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Q&A with Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy

Maggie Borden

July 06, 2015

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Amanda Cohen does not run a vegetarian restaurant. Instead, Dirt Candy, her perennially packed New York City hot spot, is a palace for produce, simultaneously a shrine to and science lab for the myriad possibilities of vegetable-based cooking. Cohen is taking her green thumb to the Hamptons for the 25th anniversary of our Chefs & Champagne® fundraiser, so we chatted with her about moving to “Big Candy,” the public’s appetite for vegetables, and what’s she’s bringing to Wölffer Estate Vineyard.

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JBF: What is the inspiration behind your dish for Chefs & Champagne?

AC: I’m serving one of Dirt Candy’s most iconic dishes: tomato! It’s tomatoes with smoked feta, tomato cake, and tomato leather. A long time ago, I was developing a tomato dessert, but rapidly realized that I could have a lot more fun making a savory riff on the classic Caprese salad. It’s become one of my most popular dishes and since I can only make it when tomatoes are at their best, my customers have learned that the day it shows up on my menu is the first official day of summer.

JBF: What about C&C are you most looking forward to?

AC: I’m just happy to spend the day outside the restaurant seeing other chefs. To be honest, I feel like I’ve ditched school to play hooky on the beach!

JBF: It’s hard to beat summer produce. How does that play into your menu at Dirt Candy? Do you think people are more willing to embrace vegetable-forward cooking in the warmer months?

AC: I’ve been running Dirt Candy for seven years, and in all that time I’ve discovered that people want vegetables year-round. In the summer they want lighter, breezier vegetable dishes, and in winter they want something heartier, but in general their appetite is pretty insatiable for twelve months of the year.

JBF: It’s been a few months since you reopened Dirt Candy in a larger space (“Big Candy”). What are some of the best and worst parts of working in a bigger space?

AC: Having more room means the world. We have a bigger wine list devoted to natural wines, we have a bar serving vegetable cocktails, we can do more pickling, we can make more complicated dishes, we can let our customers spend more time at their tables, we don’t all see the bathroom every time the door opens. On the other hand, my old kitchen was about 80 square feet and everything I needed was right at my fingertips. In this new one I finish each night feeling like I’ve run a marathon.

JBF: What’s your go-to dish for summer cookouts?

AC: Grilled corn, without a doubt.

JBF: What was your favorite thing to eat as a kid during the summer?

AC: Fresh berries. The second summer hit, I’d start wolfing down all the strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries I could find.

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The James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne will take place Saturday, July 25, at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, New York. Learn more about the James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne.