On Sundays, when Dirt Candy is closed, Chef Amanda Cohen rents the restaurant out to a group of World War II submarine veterans. They say it reminds them of old times, though they find it a little claustrophobic. She charges them by the square foot. The bill comes to $1.75.
Just kidding, but Dirt Candy really is unbelievably small. So small that if there are more than three cooks working during the day, you have to set up prep stations in the dining room. So small that to get in the refrigerators in the basement, you have to move around a puzzle of crates, chairs, backpacks and hotel pans, then move them back again to get in the freezer. In most restaurant kitchens, you say “behind” whenever you are moving behind someone’s back, so they know not to make any sudden moves with a hot pan or knife. At Dirt Candy, there isn’t much point in saying “behind”, because you are *always* behind someone.
The last couple of hours before service, when Chef Cohen is setting up her station, Jesus (the sous chef / hot cook) is making family meal, finishing his setup, and training a potential new sous who is trailing for the day, Danielle (the prep lead) is finishing the pasta and desserts, Jennifer, an extern from the CIA, and I are knocking the last items off of our lists, William (the dishwasher) is emptying the sink of the afternoon wreckage, and Diana (the server) is checking the wines, restoring the dining room to sanity and training Anna (a new server), it looks a bit like the mosh pit at a Dead Kennedys show, only with sharp implements and searing steel.
And out of this madness comes some of the most delicious, innovative vegetarian food I’ve tasted. Jalapeno hush puppies with maple butter. Be still my Southern heart! Airy, chewy Chinese steamed buns filled with barbecued carrots served with a sparkling-bright salad of cucumber and shredded ginger in lime juice and sesame oil. Intensely smoked cauliflower deep fried in a cornflake crust with waffles and an arugula salad, a brilliant homage to chicken-and-waffles. Nanaimo bars with a sweet pea and mint ice cream.
What is the common thread? Familiar foods, tweaked, elevated and sharpened. Almost everything has a recognizable reference point and then departs into a territory of intense and focused flavor, textural contrast, and attractive yet approachable presentation. Nothing is ever bland or underseasoned, and there isn’t the over-reliance on butter, cream and cheese that often makes restaurant food heavy. The vegetables aren’t hand-gathered by monks or named after the farmer’s great-aunt’s favorite cow, and the food isn’t plated with laser guides and surgical tools. The true flavors of those unpedigreed plants are allowed to shine through in multiple forms in each dish. There is a great deal of precision and consistently high standards, all focused on deliciousness without pretension.
Last week, Chef Amanda generously allowed me to stage for three days. (Stage is restaurant-speak for intern – it is French so pronounced stahzh.) The first day, I came in towards the end of prep and stayed through service. I got to taste almost everything, plate a few dishes (which is harder than it looks!) and see how the kitchen runs at full steam. The communication is fascinating. Amanda is continuously working with the servers to figure out the timing of tables, and with Jesus to get the food out. Those two have some serious non-verbal skills. The slightest grunt indicates that an order has been heard and fired. A raised eyebrow says “something is wrong with this waffle batter, you should taste one.”
Let me paint a picture for you of what it is like to trail Chef Amanda for service. I’m standing in an area that is maybe 2 feet by 1, between her station, the bathroom door, and the reservation computer. Except it is a spot that the servers constantly need, so I dance towards the station one way, then back to the wall. She’s giving me small portions of almost everything on the menu, which is amazing. Somehow, she’s managing to expedite the service, make all of the cold dishes, finish the hot plates, answer the constantly ringing phone, manage the servers, run food, chat with customers, handle walk-ins, show me how to make some of the plates, and talk shop, all simultaneously and calmly. If she had suddenly broke out an electric violin and performed a one-woman Canadian version of Fiddler on the Roof I wouldn’t have batted an eye.
The next two days I came in early and prepped with Danielle, making the dough and filling the carrot buns, wrapping the squash dumplings for soup, preparing the falafel balls for the zucchini pasta, taking apart two crates of cauliflower into microscopic florets (to be roasted and dehydrated into crispies) and dozens of other little tasks. I love prep shifts. Although they are fast-paced, there is something soothing about the rhythm of the knifework, the physical dance of taking apart, reassembling, and storing of all that food, and the snippets of conversation with coworkers. It is satisfying to develop a sense of confidence at each task. When you have done enough prep shifts, you know you can come into almost any restaurant and speak the language and understand what is expected of you and how to do it efficiently. At the end of the day I always feel physically exhausted and mentally joyful.
One of the best things for me about this stage is that I could see basically everything. There is no office, no separate space. It is all right there. Produce orders, inventory, hiring, employee training, reservations, prep, tasting, service, dishwashing, customers, service, impromptu electrical repairs – everything. I want to run my own small kitchen some day, so this was an incredible opportunity for me to learn from a person who is doing that with great success.
Speaking of success, I never realized how crucial it is to manage reservations. Dirt Candy seats just twenty people, and usually does three full turns every night, so at most sixty diners can eat. A six-top that no-shows and isn’t replaced by walk-ins is 10% of the business! Chef Amanda answers the phones herself, re-confirms every reservation, and manages the timing so that no-one ever has to wait for their table. They can’t. There isn’t any place they could possibly stand. Keep this in mind the next time you make or break a reservation (at Dirty Candy or anywhere else) and be considerate of the fact that some extremely hard working people are doing their best to give you a great experience.
As you can tell, I learned a lot and had a fantastic time in this short visit. I can’t thank Chef Amanda and the whole Dirt Candy team enough. If you are in New York, you should absolutely eat there – and you’ll want to book several weeks ahead! In the meantime, don’t forget to sign up for the Dirt Candy Facebook page, and
keep your eye out for her graphic novel cookbook. Nevermind keeping an eye out, it is here! How cool is that?
p.s. At the risk of creating an infinite loop in the internet, here is what Chef Amanda wrote about my visit.