Long before "plant-based" became a hot topic in the culinary world, Amanda Cohen has been making magic with vegetables. Her award-winning NYC hot spot, Dirt Candy, was the first of its kind, an eatery committed to vegetables in a sea of steakhouses and sushi dens.
These days, Cohen (who was the first vegetarian chef to appear on Iron Chef America) is considered one of the founders of the veg-ahead philosophy. For her, however, there's no political or social motive — simply a desire to make delicious food that everyone (omnivorous or otherwise) will love.
She has since remained committed to churning out mouthwatering, creative cuisine by using garden-grown goodies. Dirt Candy's menu includes dishes such as jalapeño hush puppies, carrot sliders on carrot buns, and kale matzoh ball soup.
Cohen shares insight into the evolution of plant-based eating, her favorite veggies, and her plans for wooing Miami's foodies at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
New Times: How has the culinary scene changed for vegetables since you began?
Amanda Cohen: I think it's a little bit more accepting than it was. When I started, the general perception was that vegetables were for side dishes; you couldn't really make a meal out of them. Now I think you're seeing more mainstream restaurants jumping on the vegetable bandwagon than they had before. People are more excited to eat vegetables than they were 10 or 12 years ago. I think that's where a lot of chefs' creativity is going.
Why do you think it has changed?
I live on the East Coast, so my viewpoint is very sort of opposite ends of the country. I don't want to speak for all of the U.S., but I think there's a general push to change your diet, and people are starting to incorporate more vegetables. Of course, if you look at the USDA stats, it's not actually very successful. I live on a coast and you're from Miami, which would also sort of have a different sort of dietary viewpoint.
It took a really long time to get us where we are, so it's going to take a while to get out of it. Eating meat in America is like this really ingrained idea that comes out of the Depression and World War II, where meat really did represent wealth.
The more people who see vegetables as exciting, the more they're going to want to eat them.
It's always been about "Eat your vegetables because they're healthy," but we're like, "Eat your vegetables because they're delicious — who cares if they're healthy or not."
The thing we do that's the most dangerous is if a little kid doesn't want to eat a vegetable (and they might have a good reason — it might be too bitter or something), we tell them, "You have to eat your vegetables." Then the wall comes down and they're like, "I'm never going to eat that vegetable again."
Vegetables as the main attraction still carry some stigma in the culinary world. What would you say to people who aren't interested in eating them?
Go back to a restaurant where they're experts at cooking them. We all grew up with overcooked vegetables — boiled, roasted, plain, they weren't very tasty. So I can totally understand why people are like, "I can't make a meal out of that." So go find an expert and be really open-minded; see what they're doing with it. There's a whole new world of vegetable cooking. You have to go try; you have to give it a chance.
Are there any vegetables you haven't yet explored and want to?
Not really. We've been doing this for ten years, so I feel like we've pretty much explored every vegetable. I think there are vegetables we have a harder time with than others; my bête noire is rutabaga. I always keep going back to figure out how to make it the most delicious vegetable. I think I'll be locked in this fight for the rest of my life.
What are your favorite vegetables to work with?
My favorite all-time vegetable is the onion. It's the workhorse of the kitchen and it gets literally no attention. It works really hard for you, and you'll forget to just thank it. Probably one of our more unusual onion dishes we have is a chocolate onion tart. But if you think about onions, they actually have a lot of natural sweetness to them. Once they get caramelized, like in French onion soup, they're actually very sweet. It's kind of a natural pairing with chocolate, and you have this really delicious tart where if I didn't tell you there was onion in it, you wouldn't know. It's like having a prune chocolate tart — there's a funny flavor in there; I don't know what it is.
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I think one of the things that makes our restaurant stand out is that we are the omnivore's vegetable restaurant. People think of us less as a vegetarian restaurant, which is something we've really fought for. We want people to understand that it's just food; we're all chefs in the kitchen trying to make the best food we can. There's no political statement, no social statement — we just like to make delicious food out of vegetables.
What are your plans for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival dinner you're cohosting?
We are serving two of our signature dishes. The portobello mushroom mousse is a really decadent mushroom mousse. It's the dish that sort of put us on the map. I think before that, people didn't realize vegetables could be decadent and delicious. It's a whole new world. We're also doing our Korean fried broccoli, which is exactly what it sounds like — spicy, salty, deep-fried broccoli. If that doesn't get you to like a vegetable, I don't know what will. I'll also be cooking with my very good friend Anita Lowe, who no longer has a restaurant but is an amazing chef; it's rare we get to cook together these days.
Vegetable Dinner, hosted by Anita Lo, Amanda Cohen, and Kinsler Josaime. 7 p.m. Thursday, February 22, at Soul Tavern, 1801 West Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $200 via sobewff.org/soul.