A cookbook usually isn’t a page-turner. But the folks behind Dirt Candy, a Manhattan vegetarian restaurant, have written just that. Chef Amanda Cohen, with artist Ryan Dunleavy and Cohen’s husband Grady Hendrix, published Dirt Candy: A Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, Aug. 21), an action-packed graphic novel/cookbook hybrid. Dirt Candy tells the story of the restaurant’s opening, introducing Cohen’s kitchen crew and their philosophies and sharing a cavalcade of recipes along with tales of the highs and lows of Cohen’s professional life. Driving the careening narrative is Cohen’s ego, popping up throughout, taking on avatars of a crazed monkey, a Zen panda and her own 5-year-old self.
This description might conjure cutesy images, but don’t be fooled. Cohen is angsty, full of blazing energy ripping across the pages. Knives flash, eyes bulge and anthropomorphized food is slashed and splattered. In one scene, Cohen kicks the shit out of a boring salad. As bizarre as these moments are, her unpredictability is fun, causing chapters to fly by as you explore the recesses of the chef’s stress-addled mind.
As for the recipes, Dirt Candy is not for novices. Almost all the dishes involve several time-consuming components and architectural platings. Simple-sounding recipes like fennel salad (with fennel-seed dressing, candied-grapefruit pops and grilled-cheese croutons) are dense with instructions. Garnishes and add-ons are labeled as “optional” — but then there’s Cohen glaring at you from the page, silently judging whether your “kitchen fu” is too weak.
Tons of the techniques highlighted are really cool: reducing, ribbon-frying and dehydrating. But at times, the recipes seem to punish the vegetables even as they celebrate them. There is inarguable finesse backing up Cohen’s concepts, but also a coldness, as if vegetables are a nemesis that must be brutally conquered. Her complex veg-wrangling just seems like too much. Maybe her approach is better for winter, when sad supermarket produce begs for a dominatrix-style smothering in Cohen’s favorite flavor fetishes: fat, salt, wine and sugar.
For those weary of the sorts of cookbooks with beautiful people in impossible kitchens and diffused-focus photos of perfectly rustic plates, the cartoon violence and incessant sass of Dirt Candy comes as a relief. Don’t expect to be coddled or cozy in Cohen’s kitchen — it’s a fiercely delicious, adrenaline-addicted, chaotic whirlwind of a place.
Also in this week's food section: