By Carly DeFilippo

As the head chef of what is arguably New York’s most popular vegetable restaurant, you would expect Amanda Cohen to be a vegetarian. She was, in fact, for 16 years – a life choice inspired more by teenage peer pressure than any moral qualms about eating meat. But as she trained to become a chef, Cohen realized the restaurants she frequented rarely offered vegetarian dishes that actually featured vegetables. It was an observation that led her to start eating fish…and later, to start her own restaurant.

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Cohen helps students prepare her famous tempura poached eggs.

It’s an important distinction to make – vegetarian vs. vegetable – and one that defines the mission of Dirt Candy. Each dish celebrates one particular vegetable and explores its full potential. Take the carrot risotto, which features not only diced carrots, but also carrot broth, carrot juice, fried carrot ribbons and carrot dumplings. That’s a lot of carrot, but the dish is better for it, due to the many different textures of the same ingredient – a signature of Cohen’s cooking style.

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Preparing and plating Cohen’s carrot-centric risotto.

Interestingly, many of the students in Cohen’s class had not yet visited her restaurant, but knew its reputation – and most owned her quirky, graphic novel-inspired cookbook. As a first-time cookbook writer, Cohen was receptive to the class’ comments, and mentioned that, in her own experience, sometimes recipes don’t work. Just like a person, a recipe takes time and repetition to understand – and the ability to adapt, as necessary, in the moment.

Dirt Candy celery salad, with  grilled grapes, king oyster mushrooms, celery pesto and fried cheese curds.

Dirt Candy celery salad, with grilled grapes, king oyster mushrooms, celery pesto and fried cheese curds.

No one better demonstrated this concept of adaptation than Cohen’s “prep queen”, Danielle, who has been at Dirt Candy since the restaurant’s opening. As students attempted to master the various cooking techniques required by each of the recipes, Danielle gracefully talked them through everything from grilling grapes to making caramel corn.

Dirt Candy corn pudding with caramel corn and butterscotch sauce.

Dirt Candy corn pudding with caramel corn and butterscotch sauce.

The latter was my job for the evening. It seemed simple enough, but when my caramel burnt before reaching the instruction’s 300 degrees, Danielle talked me through the process in terms of color, texture and smell. The second batch came out perfect, and I was doubly proud. It’s rare that I have the ability to fail and rebound so quickly in a cooking situation, a testament to the hands-on learning afforded by an in-person cooking class.

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