Graphic Cooking: Q&A With Amanda Cohen

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.”

Taste of the Nation Charity Event Draws New York’s Best Local Chefs, Feeds Kids

Last night the charity Share Our Strength hosted Taste of the Nation, their annual culinary fundraiser as a means to help end childhood hunger. “We are here tonight because there are 16 million American kids who struggle with hunger,” said co-founder Debbie Shore. Since 1988 the foundation has hosted these yearly events in 30 plus cities and raised over $75 million, and frankly, given the number of top named chefs, bartenders, and restaurants that volunteer their time and ingredients, the organization makes donating money easy.

In New York this year, the two-story, four-room space at 82 Mercer was filled with delectable bites including: Old school Lobster Thermidor served by chef Aaron Bashy of The Water Club; the infamous fois gras and jelly doughnuts made by the boys at Do or Dine; a fluke cebiche from La Mar’s smiley chef Victoriano Lopez (plus his translator); and an amazing razor clam and fennel dish from Ai Fiori.

On the high-end-low-end spectrum guest were forced to ingest the comforting pickled beef tongue by the gang at Mile End, slices of a six-food wedge salad sandwich by chef Joe Dobias of JoeDough, and the most amazing savory cotton candy being whipped up by the adorable Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy. Oh the tragedy.

To wash all these treats down Eben Freeman shook up a delectable Melagrana Sour for Osteria Morini, Jeff Bell from the clandestine bar PDT poured a smoked cardamom-infused Mariner cocktail, and Employees Only whipped up a blackberry vodka drink. Hands down the most exciting drink being made came in the form of Booker and Dax’s Hendrick’s Rose, a sweet, fizzy cocktail that smoked.

Amid all the opulence, we can’t forget the real reason Taste of the Nation is held. After all, most people don’t think of American kids going hungry and in a place where many of us throw food away every day, it’s tragic that about one in five children in this country don’t get enough to eat. As the organization continues to fight this cause, they continue to give something to raise a glass of smoking pink bubbles to and I hope to see them again next year.

Where to Enjoy Meatless Mondays

When the temperature rises, Shake Shack beckons. Thick, juicy burgers with crispy lettuce and fat tomatoes in a light paper wrapping in the middle of Madison Square Park. When the temperature drops, I start to fantasize about Minetta Tavern, sliding up to that cozy bar, getting my lips around that Black Label Burger. Am I a burger-a-holic?

Not in the least, but I am quite romantic about my meat. But like all great loves, it’s an imperfect relationship- a toxic one at times. Read this tale of carbon terrorism about my boyfriend. The major research report found the mass production of meat creates “notable negative impact on human health, the environment and the global economy.” Not a very healthy relationship and if I have access to this information, along with a plethora of awesome vegetarian restaurants around town, why do I keep going back like an abused spouse? Well, enough is enough. If I can’t kick my addiction to Lil’ Frankie’s Meat Ragu entirely, I might as well explore Paul McCartney and Paltrow’s “Meatless Monday” alternative.

Environmental Concerns Related to Eating Meat: ●The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. ●Animal waste is another troubling concern. “Because only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are absorbed, animal waste is a leading factor in the pollution of land and water resources, as observed in case studies in China, India, the United States and Denmark,” the authors of the study wrote. ●One less meat-based meal a week helps the planet and your diet. “It requires 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. For each hamburger that originated from animals raised on rain-forest land, approximately 55 square feet of forest have been destroyed.” ●Treehugger’s Ready, Set, Green points out to locavores, a meat filled diet affects the planet regardless of how beef is raised since it’s an energy-and water-intensive food to produce. Simply put, diets lower in any kind of meat create a smaller footprint.

