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Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen Talks Tipping, Tough Openings, and the Changing Vegetable Scene

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Two months in, here's how things are going at Dirt Candy.

Daniel Krieger

New York's reigning vegetable queen Amanda Cohen packed up her tiny vegetable palace Dirt Candy last August to prepare for a move into a space nearly five times the size on Allen Street. "Big Candy," as Cohen calls it, opened in February, and despite the lead time, Cohen said all of the moving happened last minute, mostly via Uber cars.

Cohen and her team revamped the menu for the move, adding dishes like carrot waffles with mole and jerk style carrots, and large format Brussels sprout tacos. At the new space, Cohen also made the radical decision to do away with tipping, asking her guests to pay a 20 percent service charge instead so she can pay her waiters a consistent salary. Now, a couple months in, Cohen talks with Eater about all that, plus getting reviewed, keeping a sense of humor, and her role in the veggie canon.

How were the first few weeks at Big Candy?

Amanda Cohen: It's a whole new world here. It was a "work-mare," like a nightmare, but all centered around work. When you're a chef I think you have these constantly, where you're in your nightmare, and you're at a job, and you sort of know the job, and you don't understand the job, and the tickets keep coming, and you're being asked to make things that you don't know how to make. You think: but this is the restaurant I work at, what happened? I just came into work today, and there's just more and more people, and more and more tickets. It's a little crazy. It's been really fun.

We moved in really fast, even though we've been talking about moving in for a while. We didn't get gas until the Friday right before we started doing friends and family....we were still cooking at little Dirt Candy and bringing everything over right before service. We thought we were gonna have to do it for the first week. We must have spent like a billion dollars on Uber cars and taxis.

And then finally, one day, we actually just had to move, but instead of being really organized, we basically just brought everything over and shoved it into our basement. And we've been sorta digging ourselves out of that for the last couple weeks. So, on top of opening the restaurant and being busy, we've been just trying to find things. Like, "Do you remember where we put that blender? Did we ever bring that over?"

A dining room with a red banquette, white chairs, and flowers on the wall. Daniel Krieger/Eater

Did it feel a little bit like when you opened the original Dirt Candy?

It felt exactly like that. All of a sudden, you're like "I don't know how to do my job."

How are things now? Still work-mare-ish?

They're settling down a bit, we've been over for a little over two months, and we're still learning lots of new things everyday. We thankfully now have shelves and a clean basement.

There have been one or two times where I've said: "We've got the hang of it," and then something comes out of the woodwork and kicks you in the ass. We're insanely busy. The whole whole idea was not to have a wait list and now have one that's two months long.

What's the biggest thing that you learned from little Dirt Candy that you're hoping to bring here?

The number one complaint about little Dirt Candy was always that it was the most uncomfortable, awful, tiny restaurant, and you were sitting on your neighbor's lap. So here, we've really built a restaurant for comfort. I want guests to come in and feel like they're taken care of, and that, yes it's filled with people, but you're not sitting on top of your neighbor. I could probably fit in six to eight more tables. but that's not the night out I want to give my customers. I want to give them an adult night out. People are spending their money with us, and I want them to feel like they got their money's worth.

One of the biggest changes here is the new tipping policy. How is that going?

It's been one of the biggest surprises about this place. We sat down with all the servers and were like, "People are gonna be angry, they're gonna be confrontational. These are the lines we want you to say to them, and be honest about you wanting to work here, and that we're not forcing anybody to work here." And it's kinda been a disappointment, almost. Nobody has said anything about the tipping at all. Every day we're like, "Okay, I think this is actually working."

Did you experience any pushback from staff when you told them about the policy?

Nope. Everybody who we talked to was like, "Yeah. Actually, that's really exciting. If I can make my $200 a night consistently, five nights a week, then great." Everybody was very excited about it, which was surprising to me, I thought we'd have a much harder time finding servers, but they were all in. For the most part, everybody who serves here are seasoned servers. They don't feel the need to have the high of a really big tip one night. They're coming into work and they're getting paid, and if we had a blizzard, they'd still get paid. So they seem pretty happy with it.

Is it working out financially in terms of what you wanted to be able to pay your servers? Will it ultimately cover health insurance?

Servers have a higher pay rate than they would, because they're not getting paid $5/hour, which is what you pay servers when you get the tip credit. Our servers are paid a very high living hourly wage, as are my cooks. We're trying to balance it out so it becomes even more equal over time. It doesn't cover health insurance yet, hopefully one day it will. We're not successful enough to do that yet, but that is a goal.

I wanted to do it so I could pay everybody a living wage. It's something that they could depend on, and not have to feel like they had to come in and hustle. My cooks are getting paid really decently. My dishwashers walk in at $15/hour.

Do you feel like it only works in a particular type of restaurant? Could it work everywhere in New York?

I think it could work everywhere. I had this discussion with somebody the other day, and they were like "It would never work in my restaurant." And I'm like, "Why?" People tip at your restaurant. As long as there's tipping, and most people tip anywhere between 18 percent and 22 percent, why wouldn't it work? The only place it might not work is counter service. But any other restaurant in this city, absolutely.

I hope that people take us as an example, and then I hope what I get to do is roll what we're calling the "admin fee" into the prices. We all agree that our food needs to cost more. Every restaurant in this city basically keeps prices artificially low because they get the tip credit. They're expecting their customers to pay the restaurant's employees' wages, or the servers' wages. But if we were more honest, we would all roll that into the cost of the food, and admit that this is how much it costs to run a restaurant, and just go for it.

dirt candy bar

Going out to eat should be fun, it shouldn't be serious.

What role does humor play in your food, in your approach to running a restaurant, or even with dealing with your staff?

