Amanda Cohen - January 2019

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January 2019 Edition


Amanda Cohen 

Chef/Owner of Dirt Candy

January 2019 Edition

How would you describe what you do for a living? 
I’m the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, New York City’s first vegetable restaurant.

What’s the greatest fear you’ve had to overcome to get where you are today? 
I still have every single one of my fears! Every day I’m terrified that my restaurant is going to fail and the 30 people who depend on me to support their families will be out of work because I’m not good enough. Every morning I wake up sick to my stomach and scared. But 90% of this job is showing up and doing your best, even when you want to quit.

If you could share one surprising thing about yourself, what would it be? 
It sounds corny, but I think people would be surprised to know how much I sweat every single dish that goes out of my kitchen. I’m obsessed with each and every one of them. It’s not healthy, and I know there are smarter ways to work, but I don’t know how to do it any differently. So probably the most surprising thing about me is how bad I am at my job!

It is suggested that 2019 is going to be the “Year of the Vegan” and a turning point for plant-based diets. You have already been ahead of the game and a crusader in vegetable cuisine. In your opinion, why do you think there is such movement on this now? 
Dirt Candy has been around for a while, so I remember when Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America declared 2015 the Year of the Vegetable, and when eMagazine declared 2014 the Year of the Vegetable, and when Epicurious proclaimed 2013 the Year of the Vegetable, and when the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 the Year of the Vegetable. 
And yet every time the FDA issues a study, it turns out that no one’s actually eating any vegetables. The good part about this is that every year I think a little of the stigma rubs off vegetables, but it’s still hard to convince people that they can be fun. That’s what I do at Dirt Candy: I try to make vegetables fun. Because as much as people care about health and wellness, they’re not going to embrace vegetables until they’re as fun to eat as barbecue and fried chicken.

You were the first restaurant in the city to eliminate tipping and share profits with its employees. How difficult was this to put into place? Do you feel that you have a better staff implementing this type of system? 
I sometimes wish I’d never done it, because it’s made my life a whole lot harder. The city doesn’t support no tipping, neither does the state, nor the federal government, so I wind up getting stuck with higher costs than places that have tipping (higher limited liability insurance, higher unemployment insurance, etc). The press doesn’t support no tipping and they gleefully leap on every restaurant that has problems with it, declaring it unviable at every opportunity. But my customers love it because the price of their meal is right there on the menu, not hidden in surcharges and tips on the final bill, and my staff really likes it. It’s made Dirt Candy a safer place for my female employees who no longer have to flirt for their wages, it’s allowed me pay my back of house staff a living wage, and I believe it treats my staff with respect by paying them a salary for their work rather than forcing them to rely on handouts from customers, and it’s put me in a position where I can weather the new minimum wage hikes better than other restaurants.

You have been a strong voice for women in the industry and also serve a wine list exclusively sourced from women-led producers at your restaurant (bravo!). Did you have any idea when you wrote the article for Esquire titled “I’ve Worked in Food for 20 Years. Now You Finally Care About Female Chefs?” that is was going to have such an impact and go viral? Did you receive any backlash? 
The first time I wrote about women in the industry was back in 2010 when I sat down and did the math on how few women won awards and got mainstream reviews compared to men. Those numbers were so lopsided that I was left with three choices: either there were no women cooking and all the female chefs I saw around me were figments of my imagination, or the worst chefs in America all just happened to be women and men had a monopoly on talent, or something was really, really wrong. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to shut up about it, and I don’t think it’s hurt me. I mean, I still get comments about how I’m asking for special treatment, and I do get dismissed by some male chefs as being less capable than they are, but that’s par for the course. 
I’ve known so many amazing, strong, creative women in this business, and I’ve learned so much from so many of them, and then I’ve watched them get erased from the history of food, or not get offered the same opportunities as male chefs, and that keeps me speaking out. But I think every chef, male or female, feels the same way I do. We all want to be the best chefs because of our talent, not because over a third of the people in this business have been kept from achieving their potential because of their gender. So ultimately what I want is the same thing every chef wants: a level playing field 

What advice would you give to young women now who are aspiring to be chefs or who are just starting out in the restaurant industry? 
Find the toughest, hardest line you can, and stay on it for one year. Work hard. Don’t quit. That sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how few people do it. Probably because it’s really, really hard. For that entire year, you will not be good enough. Every day will be a struggle. You have to work harder, and get better. And if you can’t work harder, figure out how to work smarter. If you get bored, then you’re not doing it right. Quitting is not an option. Stay in that one job. Don’t ask for respect. Don’t ask for shortcuts. That year will break you, and then it will reshape you. At some point, long after that year is over and you’ve moved on, you’ll realize that the skills you developed are going to carry you for the rest of your life. That year will be the foundation for the rest of your career and how you acted during that experience will determine who you become.

What is the one vegetable that you couldn’t live without?  
Weirdly enough, it’s parsley. I used to think it was just a dumb garnish, but chopped flat-leaf parsley is the salt of the vegetable world. A dash of it gives every dish a strong, green, vegetal kick the same way salt juices up the flavor of meat. These days, I can’t send out a plate without parsley on it.

 Is there a Chef that you admire the most? Who and why? 
Anita Lo doesn’t get the recognition she should. She started out about 20 years ago when the great female chefs of the 1990’s had mostly retired and there was a real lack of support for women in this business. Everyone wanted to be the next Anthony Bourdain and it was all tattooed boys chopping up pigs and shooting heroin into their eyeballs. But Anita turned out food that was influenced by the Asian flavors she grew up with and the French cuisine she loved. She went her own way, cooking delicate, subtle high-end food when the food press wanted to write about big flavors and testosterone. She was the first female guest chef to cook a state dinner in the White House, and her showcase restaurant, Annisa, lasted for 17 years before it closed. She’s also one of the first big chefs to reach out to me and one of the people who made me realize that this business could be about collaboration and not competition. She’s always been humble, smart, and funny and I don’t even think she understands what a huge impact she’s had, in her own quiet way, on so many lives.

What can attendees expect from your demonstration at the 2019 International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of NY?  
I really believe in making vegetables accessible and in showing people how to make cooking them easier. Let’s face it, the reason most people don’t cook vegetables is because they’re a pain in the butt to do. So the demo will focus on a couple of really simple techniques, geared towards home cooks, that make cooking vegetables a little bit easier and a whole lot more colorful and fun.

What can your fans expect from you next? 
As unsexy as it sounds, I’m going to keep on cooking at Dirt Candy because it’s my laboratory where I’m always working on new recipes, and I’m always pushing vegetables further and making them bigger and better and just plain MORE. I do a tasting menu only because I think of a meal here as a show with fire, and grills on the table, and desserts that melt in fast forward before your eyes, and towers of deconstructed salads, and Middle Eastern flavors hidden inside Dutch pancakes. I don’t expect anyone to eat here every night,  because a meal here should be a carnival ride through a world of vegetables doing things you’ve never seen before. Dinner at Dirt Candy is supposed to be ridiculous and fun and silly and over-the-top and that’s what it’s going to keep on being. And that’s enough for me.


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