Interview with Chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy - New York City

September, 2009

Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Amanda Cohen: I always liked to cook as a kid. When I was in my early 20s I was floundering and didn’t know what I wanted to. I thought I might as well try doing something I liked, so I went to culinary school.

KM: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
AC: No, not necessarily. But I think it helps and it’s really nice to go to school for something you love. Cooking school gives you a networking base. People from your class go on to work in different places and you can get in touch with classmates. It doesn’t necessarily make you a better cook, but it helps round you out.

KM: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AC: Try out as many different jobs as you can but stay long enough at them so you actually learn something. I’ve had lots of people pass through my kitchen for a month but you don’t get the full experience. If you can stay somewhere for a year you’ll have gotten everything out of that job.

KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AC: I think both should be really fun. We try not to take ourselves too seriously at Dirt Candy. We want people to come in, enjoy their food, and have a good time. Right now taking food seriously is the big thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the fun of eating has gotten lost with diets and all that. Clearly at Dirt Candy we don’t care about diets. You want to treat yourself to something special. It always makes me sad when people go out to restaurants and say “hold everything”.

KM: How did you decide to open your own restaurant?
AC: I had worked in many vegetarian restaurants in the city and many other restaurants as well and there wasn’t a higher position I could take in any of the kitchens. There are no restaurants that embody how I like to eat. I think we’re one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the city that incorporates dairy. Everything can be made vegan, but for me I like to dine out and eat dairy and there was no restaurant that focused on vegetables. There are so many kinds of restaurants—steak, seafood, sushi—but not the most basic thing, which is vegetables. Personally, when I eat vegetarian at high end restaurants the vegetables are never outstanding—they’re the afterthought.

KM: Are you a vegetarian?
AC: I was for 16 years and then I started eating fish. I had gone to so many different, great, well known restaurants and I was so tired of the vegetable plate. I realized that as a chef I couldn’t compete if I just ate vegetable plates. I needed to see what other chefs were doing and get ideas and be inspired. It was hard to be inspired by the vegetable plate. You don’t get the whole picture.

KM: Do people have preconceptions about Dirt Candy because it’s a vegetarian restaurant?
AC: In general people are wary when they first come here. We basically get two types. There’s the couple who’s half vegetarian and half carnivore, and the carnivore side hates vegetarian restaurants. But by the end of the meal they’re like “oh, I’m so full and happy!” The other people we get are vegetarians who want to try something new. It’s not the usual vegetarian restaurant and there are no meat substitutes. We’re not the vegetarian restaurant everyone wants. Some people want a healthier, more basic meal than what we offer and that’s fine. Our restaurant doesn’t have to be everything to everybody.

KM: How often do you change your menu?
AC: We’ve been a little off this summer because we’ve been involved in a lot of projects, but ideally I’d like to change a dish every two weeks. I’m not good at changing the whole menu at once. Before I put something on the menu I want to make sure it’s good enough.

KM: What goes into creating a dish?
AC: First I get some bizarre idea in my head of how a dish should be. Then I make it and we look at it. Usually it doesn’t work, but I can see there’s a germ of an idea and I just have to figure it out. Then we try and try. For example, we have a beet pasta dish that has fresh pasta made with the juice of golden beets. I knew I wanted to roast all kinds of beets and put them in a yogurt goat cheese sauce and somehow use the tops of the beets. I must have gone through 50 different versions before we got to its final incarnation. The yogurt and goat cheese kept separating, and there was a lot of up and down about how to use the beet greens before we finally decided to make them into a pesto. It changed a huge number of times.

KM: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go and why?
AC: Thailand because every time I’ve been there I’ve tasted something that’s new to me. Or India, simply because it has one of the widest-ranging and oldest vegetarian cuisines on earth, but there’s so little I know about the vast majority of Indian food.

KM: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
AC: I think opening this restaurant, for sure. More so than being a good chef—which hopefully I am—is taking everything I’ve learned from every job, putting it together, and making it work for this job. The building of [Dirt Candy] took a full year, and it’s tiny so it’s hard to imagine that it took so long. Dealing with people, the ups and downs of running a restaurant, and walking in and knowing I have to fix something and get it together for 5:30 every night is definitely a challenge. The fact that I’m still sane and here is my proudest accomplishment. I have become much calmer and accepting of things. And I’m proud that I still have people who like working for me and haven’t walked out on the job.

