Dirt Candy is synonymous with chef and owner Amanda Cohen. Now, other chefs behind the scenes will get some of the spotlight.
When Dirt Candy, chef Amanda Cohen’s industry-leading vegetarian restaurant in New York City, introduced its spring menu this month, diners found an interesting new addition. Below three of the five dishes is a line of attribution: Junior sous chef Michaela Duke is credited for the lox-like tower of smoked onions, sous chef Andrew Duong with the verdant celery bowtie pasta, and sous chef Matt Miller with the roasted, stuffed fennel. It reads seamlessly enough to make you wonder why you don’t see information like this on menus or social media posts more often — especially in a dining scene in which calling out the contributions of farms, butchers, and ceramicists has become commonplace.
Indeed, calls for transparency around dish development have increased over the past few years. Writing for Eater in 2019, Jonathan Kauffman explored the question of intellectual property in dish development, finding that chefs are often unable to take their signature dishes with them when they leave a restaurant. In the Washington Post in 2020 — after the Sqirl mold saga uncovered allegations of unacknowledged staff contributions — now-Whetstone Magazine editor Layla Schlack took this idea a step further: Menu credits could “bring workers to the forefront, potentially amplifying conversations about restaurant labor,” she wrote.
Since it opened in 2008, Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy has been at the forefront of big shifts in how the restaurant industry can operate more responsibly and equitably, like plant-based charcuterie and the elimination of tipping. This menu update is “something I’ve always wanted to do,” Cohen says. “I’ve always tried my best to give as much credit as possible to my staff, tagging them in Instagram and newsletters. This menu was a bit different because it’s the first time where I really felt like it was a true collaboration.” Eater spoke with Cohen about why she made the switch, and how Dirt Candy’s pandemic-spurred revamp has helped her and her staff grow.
What was your menu development process like before, and how was it different this time?
In general, I would do most of it on my own: come up with the ideas and the vegetables that I wanted to use and test a lot of it by myself. Sometimes people would come up with things to add on to it or we’d go back and forth, but the initial idea and the initial testing started with me. This time, I knew what vegetables we were going to use for spring, and I had a general idea of what I wanted the dishes to be.
I told each of my sous chefs [to choose] a vegetable/dish, gave them a general outline, and they ran with it. There was a lot of back-and-forth because it’s still Dirt Candy-style so it all has to be of a piece, but they did most of the testing and they came up with a lot of the ideas. Whereas before I would say 95 percent of each dish was me, this time I would say [it was] more like 50-50.
Have you seen an approach like this on menus before?
I’ve heard of people doing it before. I don’t know if I’ve seen it or noticed it. I certainly know there has been a movement to give more credit to staff over the last couple of years and I think it’s great — it takes an army to run a restaurant.
How often do you change your menu, and is this something that you envision you’ll be doing on future menus?
We change it four times a year. So long as my sous chefs keep participating — and I’m happy to open it up to anybody else on my staff — I would love to continue it. Sometimes when you’re the head chef you can feel like you work in a vacuum, so it’s nice to be able to collaborate, learn from others, and see what their experience has been and what ideas they have. I’ll absolutely give them the credit they deserve. However, maybe [there would be] a time that it would be just me; I’m not just doing this to look good, it has to be truthful.
Why do you think being a head chef can feel like you’re working in a vacuum?
We’ve revamped the restaurant over the last year. When we simplified the menu, it gave everybody a lot more time to do things. In the past, everybody just felt so overwhelmed. We’ve tried so hard not to have people work long days, so the only person who really could take on that extra burden to make new dishes was me, and that would come in the in-between moments of everything else. It feels lonely, like I was in the back room by myself during service doing things. Other [chefs de cuisine] of mine had time to certainly give feedback but not necessarily time to really work on dishes, and that’s my fault for running this intense restaurant for many years. Post-pandemic, we’ve really scaled back a lot of what we do, and we only run one menu that’s five dishes — a couple extra things here and there — but with the same number of staff that we had beforehand. It’s given everybody breathing room to grow as chefs.
Do you feel like in sous chef roles, historically, people haven’t necessarily been able to create new dishes at Dirt Candy?
They’ve always been welcome to; they haven’t had the time — definitely not, I think, in the way we had things set up. There was so much actual work to do, and a lot of times, my sous chefs, pre-pandemic, had to also take on the role of a line cook or prep cook on top of their other duties. We were really struggling with labor issues beforehand; we’re pretty fortunate right now that we aren’t, and so everybody can do what they were hired to do.
What has been the response from diners?
Lots of guests have been really excited and they want to know about the process. It’s the exact same questions you’re asking: Why now? What’s the difference? How does the collaboration work? I think by being able to put it on the menu, it’s making it obvious that a restaurant is not just one person; it’s everybody. Even though I have an open kitchen, by and large most of my guests interact with the front of house. This is a way to really let them understand that the back of house is so integral to the restaurant as well.
What has the response been from your sous chefs to seeing their names on the menus?
I mean, I hope they’re happy. I sent it out in our newsletter, I posted it online, and their moms called them and were pretty excited for them. I think they also can recognize that they’re an important part of this restaurant, and hopefully it’s given them some confidence to keep trying and experimenting.
Is this something that you would like to see at more restaurants?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s fun to know the names of the people who make your food. It’s kind of like watching the end credits of a movie, or when you go see a Broadway show and you see everybody who’s worked on the production — I think it’s great.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.