I’m guessing here, but I don’t think there are too many chefs who could pull off a graphic cookbook. Dirt Candy: A Cookbook‘s black-and-white cartoons depicting food like pickled potatoes (longish ovals), portobello mousse (a simple cube), and spinach soup (a bowl of dark liquid that looks the same as every other soup in the book) are such a far cry from the huge, glossy images that grace the pages of every other high-end restaurant cookbook that there is surely someone out there right now reading Dirt Candy and thinking “Blasphemy!”
But they are wrong. And probably snobs. Glossy pictures fetishizing food are all well and good, but after a while, every extra-fancy dish with heirloom/Asian/weird ingredients starts to look similar, and, frankly, kind of boring. Dirt Candy, on the other hand, has the boom-pow! storytelling and imagery that make comic books feel like candy for your eyes (hmm, coincidence?). It’s a cookbook that, right off the bat, is actually fun and exciting.
That’s because the chef and author behind the book, Amanda Cohen, has devoted herself to making vegetables fun and exciting — but not in the Jessica Seinfeld, perky-mom way. Cohen opened the nine-table, all-vegetable (they eschew the term vegetarian) Dirt Candy in Manhattan in 2008, and by 2010 the restaurant had attracted so much attention that Cohen was tapped for Iron Chef America, battling it out with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Nowadays, Dirt Candy is one of the toughest reservations in New York.
When publishers started approaching Cohen to ask for a cookbook, the wheels started turning. “We really wanted to do something different,” Cohen says. “We felt that the restaurant wouldn’t be accurately represented in a traditional format.” Once the idea for a graphic cookbook was born, Cohen enlisted the help of her husband, Grady Hendrix, who had experience with storyboarding from working on screenplays. They found award-winning artist Ryan Dunlavey, of the Action Philosophers! series, to create the art.
A graphic cookbook wasn’t the easiest concept to sell, though. “Most publishers were pretty taken aback with our proposal,” says Cohen. “We’re really lucky our editor took a chance with us — this was something that had never been done before.”
We’re introduced to the main characters (who are also the real-life staff of Dirt Candy) in the first couple of pages via a quick exposition and, because this is comic-book-style, some in media res storyboarding. Cohen is a cute, ponytailed gal with awesome knife skills whose Scott Pilgrim-like stat box includes a Special Attack of Unpredictable Rage. Her sous-chef, Jesus, is a huge, burly man with a goatee and a Weakness of Communication. Danielle, the prep chef, is a girl-next-door type with a kerchief and a Goal of Not Being Yelled At. They’re regular, non-glamorous people with a little bit of superhero thrown in, and throughout the book they pull vegetables out of boiling water with their bare hands, beat magical fairies with umbrellas, and occasionally philosophize about things like time, ambition, and gratitude — all while sharing Dirt Candy recipes and tidbits of vegetable-cooking wisdom with the reader.
Speaking as a vegetarian, no one knows better than we do that plant-only food, especially down here in the pork fat-loving South, often lives up to its reputation as bland, restrictive, and uncreative. Considering that there are hundreds more types of fruits and vegetables than there are meats, that doesn’t really make sense, but that’s the way it is. (It’s France’s fault, as you’ll learn reading Dirt Candy.)
Cohen, however, has no patience with that absurdity and outlines her cooking philosophy in one of her cookbook’s graphic stories: “You have to use more salt. More butter. More fat. More spice. More vinegar. More wine. More sugar. More flavor. More! More! MORE!” It’s a perfect illustration both of why her food is so popular, and of Dirt Candy’s refreshing, sometimes shocking, honesty. For example, I now know that Cohen spent more than $400,000 to get her 600-square foot restaurant up and running, after being ripped off by a couple of contractors and numerous construction people. I know her formula for pricing dishes, which has less to do with food costs and more to do with keeping the lights on. I know that she hires illegal immigrants at a fair wage to wash dishes, because no one else will do the job.
Sharing these realities was an important reason for writing the book, Cohen says. “We are really, really honest, and that’s exceptionally different in the restaurant world. Restaurants operate so much on smoke and mirrors. I think [writing the book] started with wanting to break down those barriers.”
And break them she certainly does. There’s a whole story involving a starry-eyed journalist interviewing Chef Amanda about her glamorous, magazine-spread-worthy life. Amanda then goes into a detailed tirade about just how un-glamorous real chefs are that involves her morphing into a stressed-out monkey and a zen panda. Then there’s the part where Cohen describes the ridiculously well-timed dance that a restaurant staff has to execute if they want to keep things from dissolving into utter chaos, which sometimes happens anyway.
The recipes, which are for dishes like Kimchi Doughnuts, Roasted Carrot Buns, and the aforementioned Portobello Mousse, are approachable if not easy. Novice cooks may feel faint of heart when they realize the amount of cookware and attention most of the dishes require, but Cohen eases the pain with an adamant declaration at the beginning of the book: “The recipe is not your master! You are not its slave!” In other words, if you don’t like paella crisp or huitlacoche cream, just leave it out.
She also includes extensive, whiz-bangy instructions on technique, so that you’ll understand exactly how to reduce, caramelize, or roast your ingredients. “The last thing I want people to feel is intimidated,” Cohen says. “The core philosophy of Dirt Candy is that food should be fun and cooking should be fun. These things take practice — at the restaurant when we test a dish it takes three months, and we make so many mistakes. You’re probably not going to get the recipe exactly the way you like it the first time, but that should be the exciting part. There’s always, hopefully, another meal waiting for you.”