We recently took the opportunity to speak with Amanda Cohen, CTP Grad and Chef/Owner of the critically acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy in East Village, about the practical and creative challenges of working in the restaurant industry.
What year did you graduate and what was your CTP number?
I think I graduated in 1998 and my number was CTP 56.
Right after graduating NGI you seemed to rise quickly, wherever you went, to a position of responsibility in the kitchen. Did you have kitchen or front-of-the-house experience prior to school?
I didn’t have any prior experience except working as a food runner at a country club in Toronto when I was in high school. But I mostly learned on the job. And behind every seemingly quick rise there is an incredibly slow slog. I worked as a private chef for years, I was a prep cook at Whole Foods, and there was a time when I was getting up at 4 am to bake for TeaNY, going down there to cook until 1pm, then going to work at DinerBar in the evening to do a full shift. So I don’t feel like I rose very fast at all!
What about your character, background or personality makes you suited for the high-pressure, competitive world of New York restaurants?
I don’t think anyone’s suited for this kind of career. There is no way to prepare for it. The only option is to go into kitchens and pay your dues and while doing that you’ll either decide it’s not for you, or you’ll stick with it and develop the personality you need to cope. It does help that I’m really competitive – there have been jobs that I would have quit after a week if my stubborn drive to beat the job hadn’t kept me there.
One of the things that helped me a huge amount is that in every job I’ve had I’ve learned something. And not just learned it as a lesson, but had it ground down into my DNA. And a lot of times it’s been what NOT to do, rather than what to do.
I’ve heard an amusing rumor about why you’re a vegetarian. Would you like to set the record straight?
All amusing rumors about me are automatically true.
Okay, a little non-health-supportive gossip. In your early career, while cooking at DinerBar, you made acquaintance with the deep-fryer. I remember you had a certain fondness for deep-frying. What are some of the more unusual things you’ve deep-fried?
The deep fryer might just be my favorite tool in the kitchen. At Dirt Candy we play a game on long evenings called, “Will it Fry?” I’ve deep-fried chocolate bars, fruit, cookies, peas, hard candies, ice cream, every vegetable known to man, eggs and even the occasional human soul.
You definitely have your own unique style of creating dishes, but I sense some culinary influences. Who are the chefs you admire? My guess is that maybe Wylie Dufresne and Charlie Trotter have played a role; who else?
Charlie Trotter had the first amazing vegetable cookbook, and he was one of the first chefs who made eating vegetables in a high end restaurant really exciting. And I have a lot of respect for Wylie Dufresne. But to be honest, the biggest influences on me are people I’ve worked with who aren’t big names, and cookbooks. When I was working in the dungeons of DinerBar I used to pore over cookbooks by Julia Child, Diane Kennedy and Claudia Roden. And I have to give huge credit to Glory Mongin, whom I worked with at Pure Food and Wine and who works at Cafe Paradiso in Ireland now, who taught me how to run a kitchen.
Your dishes are veg-centric, usually showcasing a particular vegetable. When you look at a seasonal vegetable, how do you approach building a dish around it? That is, can you give me some insight into your creative process, what you’re trying to achieve?
I have a stockpile of vague ideas of dishes that I think would be fun to make, and at the same time I have seasons coming at me with all their vegetables and I’m trying to figure out what to do with them. And usually what happens is something just clicks – there’s a moment of inspiration when vegetable C suddenly clicks with dish idea B-6.
Then, after that, comes the hard part, which is making the dish work. It takes me a long time to get a dish on the menu because between that moment of inspiration and the dish actually coming out of the kitchen for paying customers, it will transform and mutate about a dozen times. Usually the original idea and the final product are barely related. And the things that factor into that transformation are food costs, the realities of prep, plating, other ideas that pop up at random, something someone might say while taste-testing the dish, and a million other variables. But really the key is knowing what’s coming up, having a bunch of ideas I want to try, and mixing and matching the two.
Your food combining is intriguing too. What informs the decision to pair king oyster mushrooms with grilled grapes and cheese curds?
That’s the celery salad, and it started out with me wanting to do a version of the Waldorf Salad. It was summer and I wanted to use celery because it’s so refreshing, and it’s also really under-utilized in cooking. Waldorfs use apples, but I wanted to use grilled grapes because I wanted something lighter and sweeter, and the salad already had plenty of crunch from the celery.
