Graphic Cooking: Q&A With Amanda Cohen

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When chef and owner Amanda Cohen opened the tiny, orange-colored Dirt Candy in the East Village in 2008, she was going for something new. “Vegetables are the candy from the earth,” she has been known to say about her legume- and fruit-focused vegetarian restaurant. Now, after a stint on Iron Chef and countless rave reviews, Cohen finished the restaurant’s first cookbook, which comes out. Naturally, she had to do that a little differently, too, and instead of the normal cookbook style, hers is a graphic novel with drawings by Ryan Dunlavey. It’s a little bit like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but with food. I tracked Cohen down to find out a little bit more about her cookbook vision.

What made you decide to go the graphic novel route?
I’ve worked for several restaurants where we were barely open before the owners were writing a cookbook. I always thought to myself, “Why?” There are already thousands of them out there, why make more unless you’re doing something really different? Then, when Dirt Candy was about two years old, people started poking, “Cookbook? Cookbook? Cookbook?” I didn’t want to do it, but one day I was walking down the street having a fight with my husband and one of us said, “We might as well do something stupid, like a comic book cookbook.” And both of us stopped fighting and realized that’s it.

How did you pick the artist?
It was tough. We started out working with a different artist, but she lived really far away and it was hard to get the reference right. So, we sadly parted ways. I had seen Ryan’s Action Philosophers and so my husband and I were looking for someone like Ryan Dunlavey. Well, why not try Ryan Dunlavey? We had his email, bought him lunch, exploited his weaknesses to ensnare him in a terrible contract, and got to work. We really wanted someone who could do non-fiction comics, and who had a funny style with a lot of energy. That’s practically Ryan’s middle name—Ryan “Funny Style with a Lot of Energy” Dunlavey.

Through the illustrations, you make cooking look easy. Do you think it is?
I think cooking’s easy when you demystify it. That’s the hard part, because an entire industry has grown up around making cooking look magical and complicated. But once you rip away the baloney, you realize it’s a skill like any other. The more you learn to think about it logically, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.

What’s the hardest vegetable to work with?
Any vegetable that is better known for its texture than its taste is going to give you trouble, like eggplant. Everyone thinks of it as charred and smoky and creamy, but that’s not its taste, that’s its texture and the preparation.

Since you opened, do you think people have gotten used to your concept?
I’ve been really lucky since people have been on board with Dirt Candy almost from the beginning. I think by keeping it focused on the food and nothing else, I’ve been able to reach a lot of people. It’s also a numbers game, there are thousands of seafood restaurants out there, hundreds of steak restaurants, but Dirt Candy is the only vegetable restaurant. I don’t have much competition.

I remember how, when you opened, that was the critics just didn’t get the name Dirt Candy. Do you think that’s changed? 
People remember the name, and that’s all I’ve ever cared about. But recently, I’ve been seeing “dirt candy” as a reference to vegetables popping up more and more, from candy stores to people’s blogs. It’s slowly becoming more normal and less weird.

Do you think vegetable-focused dishes are having a renaissance? 
This is something that I keep reading about, but I’m still going to really nice restaurants and I’m still getting the same old roasted vegetable plate more often than not. A lot of the same old lazy thinking is still out there. I do think there are more people doing more creative things, but they’re in the minority. I think the difference is that the minority is getting bigger.

I noticed you had a lot of monkey appearances. Does that mean you finally got the helper monkey you wanted for Christmas?
I’m still dreaming. I think the fact that the monkey appears so often in the cookbook is me projecting my own unfulfilled desires onto the blank page. Someone should write an academic paper on it: “Bring Me Monkeys: Vegetable Chefs and the Subliminal Urge for Primate Ownership.”