Chef Amanda Cohen: Keeping it Real(ly delicious)

 

Photo Brent Herrig. Using them without his permission is illegal... and mean.

Photo Brent Herrig. Using them without his permission is illegal… and mean.

I remember walking into the space of Dirt Candy two February’s ago on a cold, quiet afternoon before the restaurant had yet to open for the evening. The kitchen was about the size of my closet (and keep in mind, I live in New York City), and so the small handful of dining tables were covered with green stalks and bins of root vegetables in various states of prep for service.

Sitting in the corner was the petite owner of the tiny restaurant – Chef Amanda Cohen – all slightly nervous smiles and warmth. My editor at Serious Eats had encouraged the connection for my We Chat With… column and I was thankful Amanda took us up on it; she’s a smart woman and carefully chooses those with whom she works. I drilled her about being a female executive chef/owner, about how gutsily and colorfully she blogged about the chef world on the Dirt Candy website (which was brilliant), and on how she keeps her restaurant as intimate and honest to her nature as possible.

I’ve now been writing strictly about people in the food world for around 4 years, and the deeper into it I get the more I start thinking about the larger meaning of what we do; how chefs and farmers and artisans contribute to the greater good and how I can contribute with my own work, too. For a long while, I figured if I just focused on doing good work then what is important for me to express would be clear in what and who I write about.

But it doesn’t always happen that way. You shape what you write to fit your field; it’s a given part of the hair-pulling fun of freelancing. So in having an interview column about executive-level chefs I was most often writing about white, male chefs: the ones who can afford PR companies and investors; the ones everyone else are writing about, too. I’m not saying their stories aren’t fascinating and worthy. But I’m a woman. And I have an Iberian immigrant father with an accent who I love beyond words. And, most importantly, I’m just another human being with a brain and a heart. I live in one of the most diverse and dynamic cities in the world, where you can either choose to ignore inequality or embrace changing it, even within your small sphere of influence. Anytime I get to pick brains about these issues and write about them, I feel a little more of a whole human being.

So I’m partnering with a new initiative set out by Public Radio International, BlogHer and She Knows called Across Women’s Lives. Writers and bloggers will reach out through our social media contacts to share stories from PRI’s Across Women’s Lives coverage of women’s issues around the globe, using the hashtag #womenslives when we share new commentary or pieces that resonate with us. According to PRI, only 24% of all news subjects are about women at all. For the next few months, we’re making a bigger push to change that.

I’m particularly excited to be sharing this interview with Amanda today, both to celebrate #womenslives and because, after a few months of closing the tiny restaurant I met her in, she reopened in a larger and more accommodating space last night! Her reservation book is full up for weeks, and I can’t wait to secure my spot and see the new digs. Amanda is one amazing cookie (or broccoli terrine or celery cake…), and I look forward to many articles with her to come.

Stay tuned for a gluten-free adaptation of a hush puppy recipe from her insanely awesome cookbook on The Dusty Baker Friday. Until then, here’s 2,500 words with Amanda, just keeping it real.

Chef Amanda Cohen: Keeping It Real(ly delicious)

This is a full version of an edited interview taken with Amanda in February of 2013 

Why’d you become a vegetarian?

It wasn’t so much of a choice as it was peer pressure. I was 15, and all of my friends were becoming vegetarians. I went home and told my parents I was going to be a vegetarian and their jaws literally dropped on the floor. They were like, “You are going to die. You are literally not going to be able to live.” And I was like, “No, I think I’ll probably live.” That was 25 years ago, when being a vegetarian in North America was really rebellious. It was an extreme diet, and so it was great; it was succumbing to peer pressure and I was offending my parents. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

You kept with it, so something really worked for you.

As it turned out, I kind of didn’t miss meat. I wasn’t craving hamburgers or bacon. I was like, “Yeah, whatever, I’ll just eat French fries”. I wasn’t necessarily a healthy vegetarian. And then over time it really stuck with me. All of my friends who had become vegetarian kind of dropped off, and I’m probably still the only one who’s as close to a vegetarian as we were back then; I now eat fish, which happened about eight years ago. Which is funny because my parents are pretty much vegetarians now and I’m like, “You’re gonna die!

How did that happen for them?

I think people eat a lot less red meat than they used to, and smaller portions of animal protein in general. I think it’s more like the world’s diet is changing across the board. Now, if you become a vegetarian, it’s like, “Oh, great. No problem here.”

