With dishes like broccoli dogs and cauliflower-Funfetti cake, Amanda Cohen has proved that plant-based eating doesn't have to be a snooze fest.

By Pamela O'Brien
September 17, 2020
Amanda Cohen
Credit: Amanda Cohen/Ariel Skelley/Getty

It's safe to say plant-based eating is the hot dietary trend of the last few years, but not everyone is ready to give up — or at least cut back on — meat consumption.

That's where Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of the vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy and the vegan Lekka Burger, comes in. "My goal in life is to get people to eat more vegetables,” says Cohen. “For me, it’s about the glory of the vegetables and how delicious they are. When cooking vegetables, there are endless possibilities. I love selling people on them.”

But when she opened Dirt Candy in New York in 2008, that task wasn’t easy. “Everyone was like, ‘Why would you dedicate a restaurant to vegetables? That’s crazy,’” she says. “We just wanted to serve really good food and make the dining experience fun. Those things are what convinced people that vegetables could be delicious.”

Being small and scrappy was also an advantage. “At first, the restaurant was so tiny — we had almost no storage,” says Cohen. “Every dish was based on vegetables we could get at the corner deli in case we ran out. Which meant they weren’t exotic. They were vegetables you could find anywhere, and we did something extraordinary with them. That really engaged our guests.” (Related: These Plant-Based Meal Delivery Services Make Vegan and Vegetarian Eating So Much Easier)

Today it’s not just the cooking and creating that drive Cohen. Owning restaurants has given her a platform to speak out on topics she cares deeply about, like fair wages and women’s issues. She eliminated tipping and pays her staff a higher wage. She also makes a point to mentor young chefs. “I promised myself that I would not leave the industry the way I found it,” she says.

During the pandemic, when her restaurants were closed along with many others, Cohen spoke with fellow chefs through daily group phone calls. “Even on really hard days, we’re there for one another in a way we haven’t been before,” she says. “Together I think we could make a big difference going forward.”

If Cohen's restaurants prove anything, it's that vegetables don't have to be the bland, soggy medley your grandma made you ate as a child. The first step: Being generous with herbs. "I love adding lots of herbs,” says Cohen. “For two cups of cooked vegetables, I would use a cup and a half of fresh herbs, like basil, mint, cilantro, and parsley, and toss it all together. I really like the contrast of the bright herbs and the caramelized vegetables.”

And when you're roasting, be strategic with your temperature and timing. “Go slow and low or fast and high,” says Cohen. “Put the vegetable in the oven at 450° for 10 minutes, and it will be charred and a little crunchy but also have soft parts. If you go low and slow at 200° to 250° for about an hour, it will be nice and chewy and have a little caramelization.” (Here's how you can get crunchy, crisp veggies on the grill, too.)