“Food should be fun, that is the number one most important thing—it should be delicious, but it should be fun,” says Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of Dirt Candy restaurant in New York City.
Vegetables are the name of the game at Dirt Candy, which is now celebrating its 10th year of operation. An accomplished chef, Cohen worked on the line as a vegetarian cook for a number of years all over the city. When the time came to open her own restaurant, she had a realization that would change not only her life, but diners’ perceptions of vegetarian and vegan cuisine for years to come.
“I thought to myself that there are thousands of meat restaurants and steak restaurants. There really isn’t a single vegetable restaurant,” she recalls. “When I had that realization, it was mind-blowing. Not only was there not a vegetable restaurant in New York, there wasn’t one in North America!”
Dirt Candy was the first of it’s kind in the five boroughs celebrating vegetables and only vegetables. Cohen doesn’t find the work challenging—in fact, she finds it the opposite. “To me, they are inherently fun, they’re so colorful,” she states proudly. “They have so many different flavors and textures. We get to be really creative. The world is wide open to us and we can do whatever we want.”
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Last September, the restaurant reopened with a tasting menu-only format. Five courses are offered via The Vegetable Patch for $57 per person, while nine to 10 courses are offered on The Vegetable Garden menu for $83 per person (tip is included in both menu options).
Of The Peking Peas dish, Cohen says it’s the anchor of the menu.
“It’s our homage to Chinatown,” she says. “One of the more iconic dishes in this Chinatown is Peking Duck. We had to figure out a way to take all those flavors and textures and bring them into the restaurant without the duck. So we decided to play with it and see what we can do.”
Though it looks technically savvy, the dish is simple: sugar snap peas are de-threaded and put on a stick and presented with house-made hoisin sauce, plum sauce and julienned cucumbers, scallions and snow peas. The crunchiness and umami flavor comes from a cake made of pea purée that’s been made into a tofu and lacquered soy skin (a.k.a. yuba).
“The idea is to take one of the pancakes and one of the peas that you grill yourself at the table and then add some of the sauces, some of the pea tofu sandwiches and some of the vegetables and make a perfect tiny little sandwich.”
“I really hope when diners leave, they have a new appreciation for vegetables,” she adds. “They don’t always have to be serious and they don’t always have to be good for you—but they can be really delicious.”
Video and photos shot by Kathryn M. Sheldon, an award-winning producer, photographer and editor with a background in still photography and television production. Having produced food and beverage content for seven years at NBC, she is currently producing video content for the MICHELIN Guide.