The curiously named Dirt Candy is a sleek and cozy new vegetarian restaurant on East Ninth Street, where chef Amanda Cohen presides over an open kitchen mere inches from her patrons. (As she tells us during our conversation, this sometimes results in some awkward involuntary eavesdropping.) About the funny name, Cohen explains that "vegetables are amazing. Made out of little more than water, sunlight, and dirt they wind up growing into a candy store full of color and flavor. And that’s what I want Dirt Candy to be: nature’s candy store."

Her mission is to seduce everyone from carnivores to breatharians with luxuriously adventurous vegetarian—not vegan—cuisine. To that end, the menu features such hits as Jalapeno Hush Puppies with maple butter, and Stone Ground Grits pickled shitakes and a tempura poached egg. We recently spoke with Cohen about the state of vegetarian dining, vandalism and horrific kitchen scars.

I read the interview in The Feedbag, and you agreed that all vegetarian restaurants are horrible. But what about Candle Café, Millennium in San Francisco, Angelika, Broadway East? All of these are horrible? That wasn’t exactly what I meant; they’re just not my kind of food. I guess I kind of feel that way about most vegetarian restaurants—and most, I’m not saying all. They are very similar and the truth is that most of them call themselves vegetarian restaurants, but they’re really not vegetarian: they’re vegan. And that’s not the way I like to eat. I like cheese and dairy. And I just don’t enjoy them as much as the other restaurants. They are more or less supporting a lifestyle and a diet. I’m really not trying to do that. I’m just trying to make good vegetarian food. So I don’t think they are all horrible, it’s just not the way I eat. I don’t use a lot of mock meat. But there’s nothing wrong with them. Sometimes they are really fun and good but it’s not what I want to go out to dinner for; I don’t really think they’re that special. I think those restaurants have their place and lots of people like them. But they’re not my style and I don’t think they are as innovative as they could be.

Are you vegetarian? No, I’m not actually. I eat fish.

You also told The Feedbag that you get a lot of weirdos. Can you be a little more specific on that? Well, I guess I think a lot of people are weird. And you know, we’re also weird. But because we’re a vegetarian restaurant we do get people who come in because it’s their diet. I think more so than other restaurants we get a lot of people with allergies and people who have their funny diet things like, “Oh, I’m only eating white food today!”

White food? Yeah, I’ve had that one. And we’ve had, “I’m on a liquid diet so this is what I’m going to order. Can you blend it for me?”


Seriously? Yes. And you know, what do you do? You go well… okay. But you know everybody has strange requests, so...

So taking the premise that most vegetarian restaurants are say, making menu choices based on a lifestyle diet instead of being adventurous with food, what is it about Dirt Candy that sets it apart? I think there are two differences. One, we do use dairy. Cheese, dairy, eggs, all that. That’s a huge difference. And then, also, I think our food is much more focused. We have a focal point on vegetables. That’s what I’m celebrating here. Other vegetarian restaurants are much more international, all encompassing, all over the place. Their focus is vegetarian food, or I guess I would say vegan food. My focus is vegetables. I get to be a lot more eccentric because I only have this one thing I do; it gives me these parameters to work within. Whereas if I was at another vegetarian restaurant, I could be like, I’m doing some Chinese food, I’m doing Italian food and I can do anything I want with it, and it’s so much broader. It’s almost like the difference between a really good diner and a fish restaurant. The diner probably does do some fish but it’s not going to do it as well as the fish restaurant.

What’s the dish you’re the most excited about, if you had to pick one for people to try on your menu? I think that’s a tough one. I think it would be the portabella mushroom mousse, because I think it's really unexpected. And it’s really luxurious. And it’s definitely a taste sensation you don’t get in most vegetarian food. You know, we definitely use cream, we use butter in the dish. So it's like “Ooh! I’m eating something that’s so dense and heavy and fattening but it’s so good.” And that’s not something you get in a lot of vegetarian food, particularly because they don’t use dairy.

And the dairy's organic? Yes. That’s the one thing we try to do; all our cheese is organic. The eggs are organic.

What about the person who gets dragged in saying,"I hate vegetarian restaurants." What would you recommend serving that person? I would give them the grits. The tempura egg grits. I think one of the things that make people not want to go to vegetarian restaurants is that they think they’re not going to be full. And so that’s a pretty hearty dish. You get fried food and you get an egg and I happen to think the grits are really good and you have the pickled mushroom in there so there’s a whole sort of flavor explosion happening in that dish and it’s hearty. We get a lot of dates and it’s usually a guy and a girl. She's vegetarian and he’s like, “Uh… she dragged me here.” And so we suggest that he gets the grits.

