Don’t call Dirt Candy a vegetarian restaurant. Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Lower East Side “vegetable-forward” eatery thinks it’s misleading. “Weʼre not out there trying to be healthy,” she says. “We’re having fun.”
Non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike have packed into Dirt Candy for years to taste menu items like Korean-fried broccoli and carrot waffles with peanut mole sauce. Cohen recently moved the restaurant to a larger space to accommodate more diners, but the waitlist is still two months long. We talked to Cohen about the Dirt Candy phenomenon and why she made the bold move to get rid of tipping at her restaurant.
How are you liking your new Dirt Candy space? Do you feel like you have a little more elbow room?
Definitely. It’s five times the size of the original one! And one of the biggest surprises is that we’re still booked up every night. We are still two months out for a table. Although now we have enough space to leave some tables open for walk-ins all night long.
How do you keep demand so high?
I don’t know. People hear about us and they just want to come and keep coming back. One of the really nice things is that most people eat dinner and then make another reservation on their way out. We try to facilitate that by giving them really good food and really good service and now we have a really lovely space that they actually want to come back to.
Are restaurants that primarily serve vegetables still a novelty?
Yes. There’s lots of vegetable-forward restaurants, but they still serve meat for the most part. We’re all vegetables and we have fun with that. Weʼre not out there trying to be healthy. Weʼre not not healthy, but that’s not one of our goals. Weʼre not a lifestyle restaurant.
Is that why you avoid the term vegetarian when describing Dirt Candy?
Yeah, I donʼt want to be known for what Iʼm not serving. I want to be known for what we do serve. Vegetarian has that denial connotation associated with it. But we’re really about what we have. I donʼt care what you ate for lunch. I donʼt care what youʼre going to eat for dinner tomorrow night. But tonight, I want you to eat my food and my food happens to not have meat in it.
How much are you influencing other chefs?
The fact that we were able to do it at all influenced people. People noticed that we were taking this chance and they realized that actually there is a market for that. They think, maybe we could start serving some vegetables too. For years it has been all about pork and bacon and pork belly. I think that trend is sort of starting to wane a little bit and the next trend is vegetables.
Is it because people want to be healthier?
I think they’re bored of eating the same thing over and over again. With vegetables you have this whole new world and there’s so many amazing things you can do with them. Iʼm still discovering new things every day and Iʼve been cooking in the vegetarian world for 20 years. To me it’s like an adventure.
What are some ways you use vegetables at the restaurant?
Each dish is usually based around one vegetable and we try to use that vegetable in a number of different ways. One of the big differences between a vegetable and a meat is that a piece of meat inherently has different textures running through it and different flavors. If you think of a thick steak, there’s fat and gristle and fiber and juiciness. But a vegetable is more uni-texture. So we try to give vegetables a bunch of different textures and flavors by using them in different ways in one dish. Right now weʼre obsessed with our pasta maker. We infuse the pasta with vegetable juices and make all of these really beautiful rainbow-colored shapes.
You got rid of tipping at your restaurant. Instead, you now add a 20 percent administrative fee to each bill. Why did you decide to go that route and what has been the result?
I wanted to make the back of the house’s pay a little bit more equal with the front of the house. Front of the house in New York tends to make hundreds and hundreds of dollars a night. The back of the house, if theyʼre lucky, make $100. And they work incredibly long hours.
One of the things that has happened in New York is that while it’s still a great food city, it’s not the only great food city in North America anymore. We realized we were losing a lot of cooks to other cities. The cost of living is so high here. You can’t just pay a cook $10 an hour and expect them to live on that in New York City. Not when they can go to Chicago or Los Angeles or Atlanta, get paid the exact same amount and their rent is a quarter of what it would be here. Right now I start my dishwashers at $15 an hour.
The whole tipping system is really unfair and silly. You come to work for eight hours, but if there’s a blizzard you might not get paid because no guests came? Youʼre barely going to make minimum wage even though you came in to do your job? Why am I outsourcing my human resources department to my customers? They decide whether or not the servers get paid? It’s a really hard job and I feel like it should be a guaranteed salary just like any other job in this world.
Do you think it’s going to catch on in the rest of New York?
I do. Right now everybodyʼs coming to terms with the fact that minimum wage is going to come up for restaurant workers. It’s complicated, but it’s really going to force restaurants to rethink their system. It costs a lot to run a restaurant, and one of the problems that this whole industry has is that we actually donʼt charge enough for it. Weʼve gotten away with it for years by asking our customers to pay our servers’ salaries.
The truth is that my way is actually the exact same cost to the customer. Most people tip 20 percent. I happen to have an admin fee that’s 20 percent. So if your bill is $100, you pay the New York state tax on top of that and it comes to $108. Then you leave a $20 tip, right? With my system, the total bill comes to $128.88. It’s the same money, it’s just all coming to me. It’s a tiny bit higher because your taxed on top of the administrative fee, but really it costs the same to the consumer.
Why are other restaurants so resistant to this idea?
The fear for a lot of consumers is that theyʼre not going to get as good service. To my servers that’s really insulting actually. They all say, well but this is my job. Why wouldnʼt I want to do a good job? If I donʼt do a good job youʼre just going to fire me, whether I’m rude to the customers or slacking off in the back. I donʼt have to worry that my servers are trying to really push people to buy more food or a really expensive bottle of wine because they want a higher tip. Their interactions with customers are much more genuine.
You’re outspoken about the lack of media attention on women chefs. How can they get more recognition for their work?
They have to put themselves out there. It’s the only way to make sure the press doesnʼt forget about you. Go to parties, network, meet people, be really pushy. When you put yourself out there and you see the male chefs getting more attention, I think it makes you take a step back instead of making you take two steps forward, which is what has to happen.
Lots of restaurants and chefs have public relations companies to push their names forward. Many restaurants run by women donʼt have the budget for PR companies, so they kind of get lost. Not just women, but also minorities, ethnic chefs, tend to own smaller restaurants; they donʼt have the financial backing to open bigger restaurants that get more media attention. So it’s this never-ending cycle. You have to put yourself out there like it’s your second job.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep