The program for the inaugural edition of the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum really was quite extraordinary. This year, we are ramping things up a notch, saluting Culinary “Evolution and Revolution,” as we use produce staples and specialties to create the menus of tomorrow.
Particularly, we are paying deep attention to vegetables. We already highlighted in a piece titled, Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show And Conference, important research that focuses on how we can promote the consumption of vegetables. In one of our two chef demos at the Foodservice Forum, we will turn to a New York chef whose work is legend when it comes to elevating vegetables into culinary masterpieces.
We asked Pundit Assistant Investigator, Michael Femia, to find out more:
Q: Tell us about your restaurant, Dirt Candy.
A: Dirt Candy is a very small vegetable restaurant in New York’s East Village. Our focus is celebrating vegetables in all their glory. I don’t think they’re highlighted enough in the food world. This is our chance to bring them to the forefront and let people explore them.
Q: Can you tell us about the genesis of the restaurant? Dirt Candy is really one of a kind. What have you seen that other chefs haven’t?
A: My background is in vegetarian cooking, and I was actually a vegetarian for a number of years, but more because I didn’t really like meat. For me, it wasn’t about politics, the environment, etc. There’s nothing wrong with people going vegetarian for those reasons, but that’s not what influenced me.
’ve always loved cooking vegetables. When I decided I wanted to open a restaurant, I knew it would be centered around vegetables. Although I had cooked meat and fish before, it wasn’t my greatest skill, or my passion.
Before I opened Dirt Candy, I looked at restaurants in New York and saw hundreds dedicated to steak, fried chicken, and fish. It seemed bizarre that there didn’t seem to be a single restaurant devoted solely to celebrating vegetables. I had to sit on that for a second before I realized what a great opportunity was at hand.
Q: Looking back even further, what sparked your interest in food and cooking? When did you decide it was time to pursue a culinary career?
A: Food has always been a big part of my life. We were one of those families that loved to eat. Cooking our family meals was a fun after-school thing for me. When we traveled, we’d wake up and have breakfast, then spend time figuring out where to eat lunch and dinner together.
When I was 21, I moved to Hong Kong and did just about anything I could to survive. I taught English and worked for an insurance company, but that wasn’t much fun. Apart from teaching English, I realized there wasn’t anything I could travel with.
I came back to the US with the idea that I’d go to culinary school so I’d have a skill that would take me around the world. Fortunately or unfortunately, I came back to New York for culinary school, and I haven’t traveled for work since!
Q: What kind of fresh produce purveyors do you source through?
A: We use three purveyors: one for mushrooms, one for more exotic items, and Riviera Produce, which is our mainstay. They’ve been very easy to work with, particularly because they’re willing to break cases and deliver smaller quantities when we need them.
Q: Can you share a bit about your strategies for menu planning and sourcing?
A: Once in a while, we order special items for our dishes, but I think our food is exotic enough as is. We make exotic happen using very basic ingredients. When you come in, you’ll see items you can find at any supermarket, but used in many different ways.
Hopefully this inspires our customers to go home and try something different. Using widely available ingredients helps us too. If we run out of something, we can get it at the supermarket.
Exotic products can be more challenging, because sometimes we’re really at the whim of nature. We have a cauliflower dish where we use purple cauliflower, which isn’t available half the time we’d like it to be. Sometimes we wait two or three weeks for it, either because there was a bad crop, or it sold out. When we can get it, we figure out a way to preserve it. Maybe we’ll make it into a jam, dehydrate it, or pickle it to make it last just in case.
Q: What are some other procurement-related challenges you’re faced with?
A: We have a lot of other overhead costs, so ingredients can’t consume too much of our budget. One big problem is that we don’t have a lot of storage. We’ve worked hard to find purveyors that will actually break cases for us, maybe sell us one onion. It’s unfortunate that we can’t always take what purveyors want to sell us, but that’s our problem. We’re the small one.
Q: Do customers frequently ask whether your food is local, organic, etc.?
A: Local and organic for the most part don’t seem important to most of my customers. Every once in a while, we get a phone call from someone who says, “I only eat organic,” and we have to say, “Well… we’re really sorry, but you can’t eat here.”
I’d love to use some more organic produce, but first I’d like to support more local farmers.
Q: What are a couple dishes that you’re particularly proud of?
A: Our Portobello mushroom mousse has been on the menu since the beginning. I found that the Portobello was a staple on many vegetarian menus, but often just as a meat replacement, a disservice to an amazing vegetable. To make it into a creamy, decadent mousse is an awesome feeling.
I’m also proud of our cabbage salad, where we use eleven different kinds of cabbages prepared all different ways: pickled, grilled, made into noodles and wontons. It’s fun to take one vegetable family and make a whole dish out of it. Otherwise, most people wouldn’t sit down and look forward to eating a plate full of cabbage.
We’re always excited to discover new things we can do with vegetables. There is a whole world we’ve hardly begun to explore.
Q: At last year’s “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, Chandra Ram, editor of Plate Magazine, praised you as a leader in upending the notion that vegetables are best relegated to sides and salads. What other misconceptions are you trying to correct?
A: First, there’s the misconception that everybody would rather be eating a piece of meat than vegetables, that you’re denying yourself something when you eat vegetables. I don’t think that’s true.
Eating vegetables is a unique experience, good on its own, and I don’t think anyone who works in this restaurant, or anybody who loves it, feels they’re going without when they eat vegetables. There isn’t a single moment where we think, “Ugh, I wish we could use other ingredients instead,” because we already have so much to work with.
Second, a lot of people have the idea that vegetables are something to eat when you’re on a diet, and that they can never be as good as anything else. In reality, they can be as fulfilling and tasty as a piece of meat or anything else.
There’s also the idea that vegetables are hard to work with. They’re certainly different to work with, but no harder than anything else. You just have to learn the right techniques.
Q: In your cookbook, you wrote: “All the way back to the 1800’s, a vegetarian diet has never been allowed to be simply about the food… Vegetarian food has become about saying no to meat, rather than saying yes to vegetables. It focuses on what it’s not, rather than what it is. At Dirt Candy, I obsess over what I can serve, not about what I can’t.” Has your critique of contemporary vegetarianism been more embraced or chided by vegetarians?
A: As far as I can tell, I think I’ve been well received. I don’t think I’ve offended anybody, and when it comes to exploring why vegetarian restaurants aren’t the most written-about restaurants in the city, I don’t have all the answers.
For a while, because the food was actually the least important part of the vegetarian world, behind health, politics, ethics, and environmental concerns, there was less of a focus on making the food taste good. Now people are worrying less about proving themselves, and saying, “Everybody knows what we believe in; now let’s make it taste delicious.” I think that’s something that will continue to happen.
Vegetarian restaurants are getting better. They’re putting chefs in the kitchen who better know what to do with these products, rather than relying on the old fake meat and brown rice dish. There are more people working to come up with amazing ideas in the kitchen.
Q: So would you ever consider branding Dirt Candy as a vegetarian restaurant instead of a vegetable restaurant?
A: I still don’t think that would really describe what we do. There’s nothing wrong with being called a vegetarian restaurant, but it’d be harder for us to be called a vegetarian restaurant and still have people realize that each plate is about one single vegetable.
When you hear “Dirt Candy: the vegetable restaurant,” you can expect to be bombarded with vegetables, whereas at a vegetarian restaurant, they’ll probably serve a mix of vegetables, grains and other proteins.
Q: Your recently published cookbook is unlike any that I’ve seen. Can you explain the format for our readers, and discuss why you chose it?
A: It’s a graphic novel cookbook, the first of its kind. We wanted to do something fun and different to help us stand out, and felt it would be hard to capture the day-to-day energy of the restaurant with a traditional cookbook format.
Our cookbook was never meant to be Vegetarian Cooking 101. Plenty of books do that already. This is the story of Dirt Candy, told through recipes and a graphic novel. Our artist, Ryan Dunlavey, worked hard to put Dirt Candy on paper, and he did a terrific job.
We want readers to look at it and say, “Look at this crazy place. I can do this,” instead of a very serious coffee-table cookbook where I say I learned how to cook Portobello mousse at my grandmother’s knee, and that the recipe has been passed down for generations. That might be more intimidating.
Q: Along the same lines, I think weak culinary confidence hinders fresh produce sales to some extent, which is why one of my favorite scenes in your cookbook is when you scold a Pollyannaish character for cheerily claiming that cooking is magic. You also wrote, “The recipe is not your master! You are not its slave!” Let’s talk about this.
A: Before people started eating out so much, they cooked at home. Along the way, the chef lifestyle became very glamorized. There are many television shows that teach people how to cook, but there are many others that are much more complicated, like Top Chef and Chopped.
It seems like everybody watches these shows and thinks, “Wow. I could never do that,” because it’s so intimidating. Of course, these contestants are highly trained and have been cooking for a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a delicious version of what is being made for yourself.
Food should be approachable. This is one of the reasons we use basic ingredients, like carrots. It’s just a carrot. If we had heirloom rainbow carrots on our menu, people would be less likely to get the impression it’s something they can make at home.
I also tell people that it’s alright if you make a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes! It takes us three months in the kitchen to get a dish right. Why would it take anybody else less time?
Q: What are some simple, but maybe under-recognized ways to get the most out of vegetables?
A: In terms of technique, many cookbooks have catered to middle ground. When you’re told to cook a vegetable, it’s usually “Cook at 350 to 375 for 30 minutes.” You’re not going to get anything except a cooked vegetable. People need to start going slow and low, or fast and high. That is, either cook at a much lower temperature for a much longer time to bring out the inherent sweetness, or cook them at a high temperature for a much shorter time.
Q: I know you were the first vegetable chef to compete on Iron Chef, which is quite an accomplishment. What are some other achievements that you’re particularly proud of?
A: Being here after four years! Dirt Candy opened in October of 2008, one of the worst financial months in history, and we survived. Also, having the idea for the cookbook, writing it, and now seeing it on bookshelves, I really can’t tell you how proud I am.
Three things strike us as particularly important about Chef Amanda’s comments.
First, she differentiates her cooking with vegetables from vegetarian cooking. Much vegetarian cooking comes weighed down with ideology that many reject. This is about the food.
Second, the focus on staple ingredients not only makes the dishes plausible for home cooks and broader foodservice usage, but it switches the focus to technique –which is learnable. This is about the cooking.
Third, while the cuisine is innovative, it also pays homage to the fact that for most of human history, most cultures devoted themselves not to proteins, which were often rare, but to finding ways to make produce flavorful. This is about utilizing traditional techniques in new and exciting ways that taste delicious. This is about selling flavor, not medicine.
Chef Amanda was on Iron Chef America. Now you can watch her, up close and personal, as part of the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum.
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