Also, I think salads are all about balance and contrasting textures, and so the grapes were a way to get the sweetness of fruit in there, but a softer texture. Then, for the cheese curds, I wanted something fun on the plate and something a little bit trashy since there was no mayonnaise in the dish and I came across cheese curds from a purveyor.
Your most unusual but successful flavor combination . . .
Horseradish, maple syrup and cauliflower. Coming soon to the Dirt Candy menu.
After working and innovating in the strict worlds of vegan and raw cuisines, do you find it easier to create vegetarian food?
I find creating dishes hard no matter what. It’s the thing that takes me the longest amount of time and causes me the most amount of grief. Every dish on the Dirt Candy menu is the result of dozens of experiments and months, and in some cases years, of trying to get it right. In a way, actually, I preferred cooking in a raw kitchen or a strictly vegan kitchen because I find that those limitations give me boundaries and really focus my creative instincts. If you’re making a raw entree you don’t have every option open to you. Instead you’ve already got lots and lots of restrictions. So it’s almost easier, in a strange way.
Some of your entrees lack a protein. Do you think protein is over-rated or unnecessary as an entree focus?
I think vegetarian cooking has become a slave to the “meat and two veg” template for a long time, with a big chunk of tofu, or seitan or tempeh standing in for the meat. Getting that protein out of the center of the plate suddenly opens up whole new horizons of what you can make and gives you a whole new idea of what an entree can be. And oddly enough I haven’t had people here who have a problem with it, which is something I expected when I opened Dirt Candy. I think that people who say, “Where’s the protein?” are really just looking for an excuse to criticize. The fact is: Dirt Candy is a restaurant. At most, someone’s eating here once a week. You can live without a big chunk of protein for dinner one night a week.
You’ve worked with your sous chef Jesus for many years at different places. Do you want to tell us something about him and why you work so successfully together?
I don’t know quite why our relationship works, but it does. He’s my “work husband.” He puts up with me and I put up with him. I’ve never opened a restaurant where I haven’t wanted Jesus there. He’s the one person I trust absolutely in the kitchen and someone who has always had my back. That’s not to say he doesn’t drive me crazy and he isn’t a giant pain in my ass, but I know (since he tells me almost everyday) that he feels the same way about me and so it balances out.
You’ve worked successfully as a chef and a restaurateur. How about some advice for our graduates who are thirsty to be restaurant chefs or owners – what kind of experience and resources are essential?
I’m not sure what kind of resources are out there. You sort of have to find your own way, and the only suggestion I have in that respect is to meet people. Talk to people doing what you do. It’s the only way to really learn about this industry. On a more personal level, if you’re aspiring to work in a professional kitchen: work on your technique, work on your technique, work on your technique. Find the toughest, busiest restaurant you can and get a job on their line. Stay for at least a year. If it’s not a vegetarian or natural or organic restaurant, that’s okay.
This is professional training and your personal beliefs need to take a back seat to getting rock solid skills. If you don’t like the job, too bad. Think of it as a challenge to see if you can stay for the year. See how much you can learn by seeing what NOT to do. If you think your boss is an idiot, then watch how they act and try to figure out why and file it away for the future so you know how not to make their mistakes. By the time your year is up you’ll either realize working in a professional kitchen isn’t for you and you’ll move on to something that makes you happier, or you’ll be on your way to having an unbeatable set of skills.
The first few years of working in a professional kitchen are going to shape the rest of your life, so don’t slack. Don’t call in sick, don’t show up late, don’t screw off. Get on that line no matter what and realize that for that year your best will never be enough. You will have to get better every day, or you will crash and burn. But if you put in the work now, your technique will support you for the rest of your life.
One last question: You take interns. What makes a successful intern?
Someone who treats their internship like a job. Going to school is very different from having a job. At school your opinions are valued and you’re supposed to learn to think for yourself and develop your own ideas. In a job, your goal is to execute what the chef wants and to keep your ideas to yourself for the first few years.
I know that sounds Medieval, but school gives you the grounding you need to understand cooking and why things work. I think it’s important in that respect. But it’s the job that teaches you the skills and forces you to repeat techniques until you can do them in your sleep. And an internship is the first time a lot of students run up against these realities.
It’s easy to see which interns will make it and which won’t. The ones who won’t make it are the ones who argue, and try to show off what they know and who act like they’re still in a class. The ones who will make it are the ones who keep their heads down, the ones who ask questions and listen to the answers and the ones who treat it like a job.