Amanda Cohen Makes Us Eat Our Vegetables. More Please!

It's as real as the mini Everest of galleys that has formed on my office desk: A lot of really interesting people in the food world write really boring cookbooks. Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of New York City restaurant Dirt Candy, is not one of these people. Since 2008, she's been the loudest, and most-talented, supporter of a vegetable-based (restaurant) diet — preparing exceptionally flavorful dishes like smoked cauliflower with waffles and kimchi donuts. Dirt Candy is a vegetarian restaurant, sure. But it's more of a vegetable restaurant, avoiding meat-proxy cookery like veggie burgers and wheat balls.

"We do not care what you eat the day or meal before, or the day or meal after — we just want you to come enjoy the vegetables for this one moment," says Cohen in her maple syrup–thick Canadian accent. "And not necessarily think of it as a vegetarian meal, but rather as a really good meal."

And about her just-released debut book — Dirt Candy: A Cookbook. It's as fresh as her spin on red velvet cake (hers is made with the juice of bell peppers and is the truth). Part graphic novel, part recipe book, it tells the story of the restaurant's first year through the illustrations of the talented Ryan Dunlavey. There are laughs and tears and plenty of bowls of grits topped with tempura–poached egg. Cohen tells me about why vegetables will never be cool. (Disagree!)

Vegetables were not really cool when you opened Dirt Candy in 2008. This was the time of the great pork belly insurgency. But now it's 2012. Things are different. Do you think that vegetables have gotten cooler, or is it still a big struggle?

I think it's still a struggle. We are on this cusp and we keep going back and forth over whether vegetables are going to be cool this year or not. And when they are going to be the next big thing.

In your book you refer to cooking with vegetables as "the wild west." Is this still the case?

I think so. I don't think that the vegetable dialog has progressed much further. People are doing stuff with vegetables — we are starting to see some more restaurants and cookbooks paying attention to them. But if you look at what has come out, I still feel that it's mostly side dishes. They may be way more interesting than ever before, but they are still not saying, "Here is your broccoli and it's your main course. Look what I have done with it." Now it's more about getting your broccoli appetizers, and maybe getting seven bites out of it.

That is a good point. And it ties into what you do at Dirt Candy. You are not a "meat proxy" type of restaurant, but a vegetable restaurant. You are not about veggie burgers or fake sausage.

We are not. That all has its place, but there are so many more interesting things to do. I would rather create something that is as new and interesting as I can than to take something and wonder: "How can I make that vegetarian?"

We have our cauliflower waffle dish, which is obviously based on chicken and waffles, but we wanted to take it and make it even more interesting and do more with it. It is a dish that stands on its own and you don't have to think that you are missing out on something. Instead, you are like, "Wow, I just never knew that cauliflower and waffles went so well together."

You were at such a disadvantage when you opened. Most vegetarian food is terrible and vegetarian restaurants are just so bad. Can you talk about why those restaurants are so bad?

I am not quite sure that they are so bad, but I do think that they do not necessarily cater to a wide clientele. If you are looking for something healthy, or more lifestyle-oriented, we are not going to be your cup of tea.

Maybe I was harsh with my assessment. Let me rephrase. Vegetarian restaurants typically do not have their eye on flavors, and instead focus on politics or health or that Kumbaya stuff.

Right. Lots of people come to my restaurant and they do not love it. They are looking for a much different type of vegetarian experience than we want to give them. A lot of people want to go to restaurants that are a lot more relaxed, calm, Zen and healthier with more grains and pure protein...

Well, I would not say that a lot of people do not like your restaurant. I would say very few people do not like your restaurant. You are doing well right now and are pretty booked out. Is that still the case?

We are still crazy, even in this horrible and awful hot summer! We are about six weeks out for a table.

Do you take any walk-ins, or is it all reservations?

