Amanda Cohen is the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, the award-winning vegetable restaurant on New York City's Lower East Side. Between opening the daring restaurant and leading the charge on the no-tipping/hospitality included trend, she's proving to be a groundbreaker and rule-breaker to watch.
When did you start cooking and who were your inspirations early in your career?
I started cooking seriously when I went to the Natural Gourmet Chef’s Training program and my main inspiration for years were the women I worked next to in prep kitchens and on the line. They taught me more about perseverance and hard work and how to make it in this business than any celebrity chef.
You were among the first restaurants in NYC to do away with tipping, raise the base pay for all of your staff and offer profit sharing; did you have any early models of business owners who prioritized equitable treatment of employees over profits?
There wasn’t any inspiration to go no-tipping because I eliminated tipping due to the fact that no one else was doing it. I keep a close eye on this business and I saw changes coming down the road a while back. Restaurants have to get rid of tipping and raise prices if they want to survive and if they want to pay their workers a living wage. Right now, most restaurants keep their menu prices artificially depressed by cutting into their labor costs, basically screwing their workers so their prices don’t scare away customers. That has to change. It’s time servers were paid like professionals doing a job rather than as dancing bears living off their customers’s moods.
What inspired you to open a Vegetable-focused restaurant?
No one else was doing it, so I felt like there was a huge hole in the market. There were all these steakhouses, and seafood restaurants, and Chinese places, and Indian places, and farm-to-table places, but no one had a restaurant devoted 100% to vegetables. I’d even argue that’s still mostly true in the sense that I’m not supporting a lifestyle choice here, so I’m not running a vegan restaurant or a health food restaurant. I’m just cooking vegetables with no health agenda, no promises that my food will make your skin look younger, and no political agenda. There aren’t a lot of places like this around even today.
I’m just cooking vegetables with no health agenda, no promises that my food will make your skin look younger, and no political agenda.
Which vegetable(s) do you think home chefs need to pay more attention to? Any unsung heroes of the garden?
Parsley. I used to think of it as those little dried up green bits sprinkled around a plate, but it’s become my go-to herb at Dirt Candy. The same way that citrus brightens flavors without overwhelming them, flat leaf parsley (not the curly kind) brightens that green flavor without overpowering the vegtable’s original taste. It’s the citrus of the herb world, a flavor enhancer that truly enchances, not replaces.
You are an award winning chef, are your friends or family intimidated to cook for you?
I hate that, because I love it when I don’t have to cook and people always make such a big deal out of it and are so apologetic. Trust me, as long as I’m not the one doing the work, it’s going to taste twice as sweet to me.
What’s your go-to dish to bring to a summer BBQ?
I love to grill greens. You have to make it once you get to the BBQ, but it’s super easy. Just bring some kale or collards, pile them on the grill, and hose them down with olive oil from a squeeze bottle, then let them grill until they start to collapse. Flip them once or twice with your tongs, until they form grill marks, then serve. They have a meaty, rich taste with a touch of iron.
Parsley...it’s the citrus of the herb world, a flavor enhancer that truly enhances, not replaces.
Favorite hostess gift to give or that you've received?
I find that a bottle of gin works best.
5 home staples you can't entertain without?
Five bottles of gin?
If you have guests coming over in 15 minutes, where are you? (i.e frantically cleaning the bathroom or sitting down with a glass of wine)
I honestly never have people over. My apartment is the one space where I don’t have to worry about cleaning up for other people. I do that at my restaurant all week long, so this is my refuge. Also, that’s one of the nice things about living in New York City. We get to rent living rooms when we want to hang out with our friends. They’re called bars.
What are your go-to spots in NYC for things like: coffee, dinner, cocktails, lunch?
If it’s someone I know well, then it’s Churchill’s, which is my local fake English pub. If it’s someone fancy then it’s usually El Quinto Pino. I’ve never met someone who can’t find something they like there. Otherwise, for coffee and lunch I’m in my restaurant all day, for better or worse.
If you could invite 7 people (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would it be?
No dead people, because that’s just creepy. In terms of people who are alive, I’d probably just invite the Muppets. I feel like they’d really carry the conversation and I wouldn’t have to do too much. Plus, they’re the Muppets!