Amanda Cohen extols the surprising - often stunning - virtues of vegetables
As any savvy parent knows, getting people to eat their vegetables is all about the element of surprise.
Acclaimed Canadian chef Amanda Cohen knows it too. Her restaurant, Dirt Candy, is New York City’s first to not only focus on vegetables but celebrate them. Her playful and inventive approach has attracted rave reviews from critics and customers. Since opening in 2008, Dirt Candy has earned two stars from the New York Times – a first for a vegetarian restaurant.
“It’s the kind of restaurant where you have no idea what’s about to happen to you,” says Cohen. “That to me is what makes a really, really fun dining experience.”
That’s at the heart of the food philosophy Cohen brought to NAIT in March as the 2017 Hokanson Chef in Residence. Her focus on vegetables breaks with historic approaches to vegetarianism, which she sees as based on political, environmental or health concerns. Calling herself a “vegetable chef” instead, Cohen’s sole motivation is to make vegetables taste great, in part because of her own frustration as a former vegetarian.
She encouraged her students to appreciate vegetables as complex and recognize them as a source of exciting flavours and vibrant colours. She wanted them to see beyond their conventional status as side dishes and afterthoughts, and get creative – even in Alberta, home to some of the world’s best beef.
“When the student has to make a vegetarian dish, I don’t want them to be dismissive of it, because that’s really been the chef mentality for years,” says Cohen. “We dismiss vegetables and we celebrate protein.”
She has no qualms about “celebrating” vegetables by deep frying them or bathing them in butter or cream. She’ll braise, grill, smoke, dehydrate, roast, pickle, purée or bread them, and she experiments relentlessly. Cohen will transform vegetables into everything from hotdogs made of broccoli, to Nanaimo bars made with peas and mint,
to radishes made into ravioli pockets. Her comic-book styled Dirt Candy: A Cookbook captures her unique, whimsical style.
Cohen’s cooking was an eye-opener. And the warm reception by students and diners at the annual public Hokanson lunch suggested that the element of surprise can be one of the keys to success. “Vegetables aren’t cool – it’s very hard to make a carrot sexy,” says Cohen.
“Unless I keep upping the ante, customers aren’t going to want to come back.”
A vegetable crime
Creating vegetable dishes that are interesting and surprising takes a lot of work, says Cohen, because vegetables pose distinct culinary challenges.
For one, they have no fat, and fat is flavour. They also contain a lot of water, which needs to be reduced to intensify their flavour.
Overcoming these peculiarities allows her to turn conventional thinking about food on its head, surprising customers and winning fans.
Her broccoli hotdog plays on this theme, showcasing the forgotten stalk. It commits a “vegetable crime,” Cohen jokes, by using several treatments of the same ingredient in one dish.
First, the stalk is lightly smoked, then grilled, then sautéed in butter. After that, it’s layered with broccoli sauerkraut, broccoli purée and broccoli rabe oil (and topped with South Carolina barbecue sauce). It’s one of her favourite techniques to show the versatility of a single vegetable.
She treats carrots similarly. For her carrot risotto, for example (see p. 59 for the recipe), Cohen chops carrots into rice-sized pieces to mix with Arborio rice, and uses carrot purée to make dumplings – in the shape of carrots, no less. The idea is to create not only unexpected taste, but surprising textures too. She tops it with a deep-fried carrot for added crunch and visual interest.
Changing the narrative
Cohen’s efforts to disrupt the status quo don’t stop with her menu.
She’s an advocate for cultural change in the restaurant industry and often writes and speaks about the need for equitable treatment, pay and media coverage for women chefs.
She’s also on the board of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, a North American group supporting women in the industry, and met with local members during her stay in Edmonton.
Women chefs don’t get the same amount of support and financing for their restaurants as men, she says. It’s also hard to balance the demands of a restaurant career with family life and kids, which deters many women from staying in the industry, she adds.
“As chefs, we’re so proud of our scars and our burns,” says Cohen. “I feel like we need to change that narrative and become really proud of supporting people in our industry.”
Kaitlyn White, a second-year Culinary Arts student who aspires to be a chef in her hometown of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, said she was thrilled to have a chef like Cohen as a role model. “For a lot of us, this is the first female chef that we’ve had to work with.”
Student Emilie Adam agreed. “For women like us, seeing someone succeed like she has is inspirational. It’s cool to see that it’s a possibility for us, coming out of school.”
In 2015, Cohen was also one of the first restaurateurs to implement a no-tipping policy. She pays her staff a higher wage instead, increasing her menu prices by about 20 per cent. The movement is catching on across North America, including at Edmonton restaurants Café Linnea and Alta.
Much ado about mushrooms
As a former vegetarian who now eats some fish, shellfish and the odd bit of meat, Cohen says she was inspired to reimagine vegetables because of her own disappointing experiences eating in restaurants where vegetarian meals were often limited to salads.
In contrast, her mushroom pâté is rich and flavourful. Cohen moulds chopped portobello mushrooms mixed with cream and butter – an ironic repurposing of the meaty mushroom commonly offered by restaurants as a lean veggie burger. The mousse is garnished with grilled mushrooms and truffled toast.
The dish turned out to be one of Cohen’s first big breaks, winning $10,000 in a “Fine Faux Foie Gras Challenge” hosted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The idea was to create a vegan version of the French delicacy. Cohen used the money to fix the air conditioner at her fledgling restaurant. Mushroom pâté has been on the menu at Dirt Candy ever since.
As far as Cohen is concerned, there isn’t a meal that can’t be made from vegetables – including dessert. An onion chocolate tart currently rounds out a meal on her menu, alongside carrot meringue pie, celery cheesecake roll, popcorn ice cream and cucumber semifreddo pie.
Her vegetables don’t have to be fancy but they must never be boring.
Morning is also a fine time for vegetables. For brunch, Dirt Candy features red pepper fritters filled with red pepper jam, zucchini pancakes, corn french toast and carrot granola.
She ensures all of her dishes are made with easy-to-find, familiar vegetables to help counter the misconception that they need to be exotic and expensive to be interesting. She doesn’t insist on organic or farmers market produce either. Her vegetables don’t have to be fancy but, in the end, they must never be boring. Preparing familiar foods in unfamiliar ways is Cohen’s specialty and, she hopes, the key to creating an unexpected and remarkable eating experience.
Hokanson Chef in Residence
This unique program provides students a rare opportunity to learn from the best chefs in the world. The program – the result of a generous donation from John and Susan Hokanson – began with (from left to right) Canadian celebrity chef Rob Feenie (2009), followed by David Adjey (2010), Susur Lee (2011), Massimo Capra (2012), Chris Cosentino (2013), Lynn Crawford (2014), Michael Stadtländer (2015) and Vikram Vij (2016).