Tuesday 22 May 2018

Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen: Why is salad so boring? Three dressings to liven up your bowl

New York chef Amanda Cohen's vegetable restaurant has no worthy ethos, just good food, she tells our reporter

Food for thought: Amanda Cohen of cutting-edge NYC vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy pictured at Anair. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE .
Food for thought: Amanda Cohen of cutting-edge NYC vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy pictured at Anair. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE .
Broccoli gochujang. Photo:Andrew Downes
Mushroom mousse with pear and truffle crisp
Carrot slider with fermented bamboo. Photo: Andrew Downes
Stepping up to the plate: Amanda Cohen with JP McMahon outside Anair. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE .
Tatsoi with fermented blackbean and cream. Photo: Andrew Downes

Katy McGuinness

JP McMahon's Michelin-starred Aniar in Galway is known for its terroir-based ethos, with all the ingredients used in the kitchen coming from the West of Ireland.

A recent dinner in the restaurant's Chef Swap series, with New York vegetable chef Amanda Cohen alternating courses with JP, saw the usual Aniar-style menu turned on its head. There were dishes such as 'broccoli, gochujang' (like spicy Korean chicken wings, a dish that would usually be sacrilege at Aniar), mizuna greens with fermented blackbeans reminiscent of bagna cáuda, and carrot sliders with a Big Mac-style sauce: Cohen's food is unashamedly populist.

Amanda's restaurant, Dirt Candy, located in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, is a vegetable (rather than vegetarian) restaurant - she is pretty sure that it is the only one in the world.

"The restaurant itself has no ethos behind it; I'm just there to serve good food," she says. "There's nothing political about it, and no environmental or health motivation. Those are all really good for other places, but they are not what I do. I'm just a chef and what I happen to like to cook is vegetables. In most vegetarian restaurants, those motivations are more important than the food that is on the plates, and as a customer you are there to eat in accordance with whatever that view is… but in my restaurant, I don't care what you had to eat for breakfast or for lunch, or what you're going to eat tomorrow, right now I just want you to eat vegetables and realise that they can be a meal."

Stepping up to the plate: Amanda Cohen with JP McMahon outside Anair. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE .
Stepping up to the plate: Amanda Cohen with JP McMahon outside Anair. Photo: Andrew Downes, XPOSURE .

Strangely, says Amanda, most vegetarian restaurants don't actually focus on vegetables.

"They have lots of tricks of the trade, bulking out with pulses and grains, using a lot of soy… they are not really celebrating vegetables. Dirt Candy is all about vegetables, and doing really different things with them."

Amanda grew up in Toronto, the youngest in a food-loving family of five.

"By the time that I was in my early teens, all my siblings had left home and my mom had been cooking for 20 years," she recalls. "She was kind of done with putting dinner on the table every night and she said: 'You look capable, you can feed yourself.'

"My best friend also loved to cook so we would come home every day after school and cook some grand elaborate thing that never worked out at all, and we'd force people to eat it! I didn't think that I was ever going to be a chef or a cook though."

After university in New York (she studied anthropology at NYU), Amanda and her husband, Grady Hendrix (they married at 19 but kept it secret from their families for 10 years and are still happily together, 25 years later) moved to Hong Kong.

"We were young and dumb and we'd watched a lot of Hong Kong movies and we thought it looked amazing. We fell in love with food there and stayed for a year-and-a-half. When we came home, I realised that what I wanted to do was travel and my parents said: 'That is an amazing goal, but we're not paying for it.' So I thought maybe I could learn how to cook and use that skill to travel the world."

Amanda had become a vegetarian at the age of 15 ("being a vegetarian was about the most rebellious thing that you could do at that age, and I never really liked meat anyway so it wasn't a big deal to give it up") and enrolled in a small vegetarian cooking school.

"It was very healthy," she says, "not really my kind of food."

The ambition to travel was parked, and Amanda spent the next decade working in vegetarian restaurants all over the city. After 9/11, she says that the city was "pretty crushed", with restaurant closures and very few new places opening. The only place she could find work was in a diner in Spanish Harlem.

"I was the fry cook, two of us fed 150 hungry people every night. It gave me great line-cooking skills. It wasn't my favourite thing to do to cook meat, but it was so good for me. I tell my own chefs now to do it for experience, even though they are all vegans and vegetarians.

"It was hard work, but also really fun. I never got into cooking to do high-end food, I got into it because I like to cook. Sometimes I look at my staff when we are in the thick of things and they say, 'This is so hard!' and I say, 'But this is so fun!' I love that adrenalin rush, I fit right into the culture."

