Last week we sat down with the visionary vegetarian Chef Amanda Cohen of New York’s Dirt Candy, one of the city’s most acclaimed and forward thinking vegetarian restaurants. This week she discusses her vegetarian rebel philosophy, more Jewish food memories, and using humor in her restaurant.
Eric Schulmiller: You were a vegetarian for sixteen years. What led to that choice?
Amanda Cohen: I was sixteen and all my friends were becoming vegetarian. I’m sure my friends were becoming vegetarian because it was political; I was just like, “Well, it seems like a really good way to piss off my parents.” It was twenty-two years ago, and being vegetarian wasn’t common then. People would say things like, “What are you going to eat? You might die!”
ES: Do you still view yourself as a rebel, either in the food world or the vegetarian world?
AC: Definitely. Just having a vegetarian restaurant that doesn’t have a political stance, and isn’t health-oriented – that’s really different in this community, and being a vegetarian restaurant is totally on the outside of the regular food world. People want to disregard a restaurant that is only about vegetables. Even with restaurants doing “meatless Mondays,” and chefs putting out vegetarian tasting menus, it’s still more popular to eat a steak.
ES: How much are you trying to surprise your eaters with the experience of eating vegetables, versus the goal of simply presenting something that tastes great?
AC: I think a lot of what we do is about comfort food. The first reaction I want people to have is, “This tastes really good.” And that’s about being comforted. You want to be happy when you eat, and hopefully we make really happy food. But at the same time, I really want people to be challenged when they’re eating here. I don’t want anybody to sit down at our restaurant and say, “This tastes really good, but I’ve had this before.”
ES: Do you have any Jewish food memories as a child that influenced your cooking?
AC: I have to say my favorite food at Passover was just matzah and butter and horseradish. And still those are my favorite flavors. There’s nothing better.
ES: The crunchy, the fatty, and the spicy.
AC: Yeah, all three together! And it’s so funny when you look at horseradish – that bright pink color? Fascinating! And that’s the food at Dirt Candy – those bright, bright colors, and bright flavor and, yeah, the fat and then the crunchy and all the textures…. I think it’s one of the reasons that Dirt Candy is so successful – our customers are getting the textures and flavors that they may not have had before, but are familiar to them.
ES: As a Jewish vegetarian chef, have you heard about the concept of “eco-kosher?” The idea that, as Jews, what we consume should be an articulation of our values, as a Jewish approach to sustainability. Have any Jewish diners spoken with you about this idea when they’ve come to eat at your restaurant?
AC: No, you’re the first person who’s ever said “eco-kosher” to me. But one of the more interesting components of Judaism to me is how it is an evolving religion, that it’s not just stagnant.
ES: You received a Golden Egg Award last year from Gourmet Magazine for “funniest in-house blog.” What role do humor and a sense of play have in how you approach your relationship with both food and your customers?
AC: Well, if you’re not having a good time at the restaurant, then I’m really sad. The restaurant is really small, and you’re going to talk to me - it’s like you’re at my house. I’m the one who’s going to take your coat, I’m the one who’s bringing you the food, and I’m, hopefully, a funny person. I think food has become so serious, and people think, “This is my heirloom tomato. I must approach it with reverence and I’m going to worship it because this is the best tomato.” And I think, yes, that’s true, but it’s also a tomato. Sitting down at the table and having a good time, and talking to your server and laughing - that’s what should be important.
ES: It sounds a lot like your your family table.
AC: Absolutely. Every day, that’s what we want to recapture. My family grew up, and we can’t all sit down to dinner every night any more, and it’s sad. So, yeah, when we get together now, those are the best moments.