough cookie and fierce competitor (she was the first vegetarian chef on Iron Chef), she produces more than just whimsical food; her cookbook is a comic book, and she regularly opens up conversations on her blog about the restaurant industry—including reviewing reviews she's received.

But the restaurant is her first focus, and you can tell a lot of thought has gone into how she wants to relate with her staff, her guests, and their plates. As we speak, both humor and determination come through her words, and we leave feeling like we only got a glimpse of what Dirt Candy and Amanda Cohen have coming.

You've made it clear that you're not up on a soap box preaching vegetarianism. Why did you choose that approach? It wasn't so much of a choice as it was peer pressure—I was 15 and all of my friends were becoming vegetarians. I went home and told my parents and their jaws dropped on the floor. They were like, "You are going to die. You are literally not going to be able to live." 25 years ago, being a vegetarian in North America was sort of really rebellious, it was an extreme diet. So it was great—it was peer pressure and I was offending my parents. It was the best decision I've ever made.

But you obviously kept with it, so something really worked for you. As it turned out, I kind of didn't miss meat. I was like, "yeah, whatever, I'll just eat French fries." I wasn't necessarily a healthy vegetarian. And then over time it really stuck with me. I now eat fish, which happened about eight years ago. Which is funny because my parents are pretty much vegetarians now and I'm like, "You're gonna die!"

How did that happen for them? I think people eat a lot less red meat than they used to, and smaller portions of animal protein in general. I think it's more like the world's diet is changing across the board.

Fennel: fennel & sunflower seed soup, pickled mustard seeds, mustard green pesto, fennel pretzels.

What was the motivation behind opening your restaurant? At some point I hit this level where I couldn't move laterally any more—it wasn't going to be as challenging as I wanted. So I had two choices if I wanted to keep cooking professionally, which was either to open my own place or to be like, "You know what, I'm just going to go cook meat somewhere."

And there obviously wasn't someone doing the same thing with vegetables as you are now. Not at all. I still don't think there are many people doing it now. It's a blessing and a curse; I don't have much competition, so that means I can really succeed. But I felt filled with pressure; "I have to get this open, because what if someone does this before me!" Nobody focuses on vegetables. And there's just this whole world of things that you can play with and they're magical and they're so much fun for us. Everyday that we're like, "ooh, we had no idea this is how this was going to taste!"

Do you have a technique or style you feel rooted in? It's a whole mishmash. I don't feel I truly found my style until sometime last year, where I discovered that "this is what I feel comfortable doing and want to keep on exploring." And that took time and that just keeps coming with time—five years from now I'm going to be like, "uh, I just discovered my style last month."

Parsnip: parsnip pillows, watermelon radish, tarragon, parsnip biscuit.

Can you peg down what that style is now? From the beginning to the end it has to have a sense of fun. I want to put the food down and see my guests smile. My new mission in life is that I don't want food to be so serious; you sit down and you pick it apart and talk about it. I just want them to be like, "I'm really happy eating this." It should make you smile. It's food.

I noticed that even with the exclamation points on your menu titles. Yeah! It's like, Beans! They're great! It's fun to watch people order it and they're like, "How do I say it? I'm just going to go for it—Beans!"

You've been specific that you're not preaching about vegetarianism, but you do speak out very honestly about your opinions on the restaurant industry. What's the purpose in that for you? One of the points of the restaurant was to be really honest. We have this open kitchen where you can see everything that happens; you can see the floor. You can see us running to wash our hands all the time or tasting the food constantly. And when people come five minutes earlier than their reservation we're like, "You can sit down but we're going to fall behind if we deal with you." So we're pretty open about how we run the restaurant.

Around the time we started opening the restaurant, Top Chef and the Food Network were exploding and really glamorizing this life. But this lifestyle isn't glamorous at all—it's wonderful and awful at the same time. I just felt that there needed to be some perspective that was, "You know what, this is really, really hard and it's emotionally draining." And other people need to know that before they decide to be a chef. The feedback from it has been great, and we're so small and I don't have to answer to a lot of people, so I don't have a lot to lose.

What about reviewing your reviews, and commenting on events and such? I'm tying to open the conversation up a bit because it does seem really one-sided. You get this sort of very Yelp/Open Table/MenuPages/blogger side of the picture, and you don't really hear about what it's like to be the person on the other end. As a chef, it's really trying to get reviewed every single day no matter what the outlet is. And sometimes it just feels that it's "us versus them."

It'd be nice if it was (and this is so Pollyanna) "us all sort of together" instead of, "I wanted to go to your restaurant and it sucked and now I hate you and I'm going to do something really mean." And I want to say, "hey, just talk to me! Talk to me! We're people."

Onion: scallion pancakes, pearl onion rings, grilled scallion salad, Thai basil cream.

Does that attitude get translated into the dining room? We're able to do it because I think for the most part I'm here, and we try to talk to every single table. Part of it is that once guests are here, the least important part of their experience is the food. If you don't like the food, please tell us and let us fix it for you. That's my job as the restaurateur, not just as the chef. I can't fix you liking the food but I can fix your feelings around it. I want people to come here and be happy, be it through the food or through the experience.

With all the angst and drama that comes with being a chef, and all the outside work you do, what keeps you grounded? This place. Knowing that I'm coming in here almost every day and cooking every night, this is what centers all that. And this is the most important thing. It's something that a lot of chefs struggle with these days; how do you balance cooking in your restaurant and doing all this sort of extra media stuff that you have to do now. You have to. But I'll push all that aside if there's a problem here; whatever it is, this is the most important thing. And I like coming here: I like the restaurant and I like the people I work with, so it's like coming to work with your best friends every day.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about food and people and builds allergy-sensitive sweet recipes for her dough. She's alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.

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