Long before plant-based eating was trendy, chef and restauranteur Amanda Cohen made a name for herself by celebrating her love of vegetables on a variety of beautiful, rainbow-coloured plates. As the owner of New York City’s Dirt Candy, the Canadian is a James Beard-nominee, has been recognized by the Michelin Guide for five years in a row, and was the first vegetarian chef to ever compete on Iron Chef America.
In anticipation of the drool-worthy dishes Cohen will concoct on Iron Chef Canada, we sat down with the ground-breaking chef to find out what inspires her, learn about her journey to the kitchen, and get a taste of what she’ll bring to Kitchen Stadium.
Where does your love of food stem from?
I mean, I just love food. I love to eat and I love flavour and… I love to eat! But I think mostly I really like sitting down to dinner and I like conversations with people and the celebratory parts of food more than anything.
What was your journey been like as a plant-based or “vegetable” chef?
Well, it definitely hasn’t been easy. I’m a pioneer in this world and it took a long time for people to accept that what I’m doing has value. It’s really only in the last couple of years that people have started to embrace… I don’t say “plant-based,” I’m a vegetable chef more than anything.
Could you describe the difference?
I celebrate vegetables. Plant-based celebrates a kind of lifestyle. I really don’t care what you eat on a daily basis. My food isn’t about health or politics, or the environment. It’s really about celebrating an under-celebrated food, which is vegetables.
Do you have a proudest moment in your career so far?
I run a restaurant in New York City, one of the hardest cities to run a restaurant in. Every day I’m pretty amazed and excited that I have the opportunity to still be open.
You released the very first graphic novel cookbook, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook. Can you tell us what inspired that?
When we decided we wanted to write a cookbook for the restaurant I realized I wanted to do something really unique and different. I don’t think most people cook from cookbooks anymore. They cook from the Internet and they read cookbooks more for the story of the restaurant. I wanted to do something that really represented the energy of the restaurant and the graphic novel is like the perfect pairing for that.
What’s your favourite dish to make and why?
My favourite dish is really whatever new dish we’re making at the restaurant. We’re always testing new dishes and seeing what we can put on the menu. Right now we’ve been working on a celery spaghetti and we’re pretty excited about it.
How do you do a celery spaghetti?
We dehydrate Chinese celery leaves and fold them into a regular pasta dough, so it’s a little bit green and it has a nice, bright, celery flavour. And then we have some very long, thin strips of celery that get tangled in that, so you’re eating celery and celery noodles. And then we have a celery pesto to go with it and a little bit of a cream cheese broth and some grilled grapes.
Can you name a Canadian chef who inspires or excites you?
I love Lynn Crawford, a fellow Iron Chef. Her career has been amazing and everything she does is really inspiring.
What did your time in the Iron Chef America Kitchen Stadium teach you that you brought to the show?
Once you do it once, you learn a lot more about how to be in that kitchen. The thing no one told us is that we were really only making five portions. We cooked like we were making food for the restaurant and in the end, we had way too much food. There were little things like that that we walked away with.
How did you prepare for the competition this time around, now as an Iron Chef?
We did a lot of similar things as we did the first time around. We practised a lot, especially trying to become a team. Between my two sous-chefs and I, we wanted to be one unit. It was incredibly important to us that we always knew what we were doing and when. You really have to practice. You have one hour to get it right.
What can we expect from the competition this season?
You should expect a lot of excitement. Every day something surprising happened, on both sides. People really brought a level of food to the table that was astonishing. One of the hard things is that you don’t really get to taste the competitor’s food, but boy did I want to taste some of their dishes. They looked amazing and they sounded amazing.
Were you able to learn anything from the competitors?
It was really interesting because I have a very different style than most chefs, so I sort of work in a bubble. Watching what they came up with—with the same ingredients—was really interesting. It was nothing I would have ever come up with. I can’t wait to learn more about what they did because in the moment you don’t really pay that much attention. I’m fascinated to see what they managed to do with the ingredients. I know for sure there are techniques that are going to blow my mind.
What challenges or opportunities did you face as a plant-based chef?
It was all opportunities. The funny thing about this show is that it’s geared a little bit more towards what I do, which is to take one ingredient and celebrate it. That’s what we do in the restaurant, so for us let’s say we had carrots: we’re pretty used to taking a carrot and figuring out 25 things we can do with it. So the show is actually a perfect setup for me.
Was there a mandate that you wouldn’t have to work with meat?
I said I wouldn’t work with meat, but certainly, the competitor could. I’m not afraid to go up against a challenger who uses meat, but that’s not my speciality, I’m not going to do that. I would lose. I wouldn’t know what to do!
Can you walk us through your process for creating an Iron Chef Canada menu?
As soon as we find out [the secret indredient] we try to figure out things we’ve done before or ideas that can be applied to it. We have a database of recipes that can be applied to all kinds of ingredients, and then we choose the recipes we think will work best and go from there.
If you could pick one secret ingredient for your fellow Iron Chefs, what would you choose?
That’s a tough one because it feels pretty cruel. Probably something like onions would be really hard. That’s what I’d give them because I’d like to see them make five different dishes with onions as a centrepiece but not overwhelm the judges with the taste of onion. It gets tricky.
What would you make with onions?
We have an onion pasta stuffed with grilled onions, we have onion salad. A chocolate onion tart. I’ve got a lot of onion ideas!
Watch Iron Chef Canada Wednesdays at 10 PM E/P