Amanda Cohen

Founder + Executive Chef, Dirt Candy

Amanda used her NGI skills to land a job with Bobby Flay, help start a vegan tea room, and found an award-winning (Village Voice, Gourmet Mag, Michelin Guide) vegetarian restaurant in New York City.

Why did you choose Natural Gourmet Institute as the place to pursue your culinary education?

It actually was the best school for me. At the time, I thought that I was never going to want to cook meat. I was still a very serious vegetarian and the school was very accommodating towards vegetarians. I didn’t have to deal a lot with meat, chicken or fish. For me it was a perfect, natural fit. I also didn’t want to be back in school for two or three years. I had already graduated from university. I wanted something to give me the basic skills so I could go into a kitchen; I didn’t need another university. And I liked that it was so compact. You learned so much all at once and then went out into the world to figure out how you can apply it.

What were the most challenging aspects of being a culinary student?

It was hard not to get so excited about everything! I loved being in culinary school and I loved the school itself. There was so much information coming at me, I had to take a step back and figure out how to process it all. There were no hard days and no hard recipes.

What were your favorite classes in the Chef’s Training Program?

They were the more specific classes, like Italian and Mexican cooking - the more ethnic cuisines, the ones I really did not know that much about. For me, those were a great discovery. And there were great teachers, too.

One of the things you start discovering is that everybody who walks into a kitchen really doesn’t know anything.

How did your experience at NGI help shape who you became as a chef?

It shaped me almost entirely. I was pretty shy and I had worked in kitchens a little bit beforehand, but I was really uncomfortable and I didn’t know enough. NGI really gave me the tools to go into kitchens and feel really comfortable. And one of the things you start discovering is that everybody who walks into a kitchen really doesn’t know anything. Every kitchen is a new environment. And one of the things, I think, the school is really good at, was it gave me a sense of history with food. And that’s really nice, to be able to go into kitchens and not just be like, “Oh, I know what this dish is,” or “I know how to make it,” but I know why we make it this way and how those flavors combine. To me, having that knowledge made me feel very safe.

You identify your restaurant, Dirt Candy, as a vegetable restaurant, not a vegetarian one. Why did you decide to make this distinction?

I think most vegetarian restaurants - and there are some terrific ones out there - are more dedicated to a lifestyle. And here, I really just like making good food and I really like playing with vegetables. It doesn’t really matter to us what your diet is, all we care is that you come in and have a terrific meal when you’re here. We’re not very political, we’re not about the environment or health. The fact that the food we prepare happens to fall in line with all those ideals is terrific, but we’re really just about the food.

Where do you find inspiration for your menu?

Everywhere! I find it in other restaurants, in greenmarkets, in cookbooks, and through my staff. We’ll all sit around and talk about what new dishes we want to put on and something will come up and we’ll be like, “Wow! We haven’t worked with that vegetable before. Let’s try it!” And somebody will be like, maybe we could do it coming out of this ethnicity or cuisine, and it will start to come together. Inspiration is all around me.

What is your favorite dish to serve?

My favorite dish is always the newest one we have on the menu, because it’s always one I’m least sick of. Right now we have a carrot meringue pie. I’m in love with it! I’m so excited to serve it to people. We get a lot of regulars so for me it’s really exciting when they come back and they haven’t had a dish yet.

What is your favorite vegetable to work with?

I love working with them all. My favorite vegetable is usually the one I’m working on the new dish with, because I’m caught up in it. Our next dish will be an onion dessert. I’m fascinated by what we can do with onions in a sweet way and not savory way, so I’m all over onions right now.

Having been in the restaurant industry for many years, is there anything you would go back and do over about the start of your career, if you had the chance?

I’ve worked consistently for the last fifteen years and I’ve worked in a lot of great places and stayed in all those places for at least a year, which is what I recommend to anybody who’s working in kitchens. But at the same time, sometimes I stayed too long at some of my jobs. I never worked in a pizza parlor but I would love to learn how to make really great pizza! Maybe I should’ve taken a little more time off between jobs or done some more stages. I would’ve loved to have gotten more experience, because once you have a restaurant, you’re there. I can’t go out and do an internship somewhere now.

What advice would you give to people who are about to enter culinary school?

Listen very carefully. Take a lot of notes. And be open to all new experiences that you’re going to have. Try not to say no to anything.

What changes can your diners anticipate when Dirt Candy moves into a new space?

We’re so small here so the basic thing people can look forward to is being comfortable. We’re also going to be able to try a lot more things. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what all of us here are able to do.