It takes a lot of guts to move to New York City and it’s even gutsier to open a 350 sq. ft., nine-table restaurant with a vegetables-only menu. But, Canadian chef Amanda Cohen has done it, and to rave reviews with her establishment, Dirt Candy, which turns 5 years old this January.
Twenty years ago, Ottawa-born Cohen packed her bags and left her home in Toronto to attend the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Chef Training program in NYC. Wanting courses that reflected her vegetarian diet and interests at the time, Cohen says that the Natural Gourmet Institute was one of the few schools that was “kind” to vegetarians. Plus, attending would let her move to her dream city.
“This was where I [always] wanted to be and ultimately knew I would end up," explains Cohen on her early move to the big city. "So, I figured I might as well start early!”
After graduating, Cohen honed her skills at well-known New York establishments including Angelica’s Kitchen, Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, Teany, and Heirloom. She even ventured into learning how to butcher and cook meat and seafood to further her culinary aspirations.
“It was really good because it expanded the possibilities of what I could do with food,” Cohen points out.
Having been an executive chef for some time, Cohen began to itch for something more, so she opened her own restaurant in 2008 — the bright, but cozy Dirt Candy.
“I had this idea for a small restaurant that was only going to be about vegetables," says Cohen.
Let it be known, though, Dirt Candy isn’t a vegetarian restaurant; it’s a vegetable restaurant.
“It lets the more omnivorous eaters know that this is a different kind of restaurant,” the chef says, explaining the term she coined. “They go to 'steak' restaurants, they go to 'chicken' restaurants, why wouldn’t they go to a 'vegetable' restaurant? I think sometimes, vegetarian can seem a little oppressive, whereas [thinking] vegetable is just something different.”
Different? Maybe. Delicious? Absolutely. As a testament to her skills and Dirt Candy’s success (if you need a specific day and time, make a reservation two months in advance), Cohen became the first vegetarian chef to appear on Iron Chef America in 2010. She’s also published her very own graphic novel-esque cookbook based on Dirt Candy’s food, aptly titled Dirt Candy.
“This restaurant is like a vegetable laboratory,” says Cohen. “We come to work everyday and we get to play and have fun with vegetables.”
Cohen’s Canadian roots come through on the her playful menu, with Dirt Candy’s signature hush puppies being served with maple butter and the classic Canadian Nanaimo bar reinvented with sweet pea and mint. And you’ll always find Canadian humour and tidbits in Cohen’s blog posts chronicling life at Dirt Candy.
“I’m still representing Canada when I cook here,” she says passionately. “I have to do right by it!”
(430 E. 9 St, New York. Twitter: @dirtcandy)