Sexism in restaurant kitchens is a hot topic these days.

"It's definitely tough in kitchens," says Amanda. "I turned a blind eye to some things, and my husband says I've blocked some bad experiences out. But in general, it just is hard for everybody, everyone is struggling, and most chefs when I was coming up were equal opportunity a**holes, they'd pick on anyone they could, boy, girl, it didn't matter. Perhaps it was a easier to get past it if you were a boy. The hardest thing was how little money you made, for working really hard for such long hours. There is no quality of life for a young cook."

By the time that she reached her early 30s, Amanda had worked in most of the vegetarian restaurants in the city.

"They were all doing the same kind of thing, not high-end, very healthy, kind of boring."

She had also reached the point where she felt she couldn't keep on working for other people.

"I had the opportunity to open a small place in the East Village, a tiny 18-seater. It was all I could afford. I wasn't sure anyone would want to come, I knew that I was going to do something very different in the vegetarian world and I really wanted to be more mainstream, to have a vegetable restaurant in the way that there are steak restaurants and chicken restaurants and fish restaurants."

Dirt Candy opened in October 2008, shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

"It was a terrible, terrible month but one of the nice things about opening a restaurant at that time, because no new restaurants were opening, was that I knew that I would have a built-in customer base, that even if the mainstream omnivores didn't come, then the vegetarians would. Our smallness really helped us; I was the cook and the back-up server and I had one other cook.

"During the day, the entire dining-room was our prep kitchen; we had almost no storage so anything that came in had to be processed straight away."

After about six months, Amanda knew that Dirt Candy was a hit.

"We got busier and busier," she says. "It took a while for people to understand that we were doing something different but word of mouth helped. We became known as the hardest reservation to get in the city."

During the years in the East Village, Amanda says that she and her small team effectively operated as a laboratory, discovering new things that they could do with vegetables. She says that it was too hard to be organic or local with such a small restaurant, and that she had to limit her focus simply to vegetables.

A publisher approached her to do a cookbook, and the result is in the style of a graphic novel telling the story of Amanda and the restaurant, interspersed with recipes. It is now on its seventh printing.

"I wanted to do something that really represented the joy and frenzy of the tiny restaurant, something that would stand out. It was my husband's idea to have me as the character - you get this kind of cookbook in Japan.

"The idea is that if you see this character cook the recipes, you'll engage with them. It's not really a home cookbook - I don't even know how to cook at home, who's going to do the dishes? I only know how to use 55 pots! Home-cooking is a totally different skill. I don't expect people to cook from this, but I want them to be inspired, to think that they can have something more fun than boiled broccoli for dinner."

Despite the busyness of the restaurant, Amanda says that the financial side of things has always been difficult. Vegetarians, it turns out, tend to spend less when they go out to eat than other diners - partly because many tend to be young, and therefore don't have much money, and also because they are health-conscious, and consume less alcohol.

"It's very hard to convince people to spend money on vegetables. It's an amazing phenomenon: people won't buy vegetables at the grocery store because they think they are too expensive, but when they go out to eat they think they should be free. Vegetables may not be as expensive as meat, but there's a huge amount of labour involved in preparing them. You can't just put a carrot into the oven like you would with a piece of meat and forget about it. There's a lot that needs to happen with that carrot."

A few years ago, Amanda moved Dirt Candy to smarter and bigger premises in Chinatown, and has introduced tasting menus to replace the a la carte in order to increase the average bill.

"You have to force people to spend… tell them that to sit in that seat for two-and-a-half hours then this is what they have to pay. The economics of restaurants are hard to grasp for customers. The food is the smallest part of it - you're paying for fridges, rent, electricity, toilet paper… but in the minds of customers a vegetarian restaurant should be cheap."

These days, Amanda works with 'celebrity' forager Tama Matsuoka Wong.

"She doesn't tell me where she finds the stuff. I never really wanted to work with a forager, and Tama doesn't really take on clients - you can't tell her you want her to forage for you, she comes to you and says she will forage for you! At this time of year, the dandelion greens are in season. Grilled, they taste like a cross between onion and asparagus. Tama just keeps bringing things and she tells me what to do with them. We have a forager's salad on the menu and it's like eating the season, the forest floor - we get very excited about it."

Although Amanda doesn't cook on the line any more, she does expedite - standing at the pass to direct operations and check dishes before they go to customers - she says that ideas are brewing constantly and she gets into the kitchen to try things out once or twice a week.

