Well Being

‘Vegetable-Forward’ Eating: How Vegetarian Chef Amanda Cohen Is Changing Fine Dining

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amanda cohen
It’s taken a few years, but Michael Pollan’s central thesis from In Defense of Food–“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much … A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main”–is finally being adopted by chefs and high end food purveyors around the country. From Jean-George’s ABC Kitchen in Manhattan and Jose Ramirez-Ruiz’s Chez Jose pop-up in Brooklyn to Coi in San Francisco (and plenty of places in between), restaurants are eschewing the “vegetarian” moniker, adopting instead a Pollanesque “vegetable-forward” model in which vegetables–not just meat substitutes or grains–are the focus. In many cases, meat or animal products are “allowed,” but minimally, mostly as flavoring agents and side dishes.

New York City chef Amanda Cohen has been refining this approach for years, first at Angelica Kitchen and the all-raw Pure Food and Wines, and most recently at her very own enterprise, Dirt Candy, which she opened in 2008 to rave reviews. Her clever, playful take on vegetarian fare is abundantly clear to anyone lucky enough to snag a table at her shoebox-sized East Village spot, and all the more evident in her recently released cookbook, a graphic novel collaboration with artist Ryan Dunlavey that’s both visually and culinarily innovative. We chased Amanda down and got her to answer a few questions about the current landscape of veggie-centric cooking and her own ideas about health and nutrition.

Have you perceived a change in the types of diners seeking out vegetable-focused fare?

I don’t really know. At least half of my customers on any given night aren’t vegetarians, they’re just people who want to have a good meal. That hasn’t been the case anywhere else I’ve worked, so I just don’t have a good frame of reference here.

How have your own ideas about health changed since you started cooking?

Mostly I’ve developed a deep and passionate worry for my own health. Since opening the restaurant I feel like I’m dying every day.

Even with the new trend towards vegetable forward cooking, it seems like your restaurant is something of a novelty in the grander scheme … do you see that becoming less true as more people become concerned with health and sustainability? Is that something you would want?

I think the more the merrier, but to be honest there are tens of million of people who are vegetarian in the world, so I don’t feel like all that much of a novelty. However, in the context of New York, I still haven’t seen many high end places moving vegetables to the center of the plate. They’re doing better appetizers and sides, they’re super-sizing their vegetable sides to become entrees, but a top to bottom re-think that results in vegetables as entrees isn’t happening yet as far as I can see.

You've said that you're not trying to change the way people eat, but it certainly seems that you're trying to make a case for vegetables as an end to themselves rather than a side dish, which is a perspective that seems, at least in this country, a bit radical. What would you say are your motives and goals in terms of cooking the way you do?

My goals are really, really selfish. I like cooking vegetables because no one else is doing it. I feel like I’m a grizzled prospector with an old mule wandering through the desert and suddenly we’ve struck it rich. Vegetarian food can be so limited sometimes, and the way chefs think about vegetables can be so dead-end, that when I started I was really worried I’d run out of things to do at Dirt Candy before long. But after four years I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. To be honest, I want to spend less time running the place and more time in the kitchen experimenting. I’d love it if other people did what I’m doing, but let’s face it: They’re not going to. As long as the big boys get all the press and the awards they’re never going to deign to take something as uncool as vegetables seriously. And that’s fine with me.

So far, this veggie-centric culinary trend seems limited to fine dining restaurants and high-end food purveyors (I’m thinking of not just Dirt Candy but of ABC Kitchen, Jennifer Rubell’s vegetable butcher stage at Eataly and the like). Do you see this sort of thing trickling down to the masses at all?

I actually think it’s trickling up. Lots of my relatives who aren’t into food at all want to make sure their kids are eating better, and I see them serving more vegetables and less meat. I see them trying to make sure their kids are getting organic milk and eggs. I see them using weirder vegetables than they would have a few years ago, and I see them cooking from a lot of different ethnic cuisines. They’re not learning this stuff at ABC Kitchen. They’re getting it from TV, from the Food Network, from the big industrial food producers who are suddenly making better produce available to more people, they’re getting it from stories on the nightly news about pesticides and health and childhood obesity.

What do you think is the value of the cookbook as a medium, when home cooks can so easily access recipes online these days?

For me, the internet has changed the whole recipe delivery system. When I’m looking for versions of a recipe I go online first, not to my bookshelf. A cookbook can’t just list a bunch of recipes and have that be enough anymore. Maybe as an artifact, but it’s not a useful book. A cookbook has to entertain, it has to present a point-of-view, and it has to stand out in the landslide of books that pour onto the shelves every season. Cookbooks are good at delivering an entire system of thought. If I want to learn the basics of Thai food, there are great books that give me a comprehensive grounding in its foundations in a way the internet doesn’t. I think giving someone a new way of thinking about vegetables from start to finish is something a cookbook can do better than a website.

The graphic novel format of your book is an unusual one for sure, especially by comparison to the sort of curated bucolic tableaux trend in farm to table and produce-centric cookbooks these days (I’m thinking of David TanisYotom Ottolenghi orAlice Waters). Were you trying to rebel against the preciousness of that trend?

That kind of cookbook just doesn’t represent Dirt Candy. There are restaurants where the illusions are really, really important and I’d be disappointed if they didn’t exist. But that’s not what I do, and I’d look silly if I tried. My Italian grandmother didn’t teach me these recipes on her deathbed, I’m not recreating the classic dishes my happy family ate around the table together when I was a child, and I don’t go wandering through the fields of a biodynamic farm and whip recipes up from organic produce when inspiration strikes. But you know, the world is big enough to contain both KISS and Tracy Chapman.