Chef Amanda Cohen won her first Michelin star last week. But she didn’t find out at the splashy awards party emceed by Neil Patrick Harris – because she didn’t go.

“We had to work,” Cohen said.

Instead, she learned about her award in text messages from friends – Mary Attea and Anita Lo, both chefs – while working a Thursday night dinner shift at her restaurant, Dirt Candy.

Cohen had drinks with her team to celebrate. Soon, diners got wind of the news and toasted Dirt Candy’s success.

“It was a nice little surprise,” she said.

Dirt Candy was among 19 restaurants added this year to the Michelin Guide to New York, which lists some of the city’s top dining spots. Most of the newcomers opened within the past two years. None had waited longer for a star than Dirt Candy, which opened 14 years ago.

“Ten years ago, I would've said it means the world and I'm so happy to be recognized,” Cohen said. “Now, it's a little bit of a different story. I feel pretty well established, so I don't feel like I'm fighting for space or recognition in the New York culinary scene. So if we had never gotten the recognition, I would be fine with that.”

Cohen said she saw her star as a sign that the Michelin guide – not her cooking – was changing.

“Hopefully we get better every year, but I think that we were really good five years ago,” she said. “I think we were good four years ago, and three years ago, and then – pandemic.” In March 2020, Cohen had to lay off her staff and close the restaurant for several months.

“She’s been overlooked,” said her friend Anita Lo, a chef who owned Annisa in the West Village. “It’s interesting. God knows why.”

When asked to speculate, Lo said, “I don’t want to be too negative, but, I mean, it's a vegetarian restaurant. Vegetarian food is becoming so much more in the mainstream now, thanks in part to Amanda.”

Dirt Candy was among 19 restaurants added this year to the New York Michelin Guide, which lists some of the city’s top dining spots

Interviewing industry folks about Cohen, you hear terms like "pioneer," "vanguard," and "ahead of her time." She’s been in front of so many trends, in fact, that it can be hard to focus on one.

To recap: In 2008, a time when pork belly was the rage in New York City, Cohen opened her plant-based restaurant in a tiny East Village spot. She quickly earned a fan base for cooking vegetables so well that her cuisine excited vegetarians and omnivores alike. Since then, Cohen has made headlines for speaking her mind – whether it’s calling out sexism in the restaurant industry, rebutting her critics, or announcing progressive labor policies in her restaurant.

Alicia Kennedy, author of the forthcoming book "No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating," said the star for Dirt Candy could signal a new direction for fine dining.

“It's not just like, oh, vegetarian food is being taken seriously, or a female chef is being taken seriously,” Kennedy said. To people who care about rankings, it “signifies that all these other things, too, that are being done by Dirt Candy are important.”

Kennedy ticked off a list of business practices that have distinguished Dirt Candy over the years: its commitment to vegetables since 2008, a woman chef, a wine list featuring wineries run by women, and – perhaps the most difficult to execute – Cohen’s commitment to paying a living wage.

In 2015, she announced she was ending the tipping system at her restaurant, in an effort to pay all her staff – including dishwashers and line cooks – a livable wage.

Several higher-profile chefs – including David Chang, Danny Meyer, and Tom Colicchio – followed with similar initiatives. Some have since backtracked, citing rising costs and hiring challenges.

Cohen stayed the course despite the pandemic. But, she added, “it’s not for the faint of heart” – most people don’t realize that insurance and payroll taxes go up, she explained.

“And nobody's gonna give you a prize for doing it,” she added. “The government isn't like, here's a tax credit because you're paying employees. They're mostly like, ‘Here, we're just gonna charge you some more money.”

She said her staff members are paid between $28 and $32 hourly. (The average wage of a dishwasher in New York City is about $16, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) “It's probably never gonna be enough in New York City,” she said.

Dishes like the Broccoli Taco have made Dirt Candy a sensation, but chef Amanda Cohen is just as concerned with ethical work practices.

Cohen was just as blunt when asked about another complicated topic – Michelin’s underrepresentation of women chefs.

“It’s lazy,” she said. “I watched the video of the awards and, you know, for the new one-stars, I was the only woman who would've been on that stage. It was still all men.”

Michelin stars have come under fire in recent years for a host of other critiques: they’re too snobby, too Eurocentric, too anonymous, and they foster toxic workplaces – some restaurant workers say they have endured low wages, bullying, and anxiety in the relentless pursuit of a star.

Some chefs have given up their stars. In 2019, a chef in Seoul, South Korea, went as far as to sue the guide for giving him a star against his wishes.

Yet despite this fraught landscape, experts say the awards have value.

It’s a “badge of honor,” said Rick Camac, the Institute of Culinary Education's executive director of industry relations.

Anita Lo won her first star in 2006, when Michelin debuted its New York guide. “It’s always nice to be recognized,” she said. Recognition, she added, is good for filling seats: Lo said the award translated to a 10%-20% boost in business, mostly from tourists.

And a report from the Stanford Economics Review estimated that a New York City restaurant could increase prices by about 15% in the year after earning one Michelin star.

Cohen insisted she would not raise prices.

For her, the best part of the news was seeing how much it meant to her staff. “My world-weariness and more blasé attitude was kept in check by them,” she said. “Their excitement is what I really felt.”

And in the next few days, she added, the Dirt Candy team will finally find time to celebrate.

On the menu?

Pizza and frosé.