"It's a natural progression," she says. "Physically, cooking becomes harder. Most of the line cooks are in their 20s, and they want to have their fun conversations, they don't need grandma there. As time goes on, being a restaurateur takes up more of my time and if you're a restaurateur and you're not stressed every day then I don't know how that is…"

These days, Amanda enjoys travelling on the international chef circuit - it's how she met JP - and says that she feels privileged to be one of the few vegetarian chefs on the circuit, seeing the world through food. She has honed a repertoire of dishes that she feels can travel well, such as those that she presented at Aniar, for which she brought a suitcase full of carrot buns.

"They are pretty fool-proof - a lot can go wrong and they are still OK. It's so hard to cook in someone else's kitchen with a whole new staff, though. I think I traumatised JP's team because I kept mixing salad with my hands. I just can't use tweezers…"

Upcoming Chef Swap dinners at Aniar include Christophe Dufau of Michelin-starred restaurant Les Bacchanales in Vence, France on June 15 and 16, and rising Russian star Stanislav Pesotskiy of Bjorn, a new Nordic restaurant in Moscow, in August. See aniarrestaurant.ie

Carrot Risotto

A lot of what folks consider the taste of a vegetable is really its texture. Remove the texture, and your tongue gets confused. This risotto is all about changing the texture of a vegetable to see how that changes its taste.

Serves 4; gluten-free

Ingredients

6 cups carrot stock (see recipe, below)

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup diced yellow onion

1 tbsp minced garlic

2 cups Arborio rice

1 third cup white wine

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 cup carrot juice

¼ cups diced carrot

3 tbsp unsalted butter

5 tbsp grated Parmesan

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves

Salt

Method

1. In a small pot over medium-low heat, simmer the stock.

2. In another pan, start the oil, onion and garlic over medium heat. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until it's translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and stir until it, too, has evaporated, about 1 minute.

3. Add 1 cup of the simmering carrot stock to the hot rice (both need to be at the same temperature). Stir until it's absorbed, about 5 minutes. Continue adding stock one cup at a time and stirring until it's absorbed. When you have two cups of stock left, pour the carrot juice into the simmering stock and let it come back up to a simmer. Add one cup of the stock-juice mixture to the rice and cook until it's absorbed. Add the diced carrot to the rice and then add the last two cups of stock, one cup at a time.

4. When the rice looks wet and juicy, but there's no liquid sloshing around, add the butter, three tablespoons of the Parmesan, thyme and salt to taste, stir until the butter is melted. Divide among four plates.

Carrot stock

Makes 6 cups

Ingredients

4 cups sliced carrots

1 cup roughly chopped yellow onion

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 cup sliced celery

Method

1. Put all of the ingredients in a large pot with 8 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.

2. Strain and let cool. Freeze for up to three months, or store in the fridge for up to one week.

WHY IS SALAD SO BORING? 

Three dressings to liven up your bowl

Fennel Seed dressing

Ingredients

1 tsp fennel seeds

2 tbsp grated grapefruit zest

¼ cup fresh grapefruit juice

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 tbsp finely minced shallot

½ tsp Dijon mustard

3 Qtr. cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

1. In a dry pan over medium heat, toast the fennel seeds until fragrant, 5 minutes. Let cool.

2. Blend all the ingredients except the oil, salt and pepper in a blender on high until smooth. Turn the blender to low and slowly stream in the oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to one week.

Lemon Oregano Dressing

Ingredients

½ tsp minced garlic

3 Qtr. tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp red wine vinegar

Grated zest of one lemon

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 Qtr. cup extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup fresh oregano

Method

1. Put the garlic, mustard, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, and a pinch each of salt and pepper in a blender. Mix on high speed until smooth. Turn the blender to low and slowly stream in the oil.

2. Still on low, add the oregano and blend until it is broken into small pieces. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to one week.

Celery Seed Dressing

Ingredients

1 tsp celery seeds

Grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tsp fresh lemon juice

2 ½ tbsp white wine vinegar

½ garlic clove, minced

1 8th tsp Dijon mustard

½ cup plus one tsp extra virgin olive oil

½ cup toasted almond oil

Salt

Method

1. In a dry pan over medium heat, toast the celery seeds until fragrant, about 5 minutes.

2. Blend all of the ingredients except the oils and salt in a blender on high until smooth. Turn the blender to low and slowly stream in the oils until fully incorporated. Do this slowly so that the dressing emulsifies. Salt to taste. Keeps for up to one week in the fridge.

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