KM: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
AC: We’re almost entering our first year and I’m tired. It’s very tiring. My biggest challenge is staying focused. We’ve been doing this for a year and I’m so excited, but at the same time the newness is wearing off. Here we are and now we need to figure out how to make this sustain itself. We have customers and we’re not losing money, but I still have to pay off construction costs. All the stuff I thought I knew going in, and now I have extra costs and that takes a toll.

KM: How do you address staffing at such a small restaurant?
AC: We’re only open Tuesday through Saturday. I did that on purpose because I knew that I needed at least one day every week to deal with the restaurant and the bills, and I needed a full day for myself. As I was figuring this out I didn’t want the headache of staff. So we only have one server and no one is allowed to get sick. There’s no scheduling, no fighting. It’s like an office job but 2pm to 12am, five days a week. Everyone actually finds it really comforting. We have a back-up server in case of emergency. In the kitchen Jesus and I have been working together for five years and I don’t think either of us has ever missed a day.

KM: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
AC: The toughest thing is always letting somebody go.

KM: If you had one thing that you could do over, what would it be?
AC: I definitely would have tried to have more varied work experiences. I loved all the jobs I had, but my time as an apprentice in the kitchen is not going to happen again. So I wish I had taken the time to work in a pizza restaurant, or an Asian restaurant. Even though I could still do it, it’s not the same.

KM: What does "sustainability" mean to you?
AC: It’s such a vague word and people just use it. I was lucky because we built the restaurant from scratch so when I was building it I knew there was no point in not doing the right steps now. Also it’s not that much more expensive just to take a few easy steps. All our equipment is LEED-Certified. It starts to seem funny as you’re choosing because it’s not that expensive. We looked for green material in building the restaurant. We have a green laundry company and our pest services are green. Some are cheaper and some are more expensive but it balances out. In the kitchen we have an induction stove and part of the reason we got it is because it fit in the restaurant, but also when I was researching stoves I needed to think about how to keep the restaurant cool, so I looked into induction stoves. And they let off so much less heat that I could keep my kitchen cooler. And now I would never want to cook on another type of stove. I think one day all kitchens will work with induction. They’re faster, easier to clean, and less expensive than a regular stove.

KM: How important are "local" and "organic" at Dirt Candy?
AC: It’s as important as it can be cost-wise to me. I try my best. Half of my dry goods are organic. When I can get local and organic produce I do; I would rather get New York strawberries than Californian But here’s the problem with organic produce: all the organic purveyors have minimums and I can’t ever meet the minimum. We have to get produce daily because of storage. I have to run a restaurant and be cost effective, so I can’t always go to the greenmarket. If you can then that’s great, and whatever you can get that’s local and organic, great. But at the same time we’re never going to grow lemons in New York State and I don’t want to stop using lemons. We make decisions every day.

KM: How do you pass the message of Dirt Candy on to your diners?
AC: We have my blog. I try to keep everybody as up to date as possible with what’s happening in the restaurant. Part of our package isn’t about how green we are, because my philosophy is that you shouldn’t have to talk about it, you just should be. I’m at the restaurant every day. I answer the phone more often than not so customers get to talk to me. It’s either me or Kristin serving. And people love coming up and asking how I make things.

By virtue of having the open kitchen and being so small the message gets out. I also think one of the big messages at Dirt Candy is to have fun. Once you sit in the restaurant you get the message. If not, it’s not for you. We’ve had people come in and it’s so small that they’re like “I can’t do this”, but they sit down and all of that disappears. The place is great and I love my food and all that. You have to come to get the message and see what we do. It’s a funny little place.

KM: What trends do you see emerging?
AC: I definitely think small restaurants, and not just because I have a tiny one. I think the days of having a restaurant with a huge menu, a huge wine list, and so many choices are waning. Right now people enjoy going to places with an opinion or a view. They like to have a wine list that’s really thought out. Or a menu with only eight appetizers and entrees. They’re like, “this is their point of view, let me explore it.”

KM: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
AC: Well, right now I don’t see very far. The restaurant is all-encompassing. We are involved with lots of charity events in the city. We’re going to do some specialty nights in the fall. In terms of the actual culinary community we get lots of interns.

KM: If you weren't a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
AC: That’s a hard one I’ve been doing this for so long. I’d probably be a very unhappy office worker somewhere.

KM: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
AC: Probably still behind the counter at Dirt Candy. I have no plans at the moment to expand or do anything else because this is enough right now. I truly believe you have to get what you do in your life right before you move on. You can’t open another restaurant or write a cookbook until the first restaurant is right.