7 Questions with Chef Amanda Cohen
7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.
Amanda Cohen’s motto is “Anyone can cook a hamburger, but leave the vegetables to professionals.” This is the moxie that has made the vegetarian chef with the movie star good looks a hot commodity in the Big Apple. Reservations are recommended if you want to grab one of the 18 seats at Cohen’s Dirt Candy.
John Del Signore of the Gothomist describes Chef Amanda’s food thusly:
Her mission is to seduce everyone from carnivores to breatharians with luxuriously adventurous vegetarian—not vegan—cuisine. To that end, the menu features such hits as Jalapeno Hush Puppies with maple butter, and Stone Ground Grits, pickled shitakes and a tempura poached egg.
Cohen’s odyssey started out at the Natural Gourmet Institute a mostly vegetarian cooking school. Afterward she began the practical learning by working at several of New York City’s best vegetarian restaurants which included working with Matthew Kenney at Pure Food & Wine and a stop at legendary Angelica’s Kitchen which has specialized in organically grown plant-based cuisine for over 25 years. Surprisingly it was at Spanish Harlem’s DinerBar that she gained notoriety for her Buffalo Wings. Pop star Moby opened a cash-only vegetarian tea room in the early part of the decade and it was only natural (pun intended) that he picked Cohen to be his chef at Teany.
Cohen is actually a pescitarian meaning that though she won’t stick a fork in a cow she has no qualms about scarfing on a red snapper. She refutes the suggestion that she is not a fan of vegan food by offering, “two versions of every single dish on the menu, one vegan and one non-vegan.” Cohen’s mammal-less menu is not political it’s just what she prefers – as it should be. No one should open a restaurant to make a political statement.
Since opening the hippest vegetarian eatery in the city Amanda has seen her fair share of accolades. Metromix: New York named her Chef of the Year for 2009. StarChefs.com also jumped on the Cohen bandwagon naming her one of their 2009 rising stars. But Amanda Cohen has her sights set still higher.
Recently she ventured down to Chelsea Market to square off against Iron Chef Morimoto in Kitchen Stadium for an episode scheduled to air this weekend. Even more recently she agreed to answer 7 Questions:
1. How old were you when you first started to cook?
I don’t remember, but I come from a house where leftover salad became salad stir fry which then became salad soup. So from an early age I realized that if I was going to receive basic nutrients I would need to get a handle on this cooking thing myself.
2. When did you decide that you could make food your career?
I was living in LA and sort of drifting through life and I figured that I needed to do something and so I fell back on the one thing I’d ever been interested in, which was cooking.
3. Which chefs have influenced you the most?
I never had what you’d call a mentor. For me, the place I learned a lot was from reading cookbooks and I always felt close to the people who wrote them like Julia Child, Diana Kennedy, Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David. But also, there are several people I’ve worked in the kitchen with who aren’t brand name mentors that I can rattle off to give myself some of their credibility, but they’re people who’ve taught me a lot. Glory, Jessica, Georgia – I’ve learned something from all of them and wouldn’t be the chef I am today without them.
4. If you hadn’t followed this career path, what other career could you see yourself in?
Accounting. It’s amazing how good an accountant you have to be to run a restaurant.
5. So how did one of New York’s most prolific vegetarian chefs become famous for Buffalo wings?
I needed a job, and DinerBar up in Spanish Harlem was the only place hiring. I was there for years, and it was usually myself and Cliff working the line for up to 200 covers a night. You’d be surprised at how much you can do with touch and smell.
6. “Dirt Candy” is a great name; how did you come up with it?
Thanks! You only get one shot at opening a restaurant and so many names sound the same to me. There’s the number name (2121), the foreign word name (Ribottolini), the proper noun name (Amanda’s) and the cryptic word name (Fork, Spoon, Table, Salt). I wanted a name that grabbed people and that they talked about. Every time someone brings up the name in an article it’s like they’re giving me a free ad. And I’ve seen it taking off online – poke a round a little and you’ll see more and more people using dirt candy as slang for vegetables.
7. What’s next for Chef Amanda Cohen?
Do you know any investors? I’d be happy for them to come in and have a meal. I’m very clean and nice.
Be sure to check out more on Chef Amanda on my weekly Iron Chef pregame.