Eat your vegetables (and have your cake, too) at Lower East Side’s Dirt Candy
New York’s Lower East Side has historically been a lively and chaotic place, a brave new world in which to introduce and try new ideas. This brazen spirit is especially apparent in New York’s most vibrant and daring cooking. Among the most daring of chefs is a former Torontonian, Amanda Cohen, who’s revolutionizing the way we think about vegetarian cuisine. Her dishes exude creative moxy and unabashed indulgence, and her cooking defies the stereotype that to be a vegetarian is to eat like a rabbit.
Cohen’s veggie flagship, Dirt Candy, has been feeding the vegetable-forward movement with cleverly original and undeniably robust dishes, from smoked broccoli dogs with broccoli kraut and mustard barbecue sauce to portobello mousse with sauteed Asian pears and cherries. The old rule about not having dessert unless you eat your vegetables doesn’t apply here, as they are one and the same: Expect the meal to end with a colourful array of vegetable ice cream salad, savoury-sweet onion chocolate tarts and fluffy carrot meringue pie.
A little over a year ago, Cohen – who happened to be the first vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef America – rebooted Dirt Candy in new kitschy-glam and spacious digs on the Lower East Side. (She’s also at the forefront of the no-tipping trend, having banned them in favour of staff profit sharing.)
Billy recently caught up with Cohen for her thoughts on the Lower East Side, the art of playing with your food, and being Canadian in New York:
Billy: Why did you choose to re-open Dirt Candy in the Lower East Side? Does Dirt Candy reflect the neighbourhood?
Cohen: The original Dirt Candy only had 18 seats and it wasn’t sustainable with the amount of business I was doing. I needed a bigger space and I lucked into finding an old Chinatown bus station on the Lower East Side that I could take over. It was mostly a happy accident, but I was really happy about the location. My first big food awakening came when I lived in Hong Kong, so I’m excited to be located here on the border with Chinatown, right next to a Chinese sign shop and down the street from Congee Village. That’s actually the inspiration for the Dirt Candy sign, which is 50 feet [15 metres] long and covered with sequins and sparkles. I had to compete with Congee Village’s sign.
Courtesy Stephen Elledge/Dirt Candy
What do you remember about the first time you visited the Lower East Side?
The first time I ever came down here was to go to a punk show at ABC No Rio back when I was in university and I remember that at night the streets were dark and empty, a far cry from the constant carnival that jams them today.
Courtesy Evan Sung/Dirt Candy
How would you describe the area to someone who has never been before?
The LES is the final frontier in downtown Manhattan. It’s a dirty, cramped, party zone that happens to also be filled with families, schools, and on the border of Chinatown. A happy hodgepodge of everything that makes Manhattan fun. I’ve actually run three restaurants down here over the course of my career, so it feels comfortable to come back. And besides, I missed Economy Candy.
What are you aiming to accomplish with Dirt Candy?
I cook vegetables. That’s all I do. I don’t promote a lifestyle or a political or health agenda. I’m just a chef who’s devoted her life to learning how to cook vegetables.
Courtesy Evan Sung/Dirt Candy
Ice cream salad: Is it salad, or dessert?
Which of your fellow chefs inspire you?
They’re the ones who taught me how to work and how to live. And even today, I find that the people who work the hardest and make the most interesting food are the ones you hear about the least. I’m not going to blow their cover [by naming them].
That fact that you’re Canadian, how is it reflected in your work?
You can tell I’m Canadian because everything I cook is just a little bit more awesome. Like Canadians, my food is sometimes underestimated. And yet, also like Canadians, my cooking is willing to go the extra mile to make you smile. It’s more entertaining than other food.