Amanda is chef and owner of Manhattan’s critically acclaimed 100% vegetable centric restaurant Dirt Candy. As New York’s reigning veggie queen, her insights, techniques and daring approach to vegetable cookery have made her the go-to chef when it comes to getting people to not just eat, but enjoy their vegetables. McCormick Chef Andreas Pias got behind the line with Chef Amanda Cohen to discuss the flavors that drive Dirt Candy, and get to know the chef who has turned both the traditional restaurant menu and people’s expectations upside down.
There are thousands of vegetables that people just don’t know how to cook or eat or what to do with. I realized that there really is this moment in time where we can take all these vegetables, rethink what we do with them, and start having fun with them.
When I was starting to think about opening my own restaurant, there were so many meat, chicken and seafood restaurants, but no restaurant dedicated to veggies, especially center of plate. I decided to put my money where my mouth is. It was time we rethought how we serve vegetables, and how we get people to enjoy vegetables.
I was a vegetarian for 15 years and one day I got bored of all the vegetarian offerings. I thought that I would become a much, much better chef if I can taste what other chefs care about. 15 years ago, that was meat, protein. I started eating those things to understand what flavors consumers were looking for and what was satisfying to them. I then applied this to vegetables to draw in omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans alike. Now, I don’t actually eat that much meat, but I do eat fish. I will try anything at least once.
This is a pretty surprising answer for most people, but it’s an onion. To me, it’s the unsung hero of the kitchen. It’s the backbone of almost every single dish, and people just don’t appreciate it— they genuinely just sort of forget it exists. It is a vegetable, it pretty much creates all the food in a kitchen and it’s delicious!Read more
When you get a really fresh onion, it is delicious to use as part of crudite, but in general we caramelize it or serve it in salads. We actually have a chocolate onion tart so we do serve it in a dessert too.
We like big flavor, but plate identification is also a big deal here. People might not know how we got to it on the plate but they totally understand that that it started as a regular carrot. People sometimes come here saying, “Wow, I don’t like carrots.” I want to hear them to walk away saying, “Oh my goodness, I never knew a carrot could taste this way.”
It is. We don’t choose luxury vegetables. We don’t have heirloom vegetables in the restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but frankly, I can’t afford them.
Farmer’s markets can support less than one percent of restaurants. Markets and organic can be really costly. I do use a forager in the spring through fall, but the bulk of my food comes from main suppliers; you can get it all from a supermarket. I think this says to people, “Hey, you can eat this too. You can make this.” I really want others to understand that what we’re doing with vegetables, they can do with vegetables.
They actually play a pretty big role. Honestly, vegetables can be a little boring if you don’t play with them. I tend to skew more towards the lighter spices like cumin or coriander, which bring out the flavor of vegetables more. There are hundreds of vegetables, and hundreds of spices, and infinite possibilities of what you can do with the two. We like to use spices as that added bonus flavor.
I first focus on the flavor of the vegetable, and complement the flavor with herbs and spices, rather than covering it up. I try not to use too much in one dish, and I’ll focus on one or two spices – I don’t want to overload the food’s natural flavor. For me, it’s really about creating unique combinations that accentuate the dish while remaining true to the main ingredient.
Most people still use it as a color. I don’t understand that because it’s such a good flavor. I actually really like it. It’s one of those backbone spices. You don’t want to have it hit you in the face with all of its flavor, but you want to know it’s there because it really adds so much to a dish. Turmeric is citrusy, it’s earthy, it’s gingery. So the layers it brings to basically anything is pretty amazing.
We really focus on how many different textures we can get into a plate. We want to layer as many different textures of vegetables as possible. Vegetables really have a uni-texture. Think again about that carrot again—it’s the same texture all the way through, versus something like a piece of meat that is fatty, chewy, there’s muscle, there’s fiber, there’s gristle—there’s so many different textures that there’s a party happening in your mouth.
We’ve got to figure out how to do that with a vegetable because we want that same kind of satisfaction that you would get from eating a piece of meat. So we roast it, we dehydrate it, we spiralize it, we turn it into ribbons, we juice it, and we layer all those flavors and textures on top of each other so you get a more satisfying bite. Also, every time we change the way a vegetable looks, we change its texture and its flavor. We can get that crispiness, and that gluttonous desire for fried.
The tools to change the texture are easy to find and cheap. A peeler will totally change the texture of the vegetable. We do use a spiralizer quite a bit, and then your oven is actually the best thing to change the texture of a vegetable. All those different temperatures will change the textures of a vegetable. We’ve all been taught to roast at 375 degrees, but cooking at much lower and much higher temperatures can benefit the flavor and texture as well.
We use dairy. Dairy brings a lot to the cooking process, making things taste better. It adds that fatty flavor to the plate. Overall, the number one technique that we rely on is smoking. It’s such a comforting flavor. People associate it with some great piece of meat they’ve had, or chicken. The more that we can apply that to a vegetable, the more that people want to eat it. People don’t realize that smoking is something they crave, until they’ve had a smoked vegetable dish.
Veggies are in all of the drinks. It’s an easy way to start people off. The color provides eye appeal, making the drinks very pretty. It also gives a drink a natural sweetness, so I don’t have to add a lot of sugar. It goes a long way in changing the way people think about vegetables, and make them wonder why they’ve never seen this before.