You worked in non-vegetarian restaurants before Dirt Candy. Did you have double the pressure on you, being both a woman in a rather gruff field and also being a meat-cooking vegetarian?

Not so much in the restaurant world. In all the kitchens I’ve worked in it’s been fine. I’ve rarely felt any sexism or any “dude-ism”. But I’ve probably been really lucky because I think that most chefs or cooks are kind of jerks. They’re gonna be jerky no matter what; whatever your weakness, they’ll find and pick on it.

That’s what you do when you stand around with people all day long – sometimes you’re nice and sometimes you’re really mean. Everybody has that in a kitchen. So being a woman hasn’t been so much of a challenge and being a vegetarian chef hasn’t been this big obstacle that I’ve had to overcome. I think outside of the little world I’ve worked in there’s been that different sort of perspective.

Why open your own restaurant?

It was just time. I had stopped working in more mainstream restaurants and had really stuck with vegetarian restaurants for a while. And at some point I hit this level where I couldn’t move laterally and no more; I would always be working for other people and always be an executive chef working at these small restaurants of maybe 30-40 seats, but it wasn’t going to be as challenging as I wanted it to be. So I had two choices if I wanted to keep cooking professionally, which was to either open my own place or to be like, “You know what, I’m just going to go cook meat somewhere.” But in the small vegetarian world that existed back then (and still exists now) there are only so many restaurants you can go and cook in before you’ve tapped them all out.

 And there obviously wasn’t anyone doing the same things with vegetables as you’re doing.

Not at all. I still don’t think there are many people doing it now. It’s a blessing and a curse; I don’t have much competition so I can really succeed.

But what was fascinating to me was, as we started opening this restaurant, I was like, “You know what? I really want to celebrate vegetables.” I know I’ve said this a lot in the press, but I don’t think there was really anyone celebrating vegetables at a restaurant all on their own. And so I felt filled with pressure; “I have to get this open, because what if someone does this before me? It’s such a good idea!” There’s just this whole world of things that you can play with and they’re magical and they’re so much fun, and every day we’re like, “Ooh, we had no idea this is how this was going to taste!” It’s still shocking to me – why don’t more people focus on them?

Do you feel you apply a style across the board?

It’s a whole mishmash. It’s all the stuff that I’ve learned over my career; some I learned in school, some I learned from other restaurants and some that you just learn from working. I don’t feel I truly found my style until sometime last year. It does matter if people don’t like it, but this is what I want to keep on exploring. And that took time; to see what people like and to see what we like to do, what I like to taste. That just keeps coming with time. Five years from now I’m going to be like, “Ugh, I just discovered my style last month.”

So what is that style or focus right now?

Ultimately from the beginning to the end it has to have a sense of fun. I want people to come and eat and be like, “I’ve never experienced anything like this.” I want to put the food down and I see them smile. I don’t want food to be so serious. This is my new mission in life. Everybody sits down and picks apart their food and talks about it and I just want them to sit down, eat it and be like, “This is great” or “I thought this was going to be something different but I really enjoy it” or “I’m really happy eating this.” It should make you smile. It’s food.

So with that in mind we try to make the food really playful, and we want to make people think about it a little bit. And that starts with the name “Dirt Candy”. It has “dirt” in the name and people are like, “Ugh, I don’t know if I like that idea” and we’re like, “No, but it’s about vegetables, they’re like candy from the dirt” and they’re like, “Oh, that’s so clever” and then you smile. You can’t help but be intrigued by it.

I noticed that even with the exclamation points on your menu titles.

Yeah! It’s like, Beans! They’re great! It’s fun to watch people order it and they’re like, “How do I say it? I’m just going to go for it – Beans!!”

I usually start with the vegetable, and we start to figure out something fun to do with it. Like right now the next thing we’re working on is a celery dessert; I’ve seen a couple of celery sorbets out there but it’s generally not something you’d see. So we started thinking about what people pair with celery. Ants on a Log! With cream cheese or jelly or peanuts and raisins. So now we have celery cake that has a peanut and cream cheese filling in a rolled jelly cake, and then candied grapes. We’ve taken all the same elements and are doing something very different with them.

You’re very honest and vocal on your blog, which is one of the many reasons I love who you are and what you do. What’s the purpose of it, for you?

There are a lot of different purposes in it.

