World

Canadian's vegetables-only restaurant a hit in New York

Sizzling brussels-sprout tacos, anyone? Amanda Cohen's Dirt Candy is one of the hottest restaurants in New York, thanks to a menu that focuses exclusively on vegetables.

Owner-chef Amanda Cohen also introduces no-tipping policy at Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen's Dirt Candy is one of the hottest restaurants in New York, thanks to a menu that focuses exclusively on vegetables 2:28

Amanda Cohen's passion is vegetables, so it's no surprise to find her in the open kitchen of her popular restaurant, Dirt Candy, spending an hour each day husking baby corn, one small piece at a time.

The corn is destined for her latest hit dish, a corn boil, her take on the Southern speciality usually built around fish. Cohen wants to prove vegetables can play a starring role.

"It's sort of an unexplored world, so I kind of feel like a pioneer, and this is my lab," she said. "We get to do whatever we want."

Cohen found herself in unexplored territory when she hit the restaurant scene in New York more than a decade ago.

Born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto, she moved to New York for university and never left. She studied the top chefs at the time, who were working with fish and meat, but she kept being drawn back to unlocking the potential of vegetables.

"When you go to a cookbook, they're like, 'Saute it, roast it,' and we are like, 'Saute and roast it? That's boring. Let's dehydrate it, let's make it into noodles, let's make it into fruit leather, let's see what we can really do with this vegetable.' No one is really doing that."

Amanda Cohen is chef and owner of Dirt Candy, one of New York's hottest restaurants, which focuses exclusively on vegetables. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

That philosophy has resulted in dishes like sizzling brussels sprouts tacos served in lettuce wrap, and broccoli hot dogs that she says can win over even the most ardent carnivore.

"People are like, 'Wow! I didn't know I could feel so satisfied and so full, and vegetables really can be amazing,'" she said.

Runaway success

Cohen started with a small, 18-seat restaurant and soon was so busy she once turned away Leonardo DiCaprio. In February, she moved to a new space five times larger, and the crowd has followed. 

But while vegetables are the stars of her plates, she doesn't want Dirt Candy labelled a vegetarian restaurant.

"Vegetarian restaurants, I think, tend to be a little bit more healthier, maybe a little bit more political, or a little bit more environmental. We just really want to serve good food."

Cohen's food isn't the only thing that sets her apart. She made headlines earlier this year when she announced she would do away with tipping. Instead, the check includes a 20 per cent administrative charge, allowing her to pay staff well above the average rate.

"I don't believe in tipping in general. It's an unfair system: your server comes in and if your restaurant has a bad night your server isn't going to get paid even if they're there for eight hours."
Cohen says she likes to experiment. This dish is called vegetable monkey bread. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Part of the motivation for the decision, she says, was a desire to attract chefs who are turned off by New York's high cost of living. 

"That's kind of my Canadianism, I think," she said. "You know we don't have universal health care here, and I come from a country where that's so important, so I want to give that back to my kitchen here."

'A solid paycheque'

As New York state considers raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Cohen's policy has stirred debate in the restaurant community. Bartender Karla Harscheid appreciates the consistency of a solid paycheque.

"I've paid off a credit card, bought a new used car, and I'm not broke yet," she said.

Jude Vimer, visiting from Israel, made a point to come to the restaurant with her son after reading online reviews. She has no issue with the service charge.

"I think it's absolutely wonderful. The service commands a certain style and you don't have to worry about tipping."

For Cohen, it's just another part of what makes her restaurant unique.

She also says she misses Canada terribly and would love to bring her unique take on vegetables north of the border.

About the Author

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.

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