Amanda Cohen, Dirt Candy, New York. [Photo: Krieger]
Chef Amanda Cohen doesn't think her vegetable-focused New York restaurant Dirt Candy has "at any point has been described as 'normal' or 'mainstream,'" so when it came time to write a cookbook, it wasn't the usual big glossy coffee table book for her. Instead, Cohen produced what she's calling the world's first comic book cookbook, cowritten by her husband Grady Hendrix with art by Ryan Dunlavey. (See a slideshow of the cookbook and the book trailer.) Below, Cohen discusses why she went the comics route, the complete meltdown that happens when OpenTable breaks, and the evolution of vegetable dining in the US. Dirt Candy comes out August 21 from Clarkson Potter (pre-order on Amazon).
Why do a comic book instead of a more traditional cookbook?
Using those words — traditional cookbook — didn't really sound interesting. I don't think the restaurant at any point has been described as "normal" or "mainstream," and we really wanted something that would express the restaurant itself. I love cookbooks, I grew up on cookbooks, cookbooks are my teachers.
I'm also at a point with cookbooks I think I'm a little overwhelmed. You have restaurants that are doing really fun things and turning the establishment on its head, but somehow it didn't seem like people were doing that with cookbooks so much. So it seemed like here's a way we can keep people interested in cookbooks. That traditional format — name of the recipe, little blurb, list of ingredients, the steps, and then this really gorgeous picture — it just seemed like there was so much more one could do with the format.
So did you get any blowback from publishers? They're big fans of books with big shiny photographs.
Yeah, we did. So we started the cookbook process because people would come to us. We'd get a call every couple weeks saying "Hey, I'm a publisher" or "Hey, I'm an editor and I really want to do something with you." And I always thought great, but I don't want to do it like that. I don't want to do this traditional cookbook. But how about I get you a proposal, and we'll see where it goes. And all these people were always really excited, and so we'd give them this graphic cookbook proposal, and all the ones who were kissing my ass before hand would go, "Oof. That's not going to work for us. It's too complicated. We've tried to do it before. It won't work out. We see what you're trying to do, and it's just too much." And then we were really lucky with Clarkson Potter, who were like, "Let's do it."
And how did you end up getting hooked up with Ryan Dunlavey, who did the art for the book?
I'd been familiar with his art previously and my husband knew him slightly. We were looking for an artist for the book. We'd actually chosen somebody else and were working with them, but it wasn't working out. It wasn't capturing the restaurant the way we wanted it too. They lived far away, it wasn't their fault, we just couldn't come see it all the time and see how it was working. So anyway, we were talking back and forth and Ryan's name came up. We didn't think he'd be able to do it, but we thought maybe he could recommend somebody. So we sat him down, and we were like, "Listen. Do you know anybody who'd want to do this?" And right away, he says, "I do!" So it went much better than we'd thought.
What was the process of creating the book like?
We had a loose idea of what we wanted. Ryan, Grady, and I would meet in an office three days a week — for six weeks, we actually closed the restaurant a couple days a week. And we storyboarded a little and figured out what we thought we should highlight. So in that period, we really put the book together. Then Grady and I went off together and we storyboarded it and wrote out a loose script. Then Ryan took over and drew some sketches, and then we tightened up the script, and it was all this back and forth. Thank goodness for Dropbox.
So do you think after going through this whole process you would ever go back and do the traditional cookbook with photographs?
I'm not sure. You know, it used to be cookbooks were sort of the only way to see food — in the 80s, in the 90s, those photos were sort of the only access to what other people were doing. But now you can see everything online, and everyone blogs and everything. So for me, it's not completely necessary to look at pictures in a book. Although they're beautiful and I love having them on my coffee table, the person at home who wants to see pictures of my food can already see them up online. I'm not sure. I wouldn't say no to anything, but I'm not sure that would be the next step.
Do you think the perception of vegetables and meat-free dishes has changed since you opened Dirt Candy? You hear more and more these days about chefs trying out vegetable tasting menus and that kind of thing.
I think it has and it hasn't. Definitely in the past four or five years, it has changed. There's been a huge jump where vegetables are starting to come to the forefront of the plate. They're not necessarily an afterthought anymore. You would go to restaurants and there was always a vegetable plate but it would be all the sides, or it would be a grilled vegetable plate. That doesn't happen as much any more, in fact I think chefs are starting to be a little more creative with their customers and experimenting. At the same time, I'm not sure vegetables will ever be as big as meat is, as big as pork belly, or chicken, or fish. But I do think they will continue to move toward the center of the plate.
Have you found that your customers react differently to your menu now versus four years ago when you opened?
Yes. When were we new it was great, people were like "Oooh, I've never had this before." And now, they're like "Well let's see what else you can do." That's a lot of pressure. We're not the new kid on the block any more. The first year we were open, we had so many customers who can in and were like, "I've never had just vegetables for a meal before." Now we don't hear that as much any more. We loved proving to those people that they could just have vegetables and be satisfied, but it's lost that novelty factor.
You mentioned on your blog that there were some issues with OpenTable — the reservation system at the restaurant died, and instead of recommending diners call you the website posted a notice that said "Please accept our apologies on behalf of Dirt Candy. Online reservations are not available on this date at this restaurant." Has that been resolved, and what do you think of online reservation systems in general?
For us, we use OpenTable mostly because its saves us from having a reservationist. It's a tiny restaurant, I don't know where a reservationist would sit all day. It's really beneficial to us. And while we still have to answer the phone all the time, we don't have to answer it as much. It's a huge time saver and there is an ease factor. I think now people are like, "Well let's see if they're online" first before they call you — no one wants to call you any more. I can't imagine not having an online system. In the world today it's a lot of work to not have one.
At the same time, when it crashes? The whole world collapses. We spent two days kind of like, "We don't know who's coming tonight." We don't know if we can take reservations, we don't know if anyone cancelled. We're still dealing with some of the problems with it where we thought we were offline and we ended up being online and so people were still making reservations but they never showed up on our end. People don't call OpenTable, they called us. We were getting angry calls. There was nothing we could do, it was offline. It's hard to change people's perception, they tend to think you're the reservations assistant. No, we're not, sorry there's nothing we can do. We went through more free hush puppies dealing with this problem...
There's a whole section in the book on terrible questions journalists ask chefs. (I won't ask any of them, promise.) How would you rather the press portrayed chefs?
The questions I really like being asked are the ones that open up a dialog, and also ones that the interviewer is actually honestly curious about. My favorite moment is when an interviewer asks, "Well, what's in your fridge?" And you're like really? Do you care? Does it really matter what's in my fridge? And I think everyone plays into it. People will say we're going to come take pictures of your fridge, and I'm like oh, okay, I better go home and clean it. And I know I'm not the only chef who's done that. I don't cook at home. I don't have a favorite meal to cook at home. I cook five nights a week. My main meal at home is cereal in the morning. But I'm not sure anyone is actually interested in that. I think there's a lot of misinformation out there where chefs are like, "Oh, you know, this is me in my home kitchen, look how pretty it is, I just cooked this whole meal for my family on my one night off and it's seven courses." Really? Do I suck, or is somebody lying here?
What's next for you?
Well, we have a mini book tour going to a couple cities, and that's going to take up much of the Fall. Then I think in December it'll be time to look at what I want to do next. Do I want to make a bigger Dirt Candy? Do I want to do something different than Dirt Candy? Do I want to maybe write another book? The world's wide open right now.