I want to be really honest about what goes on. One of the points of the restaurant was to be really honest; we have this open-kitchen restaurant, and I always say we’re even a little bit more open than other open-kitchen restaurants because you can literally see the floor, so here you see food fall on the floor all the time. That’s just a reality that people don’t talk about; yeah, the floor of the kitchen is messy. Whatever it is, we’re pretty honest about what happens, and we’re really honest in the dining room. When people come five minutes earlier than their reservation we’re like, “Yeah, I know you think that’s a good thing, so you can sit down but we’re going to fall behind if we deal with you.”

And we started opening the restaurant just around Top Chef and The Food Network were exploding and really glamorizing this life. And this life isn’t glamorous at all. It’s wonderful and awful at the same time. I just felt that there needed to be some perspective that told how hard and emotionally draining it is; other people need to know that before they decided to be a chef. I used to think the real competition on Top Chef would be two people cleaning the grease trap. That’s what you do in the kitchen, you know? That’s the really glamorous side. And people don’t talk about that. So many chefs I know end up washing dishes once a year in their restaurant; the dishwasher doesn’t show up and once you’re the executive chef or you own your own restaurant you’re the expendable person, and you have other people to do stuff. So when the dishwasher doesn’t show up you’re the one who’s gonna wash dishes. And the chefs don’t talk about that.

So, for me, I have this voice and I love using it and I love when people are like, “Yeah, that’s right, that is what happens.” The feedback from it has been great. You put it out there. We’re so small and I don’t have to answer to a lot of people so I don’t have a lot to lose: don’t invite me back to something or criticize me for my writing. It’s ok. I have a small enough restaurant; I can say what I want to say.

Are you trying to expose a big bluff within the industry?

I’m trying to open it up a bit. I’m not trying to get back at anyone, because I’ve learned to never try to do that on the internet; that’s rule #1. But it does seem really one sided. You get this sort of very Yelp / Open Table / Menu Pages / bloggers side of the picture, and you don’t really hear about what it’s like to be the other person on the other end. As a chef, getting reviewed every single day no matter what the outlet is can be really trying. I can’t explain how emotionally dysfunctional it feels. Sometimes the internet seems so negative; I am trying to show the other side of the negative. It doesn’t have to be gung-ho, but there are repercussions to everything that’s put out there.

So what’s the ultimate end goal with blogging?

Everybody who does the food thing does it because we like it. And I assume the people who go out to eat do it because they like it. And sometimes it just feels that it’s us versus them. This is so Pollyanna, but it’d be nice if it was “us for us” and “them for us” and “us for them” and all of us sort of together instead of, like, “I wanted to go to your restaurant and it sucked and now I hate you and I’m going to do something really mean.” I want to be like, “Hey, just talk to me! Talk to me! We’re people!” Let’s have a discussion and open it up. And that’s what we try to do with reviewing the reviews and everything.

How does that get translated through your staff into the dining room?

We’re able to do it because for the most part I’m here, and we try to talk to every single table. We really try to make sure that our guests have the experience. Part of it is that once guests are here the least important part of their experience is the food; if you come to the restaurant and you hate the food, that’s really sad because I’ve worked very hard. But if you come and you hate the food and you’ve had a miserable experience, that makes me really sad because that means that we’ve broken down everything, and nothing has worked. So we really try to make the guest’s experience the best as possible; if you don’t like the food, please tell us and let us fix it for you. That’s my job as the restaurateur, not just as the chef. We’ll make you something different or remake it or do whatever we can to make you happy so that your whole experience isn’t miserable. I can’t fix you liking the food but I can fix your feelings around it. I want people to come here and be happy, be it through the food or through the experience.

I see you all over at events and tastings, I saw your Iron Chef battle against Morimoto, and you keep yourself beyond busy at work. What keeps you grounded?

This place. Knowing that I’m coming in here almost every day and cooking every night is what centers all that. I wouldn’t be doing any of that without this. And this is the most important thing. And it’s hard and it’s something that a lot of chefs struggle with these days; how do you balance that? How do you balance cooking in your restaurant and doing all this sort of extra media stuff that you have to do now? You have to. Most choose to participate in it because you’re kind of forgotten if you don’t. But none of that matters, and I’ll push all that aside if there’s a problem here. There are weeks that I haven’t blogged because there’s trouble here. Whatever it is, this is the most important thing; getting up and coming here every day. And I like coming here. I like the restaurant, I like to people I work with. I have a very small, great staff. We all really like each other, so it’s like coming to work with your best friends every day.

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