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