Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Amanda Cohen (CAS '95) Makes You Want To Eat Your Vegetables

You may have seen the recent New York Times review by Pete Wells of Amanda Cohen's (CAS '95) quaint East Village hot spot, Dirt Candy. Just the thought of Amanda's rosemary cotton candy intrigues the taste buds, and when we started reading her graphic novel/cookbook Dirt Candy, we couldn't put it down.

Arts and Science Alumni Relations: Did you know what career path you wanted to take while you were at student at NYU?

Amanda Cohen: Not really. When I went to NYU I wasn’t interested in cooking as a career or anything like that. I was taking anthropology classes and keeping my head down.

What career path did you take after graduating from NYU and at what point did you know that you wanted to go into the restaurant industry?

It wasn’t until I’d lived in Hong Kong for a while and then LA that I realized I needed to stop drifting around and find something to do that I felt passionate about and that turned out to be food.

When did you come up with the idea to open Dirt Candy? What was that process like?

I had worked for a lot of restaurants in New York and had ideas of my own that I wanted to try out, so I figured it was now or never. The process itself was like getting punched in the face over and over again. I’ve never done anything so difficult. If anyone is thinking about opening a restaurant, I strongly advise them to go to the Dirt Candy blog and look up the posts I did there called “How not to open a restaurant.” It describes in gruesome detail what you can expect.

If you had to describe your restaurant to someone via Twitter how would you describe it (140 characters or less)?

I think the New York Times said it best, “Eating at Dirt Candy can be like going to a child’s birthday party in a country where all the children love vegetables.” 122 characters. Boom!

Tell us some of the more unique dishes you serve at Dirt Candy.

I’m really happy with the Onion dish I just put on. It’s my take on Scallion Pancakes, so it’s Danish ebelskiver pancakes stuffed with smoked chives, then there’s a really pungent grilled onion salad, and tiny pearl onion rings. I also just put a parsnip dish on the menu that’s sort of like gnocchi, but not really. It’s got these tiny, fluffy, soft balls of parsnip with parsnip kimchi, grilled watermelon radishes, and it’s topped with little brown butter biscuits shaped like parsnips. If I’m making a dish about a vegetable I like to go all out on that one vegetable.

Dirt Candy the cookbook is a beautiful book that’s so much fun to read. I love the idea of a graphic novel/cookbook. How did the idea come about and how did you team up with Ryan Dunlavey?

People were asking me to do a cookbook, but there were so many good ones out there and I didn’t want to just add one more book to the shelves. If I was going to do a cookbook, it had to be something new that would be worth the two years of work. I was having a fight with my husband one day while we were walking down the street and he said, “Why don’t you do something stupid, like write a comic book cookbook?” and we both stopped and realized: that’s it. It’s a perfect way to capture the insanity and chaos of running a restaurant, and a great way to show people techniques that I’m talking about. And it’s fun. So many chefs take their food so seriously that you feel like you’re at a funeral parlor when you eat at their restaurants, but I feel like food should be fun, and going out to eat should be exciting.

As for Ryan, we were looking for an artist who drew like him and finally my husband bit the bullet and called him out of the blue. It turned out that he needed the money and he’d wanted to do a comic book cookbook for a long time, so all our particular needs happened to align.

For those who may just be used to steaming or sautéing their vegetables, what would be a good recipe from the book for people to start with?

Start with a salad. Seriously. I know it sounds boring, but that’s the problem: salads don’t have to be boring. I want people who read the cookbook to realize that there are ways to make salads more popular: better clothes, a different hairstyle, making sure there are several textures in every bite, going for a stronger dressing, no longer chewing its nails in public. There’s a Celery Salad with Fried Cheese Curds and Grilled Grapes that doesn’t take a lot of work and it tends to impress the people you make it for.

I read on your blog that you and your husband were influenced by Hong Kong movies such as God of Cookery. What are some of your other favorite food flicks and how do you find the time to blog?

My favorite food movie, hands down, is The Chinese Feast, a Hong Kong movie from the 90’s that has some great scenes of kung fu cooking. In terms of finding time to blog, I don’t. I have a trained robot duplicate who does the blog for me. I just have to check in from time to time and make sure it’s not putting too many pictures of naked robot ladies or kittens on there.

Because Dirt Candy is cozy, with 18 seats, it must be such a thrill for you when a well known personality comes there to dine. If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive, who would you choose and what item from your menu would you serve them?

Please don’t let any dead people come to Dirt Candy. Seriously. Pieces of their face would keep falling off onto their plates and that would just upset all the other diners. In terms of living people, I own a business so it’s go big or go home. BeyoncĂ© is always welcome to dine here, and President Obama would probably add a little class. They can’t come at the same time, however. I don’t have room for both entourages.

I think America needs a Dirt Candy television cooking show. Have there been any mentions of this or even an animated cooking series? 

No, but there should be. Seriously, this is something America should be talking about more regularly.

What veggie trends do you see in the coming year?

I can barely see past tomorrow, so my predictions are useless. But a lot of people are slowly doing more and more with vegetables in the US, and I think 2013 will see the continued slow process of vegetables moving more to the center of the plate.

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