Life should be fun! Going out to eat should be fun, it shouldn't be serious. Like, if you're sitting at a table and talking in hushed tones and you're not laughing, then I'm pretty sure you might be missing out on an experience, and no matter how good I think the food at Dirt Candy is, the most important thing I want somebody to walk away with is "Wow, I had a really good time!" The food is just sort of an adjunct to the good time you're having. We do like to have fun here, because what's the point of being serious, you know? It's a job, if I can't make this fun for everybody, then I don't even want to come to work.

You focus on vegetables more intensely than almost anyone in New York, but you don't fetishize them. Your menus don't say "such and such variety of carrot from such and such farm." What are your thoughts on doing that?

I mean, that's up to every individual restaurant. For me in particular, I think it's actually really intimidating, and I don't want people to be scared of the food when they come, I want them to have fun with it. It's more fun to get a dish that says "carrot," and have this  carrot waffle, and pulled carrots in a mole sauce, than something that has this really exotic name and be like, "Oh well, that's just a roasted carrot." Carrot tastes like a carrot, doesn't matter what you call it. And so I guess I feel like I'm being a little bit more honest.

What are your thoughts on local food?

I so admire the restaurants that really work hard at being local. That is tough, and it takes a lot of time, a lot of time to work with all the different farmers and figuring out the menus to go along with it. That's not my goal here. This restaurant's really just about serving vegetables. I still stand behind the fact that all our produce comes in boxes from somewhere, and it all tastes good.

How has the approach to vegetable-focused cuisine and vegetarian cuisine changed in New York since you opened in 2008?

When I opened, vegetables definitely were not trendy, and it was hard for most people to wrap their head around the idea that we were opening a vegetable restaurant, not a vegetarian restaurant. Over the course of the last seven years, what's happened is more and more restaurants, are saying, "Hey, vegetables are something that we want to have fun with, that we want to play with. Let's experiment with it, we're tired of bacon." And you have seen this shift. Seven years ago, all these restaurants that are vegetable-focused couldn't have opened.

I think most people don't think of us as a vegetarian restaurant, they think of us as just a restaurant. A good or a bad restaurant, we're just a restaurant that happens to only serve vegetables. And seven years ago, the mainstream eating crowd, I don't think they felt that. "Oh, that's a vegetarian restaurant, you know? And I'll go with my vegetarian friends." And now most of our customers aren't vegetarians.

Right now, I can barely put my pants on in the morning I'm so tired.

Because there are more places focused on vegetables, how do you feel you have situated yourself in this new canon?

It's been good and bad. All of a sudden, I have all this competition, but that's good, because that keeps us on our toes, right? You sort of have this moment when you notice all these other restaurants getting attention for having vegetable-focused menus where you're like "[gasp] Am I good enough? Can I compete with all these great chefs?" Seven years ago, I probably would have crumpled up and cried. But we've been doing this for long enough that we know we make unique food, and we have a unique idea about food, and how we like to present it, and there's definitely enough room for all of us here.

Is there a particular vegetable dish that's flying out of the kitchen?

Yeah, the Brussels sprout tacos. We really wanted to make shared dishes, that would be substantial enough. It's not like a small-plate shared dish, but a large-format shared dish, and it took us a while to figure out how we could do this. We have a sizzling stone, and it comes to the table, and it's hot, and the whole room starts to smell like the sizzling brussels sprouts, and there's something about it that's kind of magical.

Will the menu will change with the seasons?

Yeah, I'm hoping to change it. Right now, I can barely put my pants on in the morning I'm so tired. So... [laughs]....when we thought we were gonna open this restaurant in November, we thought we'd have at least four to five months with this menu that we could just get settled in with before we start changing things. And now all of a sudden, spring is here.

When Pete Wells originally came to the old Dirt Candy, you had no idea that he was in the restaurant whatsoever. What are your thoughts on the reviewing process and on being re-reviewed?

When Pete Wells came into Dirt Candy, I wasn't expecting it at all. We had already been opened for about four years, so I figured we were off the radar for all reviewers. We sort of caught him at the very, very end of his dessert on the last night that he came in. And I was like, "Ohh..."

You want to have an honest discussion with the reviewer. Really. Getting reviewed isn't about getting the most stars possible.

It was actually one of the best things that happened to us at little Dirt Candy....having him give us such a gracious, lovely review, and not knowing he was there...I think we all felt like, "Wow, we're just doing our job, and we did it well enough." As opposed to, "Oh my god, we know a critic's here, let's all try really hard and make the most perfect plate of food, and that's the plate of food he's gonna get, and nobody else is gonna get that perfect plate of food." He just got the food that we served.

Here, it's very different. It was a much bigger opening than I thought it was gonna be, and we are now terrified we are going to get reviewed. I hope I'll be relaxed. I'll probably be crying, bawling behind the stove going, "We can't do this, let's just shut down! Set the place on fire! Let's close down for the night!" I hope we'll be relaxed enough. It is what it is.

You want to have an honest discussion with the reviewer. Getting reviewed isn't about getting the most stars possible, I really don't think so. I think it is a conversation that you have where you're like, "Oh, this is what we did really good, this is some other things maybe we could do even better, let's keep trying."

One of the best things I think that could happen in cities is if restaurants got re-reviewed more often. So you had a chance to keep proving yourself, and not have one review that stands forever.

When things do calm down, what's the next project you are dreaming of?

I think the goal is maybe to take this concept somewhere else. Not do it again in New York City, but to have smaller or different versions of this in other places, maybe warm. Warm places that I go to for the winter.

Dirt Candy

86 Allen Street, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 228-7732 Visit Website

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