Dirt Candy: Changing the Way Diners Eat (and Think About) Vegetables

On this “On Foodable Side Dish,” Foodable video correspondent Agnes Chung takes us to the lower east side of Manhattan, where the highly acclaimed, veg-centric restaurant Dirt Candy has replanted itself to a new, larger location. 

With Chef Amanda Cohen at the helm, Dirt Candy moves vegetables from a side dish to the main course, and it’s receiving praise along the way.

“This has been a work in progress, and we did open Dirt Candy — the original one — about seven years ago,” says Cohen. “I’d been working in the city for years and years, and I finally came to a point in my career where I wanted to work for myself and not others. And I really wanted a restaurant that was going to celebrate vegetables.”

Of course, we’ve seen chefs focusing more on vegetables being the star of the plate throughout the past year or so. But no one has done it as prominently as Cohen and her team.

“There was, and there really still isn’t any restaurant in New York that is solely devoted to just the glory of vegetables, and that’s what I wanted to be.”

With local and seasonal being hot topics in the industry today, how does Dirt Candy scale ingredients? And how does it affect menu development?

The restaurant veers away from using hyper-seasonal vegetables because of this, says Cohen. “I do go to the farmers markets and I think local food is really important, I think farmers markets are really important, but it’s not always that accessible,” she says. “And we sort of live in a post-seasonal world, where everything is available.”

One item that probably won’t be coming off the menu anytime soon is Dirt Candy’s Portobello Mousse dish. “It’s been on the menu since day one, it’s one of the dishes that put us on the map, it was sort of I think the first introduction for most people that…vegetables actually can be very luxurious and decadent,” Cohen says. 

Portobello mousse

Portobello mousse

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Whatever pickles

Whatever pickles

The intention behind the operation is to educate diners about how delicious vegetables can taste and to highlight vegetables in a way that someone could never before imagine. Chef Cohen brings us into the kitchen to demonstrate this with a dish called Whatever Pickles.

“We call them Whatever Pickles because really, it’s whatever we find in our walk-in that day. Lately, we’ve been finding a lot of lollipop sprout, which isn’t a vegetable most people are familiar with. We’re having a lot of fun with it,” she says. “Sometimes the biggest flavor comes from the simplest dishes.”

But the culinary aspect of Dirt Candy is not the only thing that differentiates it from other restaurants. On the operational side, like a small group of other owners, Cohen has decided to forgo tipping. Her “no tipping” policy stems from a difficult time finding cooks. “It sort of started to become apparent that we were losing a lot of cooks in the city,” she says. “And I realized we’re losing cooks in the city because we aren’t paying them enough. New York is really, really expensive.” 

Of course, the argument also comes down to wanting to pay back-of-house staff and front-of-house staff as fairly equally as possible. “I found it [tipping] a really unfair system. I didn’t like the fact that basically I was letting my customers be my Human Resources department.”

With menu items like jalapeño hushpuppies and Brussels sprout tacos, who wouldn’t look at vegetables in a new light?