Maybe I’m provincial but I’ve never heard of a salad with candied grapefruit before. Where did you get that idea? Well, it was two separate ideas. One, I love candying grapefruit because I think it’s a great flavor. Years ago I was in China and they candy all kinds of fruit on the street, and I tried it and was like, “I really want to do that, I really want to that.” So we started playing around with it and we figured out, after much trial and error, how to do it and so now I have this grapefruit and I’m like what are we gonna do? I started doing it in another restaurant when it was grapefruit season. There were a lot of salads at other restaurants that had grapefruit and I was like, “Ooh, I wonder if I can incorporate this"…and then I thought, "I don’t know candy, salad…" Finally I said, “You know what, Screw it.” Why do you go out for a boring salad? You go home and have your salad with a tomato and a cucumber and your balsamic dressing. And that’s great. But if you’re going to go out and order a salad, you might as well be surprised by it.

Yeah and then kimchi donuts. That’s crazy. Yeah, you know, I like my fryer. I was trying all these different kinds of things where I have this great kimchi recipe and I just like food to be fun. It seemed like, "Ooh let’s make spicy donuts." So that’s how that sort of came up. I figured, you know what, if you’re gonna go out to eat, you might as well have fun with it. Try something different, be excited.

I’m wondering how people react. The kitchen is open and Dirt Candy is tiny. Have you ever overheard any interesting dining chatter? I hear a lot of comments about the food. So it’s very pleasant when they say nice things about me. But then I hear the negative things and I’m like, “Wait, I’m right here. You can see me!”

Can you give me a sample of one of each? Well, there’s a lot of “Ahh... you have to try the grapefruit, no you have to try the grapefruits.” And with the mushrooms, “I don’t like mushrooms, I don’t like mushrooms.” No, you have to try the mushrooms. And then people are like, “Ah, It’s really good!” And on the flip side... The spinach soup is really bright green. It looks like Ireland in a bowl, you know how Ireland is really bright green? So it’s like super, super bright. And the lighting in the place actually heightens all the colors, so what I hear a lot of is, “Ohhh… that’s really green. I don’t know, that’s too green for me. And why isn’t there cream in it? I don’t like it."

Your menu box outside the restaurant was recently vandalized. What's the status on that? Well, right now it’s at the hospital. It’s being slowly repaired. I have a little artisan that’s taping it all back together.

Did the police have any promising leads? No, because amazingly enough I found the one super police-proof menu box. The police officer was really nice, he was like, “I’m going to dust for fingerprints anyway.” But I warned him that, obviously, lots of people touched it. And he came back and said, "Wait, there’s not a single fingerprint on it."

What’s up with that? Whatever plastic the menu box is made out of, it didn’t accept them. You would have to press through really really hard.

Or maybe they wiped it down after they broke it? Maybe. I don’t think they cared very much since they tossed it halfway down the block.

There are a lot of vegetarian restaurants in the neighborhood. Do you suspect foul play? Well, the next week somebody tried to break in. They ended up just breaking the lock; they weren’t very good at their jobs. But the guy from the barber shop across the street did say he thought it was the vegetarian mafia warning me. I was like, "Really?"

Yeah, that has Caravan of Dreams written all over it. Anyway, how do you go from making buffalo wings in Spanish Harlem to being the first chef at Moby’s place Teany? Well, I was pretty tired of making buffalo wings. I had worked there for maybe two years and had tried to get all I could out of the buffalo wing place. I think I saw an ad for Teany. I think I was on the plane coming back from Las Vegas and I read that he was opening this tiny tea place in like Rolling Stone or something so I called them the next day. And I walked in and Kelly was really nice and was like, “You know, we really need a cook.” I started two days later.

Has Moby been into Dirt Candy yet? No, he hasn’t.

Any other bold-faced names? I think I had John Norris, the VJ who worked for MTV. I might have possibly met him.

I think you’re only the second female chef we’ve interviewed after Anita Lo. Really? That’s exciting.

Well, I guess I’m saying that because maybe it suggests something about the dining business. I’m wondering how challenging it is for a female chef to make a career in the restaurant industry? Well, I think it’s hard. You go through a lot in kitchens and you know, there’s a lot of sexism and a lot of rolling with the punches and people do overlook you. In my case, it was almost; I get to be doubly overlooked because I’m in the vegetarian world. And I'm not positive but I think there are very few mainstream chefs who have ever even heard of me. Whereas I could name a hundred. So being a woman and being a vegetarian chef puts me in some other dimension, pretty much.

One thing we ask all the chefs about is their worst kitchen scar. Do you have one? I have quite a few, so I have to think about which one I want to talk about. Well, about ten years ago I was walking down the stairs carrying a really heavy pot of hot, hot soup. And I tripped and I poured it down my stomach. So I have a scar on my stomach, but not only that, it went down my pants. That’s not only my worst scar but it’s my most embarrassing.

Hot soup went down your pants, too? Not all the way down my pants but it was sort of like stuck to my stomach and because the material was burning hot and I had to pull it away from me.

Wow. That’s heavy. Yeah, it was more sort of mentally scarring: "Are you standing in a kitchen without your pants on?" That scar has gotten smaller over time but mentally it’s still there. And that’s one instance when it was fortunate being a girl in the kitchen, because all the shirts are too big.