Not many chefs can credit Hong Kong movies for putting them on the path to becoming celebrated vegetable whisperers. Perhaps the only person who can, in fact, is Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of the kookily delicious East Village vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy.
It went down like this: Back in the early ’90s, two poor, in-love NYU students (Cohen and her then-boyfriend Grady Hendrix) discovered a dilapidated Chinese movie theater on the Bowery where six dollars got you a double-feature of the latest Hong Kong action flicks. Before long, they were addicted to the bizarre, comic kung fu universe of writer-actor-director Stephen Chow (“Love on Delivery” and “God of Cookery” are two of the couple’s favorites) and others of his ilk. After graduating in 1995 the couple decided they had to see for themselves what the real Hong Kong was like. Over the next year and a half, Cohen says, “All we did was work (teaching English and entry-level office jobs) and eat, our minds blown by the amazing food there.” For the two vegetarians it was a revelation to sample the variety and quality of Hong Kong’s meatless restaurants.
Realizing that it would be good to have skills that could fund further world travels, Cohen, who was born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto, and Hendrix ended up back in New York, she at the Natural Gourmet Institute and he working as a journalist then sci-fi writer. After 10 years in the city, the couple — by then married — realized New York was home.
Cohen opened the diminutive 350-square-foot Dirt Candy (vegetables = candy from the dirt, get it?) in 2008. Her highly manipulated and composed vegetable creations have won her a hardcore veggie-loving following. Among the classics on Dirt Candy’s menu are jalapeño hush puppies, portobello mousse with truffled toast and pear and fennel compote, and a corn dish made with grits, pickled shiitake, huitlacoche (corn fungus) and tempura poached egg.
Cohen and Grady felt the pressure to join the pack and produce a cookbook, but vowed only to do it on their own terms. Teaming up with comic book artist Ryan Dunlavey, they produced a lauded graphic novel called “Dirt Candy: A Cookbook,” released in August.
The exuberance, humor and sheer inventiveness of Cohen’s food and cookbook are reminiscent of Stephen Chow; her favorite Hong Kong filmmaker’s spirit also seems to have inflected the energetic, campy trailer that Hendrix, Dunlavey and editor Matt London created for the book, as well as their new Dirt Candy short film, “Vegetables: Friend or Foe?”
Cohen would love to open another restaurant, but after four years of working grueling hours at Dirt Candy, two of those spent multitasking on the cookbook, her immediate goal, she says, “is to get a little bit more sleep.”