Iron Chef, veg­gie roots

Chef Amanda Cohen, who has taken N.Y.C. by storm with ac­claimed veg restau­rant Dirt Candy, is back home and ready for bat­tle

Richmond Hill Post - - Food - by Jor­dan White­house Iron Chef runs Wed­nes­days at 10 p.m. on Food Net­work Canada.

When Amanda Cohen walked onto the stage of Iron Chef Canada this sum­mer in Toronto, it wasn’t her first time in Kitchen Sta­dium. But it felt like it.

“That first bat­tle was as ter­ri­fy­ing as be­ing a com­peti­tor,” she says. “There are a lot of peo­ple just look­ing at you, ex­pect­ing you to do well. It’s pretty damned ex­cit­ing.”

In 2010, she went up against the leg­endary Iron Chef Masa­haru Mo­ri­moto as a com­peti­tor chef in a veg­etable bat­tle on Iron Chef

Amer­ica. She was the first vege­tar­ian chef on the TV show, but the three judges deemed that Mo­ri­moto’s cui­sine reigned supreme.

Cohen vowed never to re­turn, at least as a com­peti­tor chef.

Which is why the owner-chef of New York’s much-loved Dirt Candy has in­stead re­turned as an Iron Chef on the Food Net­work. She’s one of five cel­e­brated Cana­dian chefs to don the black jacket in the first sea­son of Iron

Chef Canada, join­ing Lynn Craw­ford, Susur Lee, Rob Fee­nie and Hugh Ach­e­son, as they com­pete against culi­nary chal­lengers each week.

An­other rea­son Cohen said yes to re­turn­ing was that she thought she could win.

“When they asked, I’m like, ‘It’s been al­most nine years. I think I’m a chef that could pos­si­bly win even go­ing against an Iron Chef. I’ve cer­tainly grown.’ ”

Raised in Toronto, Cohen be­came a vege­tar­ian as a teenager (she isn’t one now) and later moved to New York for univer­sity. She went to culi­nary school, too, and worked mostly in vege­tar­ian restau­rants; al­though, she did spend two years fry­ing chicken wings at a Har­lem diner.

The spark for her own veg­etable-for­ward restau­rant re­ally came dur­ing a din­ner with her par­ents at a chic New York eatery. The chef promised her a “grand vege­tar­ian tast­ing,” but it was just salad af­ter salad.

She vowed to do bet­ter and did, open­ing Dirt Candy in the East Vil­lage in 2008. The tiny 18-seater was all about putting the veg­etable front and cen­tre. But it wasn’t your stan­dard vege­tar­ian restau­rant; it wasn’t about those pol­i­tics or that life­style. It was all about the food and not be­ing bor­ing.

Think de­hy­dra­tion tech­niques and veg­etable noo­dles and fruit leather. Think was grits topped with pick­led shi­itakes and a tem­pura poached egg; le­mon-sage 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 Iron Chef Canada 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.

“ I think I’m a chef that could pos­si­bly win even go­ing against an Iron Chef.”

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

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