Vegetables have an undeservedly bad rap. The phrase ‘eat your vegetables’ has probably been repeated to children around the globe for centuries. Even as adults, our aversion to veggies lingers on: When it comes to meals, vegetables are often an afterthought in a dish, to be used as a garnish or set dressing rather than the main star.
Chef and restauranteur Amanda Cohen wants to change that. And not by picketing her neighbours’ backyard barbecues or down at the local butcher, either.
She’s run her vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy, for the past seven years on New York City’s Lower East Side, racking up a laundry list of accolades along the way. It was the first vegetarian restaurant in almost two decades to receive stars from the New York Times’ food critics, and is beloved by the locals for its fun and ‘unpoliticised’ approach to vegetarian cuisine.
That is to say, Cohen isn’t up on a soapbox railing against meat-eaters—she’s just showing people how much of a “flavour party” veggies can really be.
“Most chefs could care less about their vegetables, especially 20 years ago when I started cooking,” says the excitable 44-year-old. “They would spend all their time thinking about meat, and vegetables were left on the sidelines—but for me, they’re a wide-open frontier.”
But vegetables bring their own set of culinary challenges to the table. As Cohen bluntly puts it: “You can’t just sling them on a grill and expect to wind up with something edible.”
To start, vegetables have a relatively consistent — one might even say boring — texture. They have a high water content that needs to be reduced in order to accentuate any other flavours. And to top it all off, veggies don’t have any fats: which is why food that tastes so good is often so sinful as well.
“Cooking vegetables the way you’d cook meat is a recipe for sadness and failure,” she opines wisely.
Instead of utilising science or other arcane methods to alter her leafy subjects, Cohen focuses on presenting them in fun, fresh ways.
Think savoury tomato cakes, an airy spinach millefeuille, and Brussels sprout tacos tossed in rich Mexican bistek sauce (butter might not be a vegetable, but it sure made everything taste delicious).
Cohen’s irreverent approach to vegetables is exactly what the much-maligned ingredient needs. “We tend to cook the same old vegetables in the same old ways, so of course we’re bored by them,” she says. “I want to banish the ghost of everyone’s mom hovering behind them, waggling her finger and saying: ‘Eat your vegetables’.”
But there are things that Cohen takes seriously, too. Like the need to eliminate tipping in American restaurants, which she’s done away with in her own, becoming the first restaurant in New York City to do so. Instead, she’s introduced a surcharge similar to Singapore’s own to ensure that her employees receive a fair living wage.
She’s also an outspoken critic of how women in the restaurant industry are treated, having written several scathing op-eds on the topic.
These days, Cohen divides her time between heading up Dirt Candy, advocating for her causes, and exploring new ways to serve up her beloved veggies.
She’s heading to Western Australia this November for its annual Gourmet Escape, where she will host a dinner at Margaret River’s gorgeous, and aptly named, Secret Garden. Cohen says that she’s excited to meet her fellow chefs at the event and exchange food-related pace notes—but mostly, she confesses, she’s “most excited about the drinking”.
“I’m always bored of seeing the same old wines on American lists, so tasting wines from a bunch of new wineries is high on my to-do list,” she enthuses. “So yes, drinking—I’m most excited about the drinking.”