Health Concerns Related to Eating Meat ● You’ll save yourself a heart attack! Dr. Esselstyn’s book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease documents his 100 percent success rate for unclogging people’s arteries and reversing heart disease by administering a vegan diet. ● Meat can cause cancer as outlined in The China Study, a book by Dr. T. Colin Campbell that The New York Times called “the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.” The book’s main supported fact: “No chemical carcinogen is nearly so important in causing human cancer as animal protein.” Scary. ● You’ll be thinner! I think it has to do about paying attention to what you are shoveling into that mouth of yours, but on average, vegans are 10 to 20 percent lighter than meat-eaters.

So as bathing suit season approaches and we begin to make changes in our lifestyle and the way we procure information, why not try out Paul McCartney’s Meatless Monday with a few of these awesome Veggie spots? Have any more suggestions? Email me at Cayte at BBook dot com. Angelica Kitchen (East Village)– Neighborhood veggie powerhouse is the anti-Mickey D’s. Atlas Cafe and Bakery (East Village)– Vaguely Morrocan East Village bakery houses many a tasty vegan treat and heavy hangover. Ayurveda Cafe (Upper West Side)– Low-key vegetarian café designed to soothe your urban stresses. Blossom (Chelsea)– Way more stylish than its culinary kinfolk, the crunchy healthnuts here totally shower on the reg. Chennai Garden (Gramercy)– Top-shelf vegetarian Indian, bottom-rung price. Dirt Candy (East Village)– They’re vegetables. Get it? Dirt. Cand…nevermind. Josie’s (Murray Hill)– Lots of glowing girls fresh from NYSC, nibbling on oven-roasted free-range chicken, tofu duck, and Japanese yams. Life Cafe NINE83 (Bushwick)– Mom and Pop feel with a hipster spin. Pukk (East Village)– Funky East Village vision of an all-vegetarian future. Pure Food and Wine (Flatiron)– Say goodbye to a future of pacemakers and a gut the shape of China. Raw food is real food. Wild Ginger (Williamsburg)– Sedate spot for cruelty-free Asian eats.

New York: Top Green Joints for Earth Day Dining

Happy Earth Day! Time to jump on the bandwagon and make a couple of conscientious decisions that will make up for the fact that you’re a lazy, meat-eating oaf who leaves the water running whilst brushing his teeth the other 364 days of the year. So where to begin? By now you’ve already googled “eco-chic” and “organic” and it’s left you hopelessly confused! All of these certifications and standards — it feels like someone is pulling the eco-friendly wool over your eyes. So let’s make this easy. Here’s a short list of GRA-certified New York restaurants that will shrink the size of your size-13 carbon footprint today. These restos are certified green, and like Kermit once said, it ain’t easy. Once joining the GRA program, restaurants must use a comprehensive recycling program, must never use Styrofoam products, and complete four “Environmental Steps” a year, like using biodegradable or tree-free products and energy-efficient lighting.

Dirt Candy (East Village) – It just sounds healthy, doesn’t it? ● Vento Trattoria (Meatpacking District) – Modelized girls dining here are more into their stilettos than Mother Earth, but what they don’t know won’t hurt ’em, unless the planet blows up.

Rouge Tomate (Midtown East) – Not only are they GRA-certified, but they also use greenmarket ingredients. ● Wildwood Barbeque (Gramercy) – The South may bring to mind big diesel trucks with a Confederate flag on the back window, but at least this southern-style BBQ joint is diesel free. ● Boat Basin Café (Upper West Side) – You’ll feel even healthier hanging outside, if the pollution levels on the Hudson are low today. ● Dirt Candy (East Village) – It just sounds healthy, doesn’t it? ● Del Posto (Chelsea) – Eco-friendly never tasted so good, thanks to Mario Batali’s sprawling Italian resto. ● Eletarria (Greewich Village) – The interior may look recycled too, but that isn’t what gives it the GRA certification. ● Blue Water Grill (Union Square) – Net a bounty of MILF and cougar attention at the bar with your extensive knowledge of the GRA program. ● Dos Caminos Soho (Soho) – Is your new green approach to eating making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, or is it the fifth margarita?