Chef Amanda Co­hen gets suited up to out-cook the com­pe­ti­tion this fall

North York Post - - Food -

gnoc­chi tossed with brus­sels sprouts and brown but­ter; popcorn pud­ding; sesame-caramel cake.

There was noth­ing like it in New York at the time, and Dirt Candy quickly be­came one of the hard­est restau­rants to get into in the city (they fa­mously turned away Leonardo DiCaprio).

Over the next seven years it be­came the first vege­tar­ian restau­rant in 17 years to re­ceive two stars from the New York Times, was rec­og­nized by the Miche­lin Guide five years in a row and has won awards from Gourmet Magazine, the Village Voice and oth­ers.

In 2015, Co­hen moved Dirt Candy into a big­ger space on the Lower East Side and made head­lines by elim­i­nat­ing tip­ping, adding a 20 per cent ad­min­is­tra­tive charge to each cheque in­stead and raising the salaries of all of her staff.

Ac­co­lades con­tinue to roll in. This year alone, New York Magazine named it the “Ab­so­lute Best Restau­rant on the Lower East Side,” and Wine En­thu­si­ast named it one of the 100 best wine restau­rants in Amer­ica.

In­stead of the à la carte menu of the early days, the choice at Dirt Candy is now be­tween two tast­ing menus — The Veg­etable Patch and The Veg­etable Gar­den — which have in­cluded ev­ery­thing from shang­hai shoots with fer­mented black beans and crème fraîche, to por­to­bello mousse with sautéed Asian pears, cher­ries and truf­fle toast, to brus­sels sprouts tacos with let­tuce wrap­pers.

As ac­claimed as her food is, she told a New York Times blog­ger in 2012 that she got “a lot of grief” for not be­ing a tra­di­tional vege­tar­ian restau­rant. And to­day? “It’s def­i­nitely lev­elled out,” she says, “but we def­i­nitely have some peo­ple who ex­pect us to fit more into a tra­di­tional vege­tar­ian mould,” which for Co­hen is of­ten brown rice, steamed veg­eta­bles and not a lot of flavour.

The great lev­eller has been time, she says. With all of that at­ten­tion came more peo­ple who know what Dirt Candy is all about.

Co­hen ad­mits that all of that at­ten­tion can still be pretty in­tim­i­dat­ing.

“But we kind of just put our heads down and do what we do here. We just want to be bet­ter than the day be­fore.”

She and her sous chefs used a sim­i­lar strat­egy dur­ing their three episodes of this sum­mer. Af­ter walk­ing into Kitchen Sta­dium for that first episode and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing all of that ter­ror and ex­cite­ment, they hit their groove, says Co­hen.

“By the time we walked in the se­cond time and third time, it was like, ‘Oh, we’re home. This is our kitchen.’”

Sounds like fighting words.

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