Chef Amanda Cohen wants diners to relax, enjoy and really feel at home in her new restaurant. “Dirt Candy could be my living room, for all intents and purposes. People should feel like they’re coming to my house and sitting down for a dinner party in the kitchen,” she says of the elegantly intimate 18 seat eatery. Cohen will interact with each and every one of her guests as she effortlessly moves back and forth from the open kitchen from which she presides over the room. Her desire to create this uniquely personal experience harks back to her own childhood in Canada. Cohen’s passion for food grew out of the personal family interaction that percolated around the table growing up in a very food-focused family. “What we were eating, and where, was always an ongoing discussion. I remember lots of family trips where we spent more time looking at restaurants menus than looking at the sites”.
Amanda began cooking at the age of 13, and soon realized that she wanted to be a chef. She graduated from the Natural Gourmet Cookery School Chef’s Training Program in 1998, and immediately began building her impressive resume working with a series of renowned chefs.
After culinary school, Cohen became a line cook at Diner Bar, an eclectic neighborhood bar and diner in Harlem where she spent three years preparing buffalo wings (for which she became famous), burgers, steaks, fish, and comfort food on a fast-moving, two-person line that handled up to 200 covers per night.
In 2002, Chef Cohen launched Teany on the Lower East Side tea house for music star Moby. After two years at the helm of Teany, where she completely redesigned the menu, she opened celebrity chef Matthew Kenney’s restaurant, Pure Food and Wine.
Then, in 2005, Chef Cohen left Pure Food and Wine to become Chef de Cuisine at Heirloom, an Orchard Street restaurant devoted to vegetarian cooking. She designed the menu at Heirloom and the restaurant went on to win Time Out New York’s Reader’s Choice Award for “Best Vegetarian Restaurant” in 2006.
Cohen brings the skills, talent and knowledge of ingredients and love for vegetables to her own venture with Dirt Candy. A vegetable-focused restaurant, Dirt Candy sets out to do for vegetables what Peter Lugar’s does for steak and what BLT Fish does for seafood. “Vegetables are amazing. Made out of little more than water, sunlight, and dirt they wind up growing into a candy store full of color and flavor. And that’s what I want Dirt Candy to be: nature’s candy store.”
Living and traveling in Asia and Europe gave her an appreciation and intimate knowledge of cultures, ingredients, and spices that have colored her bold approach to flavors and given her an identifiable style and won her kudos. “I believe in strong, simple flavors and then layering those flavors into a more complex experience. I can’t stand food that’s not one thing or another. If I’m eating something spicy I want it to be the spiciest thing I’ve ever had. If it’s salty, I want it to be intensely salty. If it’s a dish with lemons I want that strong, bright, sharp taste of citrus. I hate wimpy food.”
Since opening Dirt Candy in 2008, Chef Cohen has been named Metromix’s “Chef of the Year” in 2009. The Michelin-recognized Dirt Candy was named “Best Vegetarian Restaurant 2011” by the Village Voice and recently received two stars from The New York Times in 2012. Her distinctive writing voice on the restaurant’s blog was recognized by the late Gourmet magazine, which gave her a “Golden Egg” for “Funniest In-House Blog.” Chef Cohen was the first vegetarian chef to appear in the hit TV series Iron Chef America: Battle Broccoli against Iron Chef Morimoto. In 2012, Chef Amanda Cohen co-authored her first cookbook – the very first graphic novel cookbook to be published in Northern America – with Grady Hendrix and comic artist Ryan Dunlavey.