When Amanda Cohen was growing up as a teenager in Toronto, she liked to think of herself as a vegetarian. Back then there were few of them around, and fewer still veggie-only restaurants. “You’d go out to a restaurant, and you’d get the world’s most boring vegetable plate,” she told The New York Times a few months ago. “It’s so depressing when you have to eat that over and over again.”
Today, as chef/owner of Dirt Candy, a restaurant on New York City’s Lower East Side, Cohen is making vegetables more than a menu accompaniment — she’s making them a treat.
The Canadian-born chef has been winning accolades in the Big Apple for running one of America’s most inventive restaurants. In fact, the 60-seat boîte is the first veggie spot in 17 years to receive two stars from The New York Times. It’s been recognized by the Michelin Guide five years in a row and won awards from Gourmet magazine, the Village Voice and many other publications. Cohen was also the inaugural vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef America and the first in North America to produce a graphic novel cookbook, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook.
Though vegetables play the starring role on her menu, she doesn’t like to define her establishment by that fact. “I don’t want to get lumped into that category, because then you become a lifestyle restaurant,” she told The New York Times. She’s also very relaxed in her approach to cooking veggies. She’s happy to buy them from a supermarket. “I don’t need the world’s best carrots,” she told The Times, “I just need carrots. If I used the world’s best carrots, your dish would be twice as expensive. We really try to stick to food that you can get in the vegetable aisle at the supermarket.” She’s also not insistent about buying organic ingredients.
With snack items such as Korean Fried Broccoli ($6) and Jalapeño Hush Puppies ($6); and mains such as Butternut Squash Scallopini with harissa labneh balls and green chermoula ($23), Brussels Sprout Tacos ($30) or Cauliflower and Curry with green-pea paneer, papaya chutney and pappadam ($21), Cohen brings whimsy to her dishes.
Not only does she want to make eating vegetables fun, the chef’s also intent on shaking up the status quo. For example, she’s banned tipping at Dirt Candy, implementing a 20-per-cent administration charge to each guest check. “Everybody here works for me, and I want to pay them a fair living wage that’s guaranteed,” she is quoted as saying by The Times.