“Yes, but that’s not vegetable, that’s vegetarian. Come on! We’ve just had a whole lesson.” I’m being told off by chef Amanda Cohen, as she emphasises again the difference between ‘vegetable cuisine’ and ‘vegetarian cuisine.’
Cohen is the owner and chef at Dirt Candy, the New York restaurant she opened in 2008 to showcase her own unique take on vegetable-driven food. The Canadian-born chef cooks up fun, delicious dishes – forcing diners to reconsider vegetables once forced upon them as children with a level of technique, prep and reverence normally reserved for, well, anything but vegetables.
“For years and years the vegetarian food world was not focused on vegetables,” says Cohen, her small crew of chefs busily prepping in a steamy kitchen behind her. It seems an odd thing to say, that vegetarian food didn’t actually focus on vegetables, but the point she makes is valid. “It really was focused more on health food, or fake meat – meat substitutes. There’s nothing wrong with that but it hadn’t really developed it’s own personality.”
Step in a young Cohen, who, after gaining experience studying at a vegetable-driven culinary school and working at a number of New York’s early vegetarian restaurants, decided vegetables needed a kick up the ass. She was vegetarian and tired of the “portobello with side of rice” attitude she encountered when dining out.
“The scene in New York was pretty basic, brown rice and steamed vegetables was sort of what you found everywhere. No focus on flavour, no focus on trying to push the envelope – trying to really make a cuisine happen.” This is why Cohen now stresses so much focus on vegetables and not on being vegetarian, she doesn’t use meat in cooking but she’s not adverse to it: “I’ve just never found a meat product that makes vegetables taste better,” she says. What Cohen does do is take her dedicated focus on flavour and direct it with razor sharp clarity on vegetables, producing greats like confit carrot sliders on carrot buns, Korean fried broccoli, which Cohen describes as “crack in broccoli form,” and a now famous Portobello mousse which is so rich it won PETA’s Faux Foie Gras Challenge, with the organisation awarding Cohen $10,000 prize money for a ‘to-die-for Foie Gras that nobody had to die for.’
However nice awards like this are, it’s not politics, ethics or lifestyle that motivates Cohen to cook vegetables. She wants to take the dry cracker lifestyle focus of vegetarian dining, whip it with lashings of butter, lots and lots of butter, throw in some cream, and playfully show people that vegetables can be delicious. “At Dirt Candy, we don’t care about your health,” reads the restaurant’s website, “and we don’t care about your politics either. Just as Le Bernardin is dedicated to seafood, and Peter Luger’s is dedicated to steak, Dirt Candy is dedicated to one thing: cooking vegetables.”
Applying technique to amplify and accentuate flavour is integral to Cohen’s cuisine, perhaps growing up as a vegetarian for 15 years is part of the reason. “The vegetarian food world in the United States comes out of three divisions,” she explains. “One is the health food movement, that’s like Kellogg and Graham, all that sort of healthy stuff. Then it comes out of Kosher dining: you used to have all these vegetarian cafeterias that used to service the city. And then it comes out of that sort of hippy, 1960s, granola, let’s-save-the-planet stuff,” she stops to check I’m following her and I realise why the kitchen behind her is buzzing so efficiently. “None of these were actually about taste. It’s all about either politics, environment, religion, health – nothing really had anything to do with food, and that’s really where the vegetarian restaurants came from. They were servicing a lifestyle and not a palate.”
Maybe this is why, even after opening during the height of the financial catastrophe of 2008, in the city most affected by the fall out, Dirt Candy and Cohen have been a success. Dirt Candy is in its second iteration and she has just opened Thyme, a casual restaurant inside Newark airport.
There’s no journey or story to be told about the life of the vegetables she cooks, no root-to-stem narrative to follow: “They are coming from trucks in boxes, it’s what I can afford,” she says. “It’s great if you have a roof garden in your restaurant, but I don’t know anyone who can supply a restaurant that way.” A world away from the weak-ass stories many chefs and PRs try to weave around plots of land big enough to service about one soup a month.
She’s a no-nonsense realist and it’s a refreshing hit in a vegetable focused world that deems it seemingly ok for almonds and soy beans to be milked. The first time I met her was on stage at the Food on the Edge conference in Galway, Ireland – cracking christmas-cracker vegetable jokes and riffing hard on how it will never be the year of the ‘vegetable.’ Even if journalists will continue to ask her the same question every three months.
Naturally, I have to check, and tentatively ask, “It’s never the year of the vegetable,” she smiles, grimaces, perhaps winces – maybe all three – but she knows why I’m asking. New York seems to be booming when it comes to vegetarian cuisine, however, as I learned during my ‘Veg 101’ class, vegetarian restaurant and vegetable restaurant are two very different beasts in Cohen’s world.
“Meat is still king here,” she says, “and I think it will take a couple of generations to really change. "Cohen does now eat meat – reverting back because she was worried she would never learn more as a chef if she stuck to lacklustre “brown rice” sides, and though she agrees the offering in a city like New York is getting better, she admits there’s still a long way to go.
“It took many generations to get here. You’re in a country where after the depression and after World War Two, meat was king – that’s what people wanted and that’s what showed you were a success. People were like, ‘I’m going to have a steak tonight, I’m going to have a steak a couple of nights, I came out of depression and I’m going to celebrate.’ And they stuck with that, we are still in that, it’s my parents’ generation and the next one down, it’s not mine, but I certainly grew up within it. When I became a vegetarian, now maybe 25 years ago, becoming a vegetarian was really foreign, my parents could not wrap their brains around it … and that’s just a generation ago.”