We try to hold some tables back for walk-ins, but it does depend on how long you want to wait. Sometimes the wait can be over three hours for the two or three tables we have held back and people will try to come back another time. Other people happen to come in at the exact right moment and can sit down right away.

You write a lot about the build-out of your restaurant. The drama and stress of it all. Seeing it in graphic-novel form is Was this a terrible, or typical, first-time restaurant experience?

I think it was such a spectrum. We certainly got a lot of advice going into it, and I had people in mind, but sometimes you just don't know. Our contractor really came to us with great references, and we thought it was going okay and my architect had worked with him before. Then you have that one day where it's like, "Oh my gosh, what is going on?" Then you cannot stop it and it gets worse and worse. If you pull your contractor out, you basically have to start from scratch again, and we were so far into it. We were trying so hard and it just got so bad.

You beautifully detail why you should pretty much never open a restaurant in New York City. Like how your contractor tried to strong-arm you for money, and then held your building materials hostage. That's typical though, right?

Yeah. When I told the story to people, I'm always expecting them to be surprised, and yet a lot of them say that they have heard that kind of story before.

Let's talk about the book. It's not a typical recipe book that you could knock out in six weeks. This is a graphic novel, essentially. And it took two years to complete.

The first thing we wanted is for it to be true to the restaurant and capture Dirt Candy in cookbook form. That was the guiding hand throughout the whole process. There is so much energy and everything is so alive, and that had to be on the page. Right away, the message is not a Vegetarian 101 Cookbook. It is The Dirt Candy Cookbook and if you want to learn to make what we do at the restaurant, this is the perfect book for you.

If you want basic, say, rice pilaf recipes, this is not going to be the book for you. We also knew that we had to deal with these complicated recipes and make them easier. We wanted people to be able to not necessarily follow the entire recipes, but to also be able to take four components of them and see what they could do with them. It really became natural that a visual graphic novel was the way to go. So much information can be packed into one little panel.

What was the process like to complete the book?

It was like how a movie comes together. There's a script, then storyboards and editing. And instead of filming, there is drawing. There was a lot of back and forth between us and [illustrator] Ryan [Dunlavey] to make sure we had exactly what we meant.

Do you feel that this could become a movie?

I'm not sure if I could handle seeing myself in cartoon form! But it's funny and it does seem that it translates well to a wide audience. You can see the trailer, which is somewhat animated, and think that it is kind of fun.

What are some of your favorite recipes featured in the book?

At some point we thought that there was no chance we could get these recipes onto the page and make it work as a cookbook. So scrambling all of these recipes into a cookbook and making them work is something that we are all very proud of – and to anybody who has ever worked at this restaurant to help us get it together. One of the things we have also been able to do in the cookbook is teach the new techniques used at Dirt Candy – dehydrating, juicing, blanching. We did it in a way that you can follow as a home cook. You can walk away with three or four new skills that you did not have before, and that's a goal of the cookbook.

Have you ever cooked for Anthony Bourdain? I feel that at this point, it has to happen. You are both authors of graphic novels now.

No, I have never met him. I think once or twice I have been in the same room as him, but I do not have a relationship with him.

Hopefully it will happen! I think this is a good reason.

Yes, he loves graphic novels. This should definitely be one that he picks up.

He should try your food. He is very anti-vegetarian but clearly that is not what you are doing.

He is not only anti-vegetarian but he is also anti-vegan!

What are you up to now that your book is done? Do you take a pause and cook this fall, or do you have immediate plans?

For the next couple of months it is still all about the book. We are going to a bunch of cities and doing more events than we have ever done in the past, really trying to get the word out about the book. Come December, we will sit down and start to seriously think about the future and what to do. It's funny, because the book is a bit of a litmus test. It's going to go to a much wider audience than we have ever been able to reach, and so we are waiting to see how we are received and what people want from us. When we have done events before, it has generated some really good press and pushed us in different directions. We're going to a wider audience now with all that, and I think it will also help us.

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