Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy
It’s a beautiful early spring day and I’m sitting across the street from the new location of Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen’s award winning restaurant in New York City. In front of me are a designated bike path, benches, trees and shrubbery, and a perfect vantage point of the façade of Dirt Candy, which is partially obscured by construction awnings. I laugh when I see that a large sign has been affixed to the scaffolding, which reads in big, bold letters “VEGETABLES HERE.”
It’s not just the sign that’s funny. Humor seems to be an integral part of Cohen herself. Cohen is something of a media darling, which may be tied to the fact that she is simultaneously outspoken while also being self-deprecating. She’s also a bit camera shy. It’s a charming combination, offset only slightly by the fact that throughout the interview I couldn’t shake the impression that I was kind of wasting her time. But then, Amanda Cohen doesn’t seem to be entirely sure why all of us strangers want to sit down to pick her brain, and she’s got stuff to do.
“First off, I still don’t think I’m famous, at all.” Cohen laughs as she says this, a response to my asking what it is like for her to have transitioned from being a chef into being a famous chef. “I’m certainly not a celebrity chef, you don’t see me on the Celebrity Chef cruises…but I’ve been in this business for a really long time.”
This last statement is evident. While she and I sit across from each other at a very nice high-top table, I facing the interior of the restaurant and Cohen facing the street, it’s clear that she’s still paying attention to what’s going on in her newly-constructed open kitchen. This is not the demeanor of a disconnected celebrity chef, or that of a starry-eyed, media-seeking newcomer. Cohen was chopping mushrooms when I first arrived, and I’m reasonably certain that she’s still thinking about those mushrooms.
“This is my baby, it’s my everything. I feel intensely responsible, not just for the restaurant but for the people who work here. And, you know, I have bills to pay, and I have mouths to feed, and that is my responsibility. It takes up all my thinking time, waking time, everything.”
It’s an earnest reflection that is underscored by the clanging of pots and bustle of her crew a mere six or seven feet away. Cohen began cooking in a restaurant at age 15, and while she has appeared on Iron Chef America and America’s Test Kitchen (she is famous, despite her protestations to the contrary), it seems that her most comfortable space is the kitchen.
Says Cohen, “I opened the first restaurant, ‘Little Dirt Candy’ as we call it, about seven years ago. So, I’ve just been working and working and working and working, and you hope as you work, you know, you get a little bit more well-known every year, more people come to your restaurant, more people take an interest in you.”
This is coming true. In a reasonably short amount of time Cohen has become a Big Deal, capital B, capital D. The accolades are numerous: Dirty Candy has a five year streak of mentions by the Michelin Guide, two stars from the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, an in-depth write-up by Jeff Gordinier from that same newspaper, and a variety of reviews, articles, and coverage from a host of other publications.
It seems a little perplexing for Cohen, who views herself as a chef and not as a media icon. Even now, four hours before their doors are scheduled to open, the prep work is in full swing and her crew is not using our interview as an excuse to slack off. From my stool I can see directly into the kitchen, and everyone is either studiously ignoring us or are just too busy to pay us any mind. Sitting on the end of Dirt Candy’s bar are a tray of small, yeasty-looking rolls and a tureen of what I believe is soup. Everything looks delicious.
Cohen’s attitude regarding her restaurant, and her role in it, may also help to explain her success. In a business where more than half of all restaurants close within their first year, and in a city especially known for the quick shuttering of doors, what she has achieved is particularly impressive. Her ability to describe what is happening in her restaurant, and her own specific path, also shows an openness that transcends what most people would typically disclose.
Besides running Dirt Candy itself, Cohen maintained the original Dirt Candy’s in-house blog. “We really wanted to tell the story of Dirt Candy, and the story of restaurants, and to be really honest.” This honesty is also reflected in Dirt Candy’s cookbook, by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunleavy, with (Amanda’s husband) Grady Hendrix, which is illustrated like a graphic novel and studded with glorious-sounding recipes (grilled cheese croutons!). The cookbook hilariously details the trials and travails of the restaurant, from experiences with thieving contractors to the reasons why their salads cost fourteen dollars.
It’s an unusual effort, both because of its graphic novel format and the level of openness that it displays regarding the restaurant’s troubles and process. Says Cohen, “I don’t think every chef needs to do this, but for me it was really important to break down that fourth wall and explain why we do what we do, and why it’s expensive, and all that kind of stuff.”
Cohen continues this trend in the Eater blog Dispatches from Dirt Candy, where she tackles various aspects of the industry, such as the role of professional PR and how tipping impacts restaurants and their employees. It’s a significant plus that her writing is both fun and nicely constructed, with a good narrative thread. It’s also funny, and it’s not hard to laugh at her acerbic, insightful humor. When asked about her writing Cohen replies, “I like to write. Some chefs can just climb mountains, and run marathons. I’m more of a sitter. That’s more of my second talent, sitting.”
When asked about plans for the future, Cohen states that at some point she could see having more than one restaurant, but for the moment she is solely focused on the one she currently has. “I’m more like a turtle in this race, I’m the slow one,” she says. The moment the interview has ended though, she is back in the kitchen with those same mushrooms.
First published June 2015