Love or hate the name, it’s impossible to forget about a restaurant called Dirt Candy, which was exactly Amanda Cohen’s plan. A trailblazer in the world of vegetable-forward cooking and an outspoken advocate for going gratuity-free, the chef, writer, and cookbook author dropped by the Eater Upsell studios this week to talk Google Alerts from her mom, shrugging off the “healthy” label, and the salad dressing of her dreams.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 7: Amanda Cohen, edited to just the main interview, here. For more from Greg and Helen, including whether or not they think delivery is a suitable stand-in for a true restaurant dining experience, you’ll have to listen to the episode in its entirety, above.
Greg Morabito: Today we are joined in the Eater Upsell studios by Amanda Cohen, who you may know from her restaurant in Manhattan, but also as somebody who's written a lot about things related to restaurants and running them.
Helen Rosner: Amanda’s basically one of the most honest and outspoken and smartest voices in terms of restaurateurs and chefs telling it like it is. "Here’s the bullshit involved in running your own restaurant." And that’s awesome and rare and I think whenever it happens, people lose their minds with happiness to have someone who’s honest. Welcome to the Upsell.
Greg: Welcome Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you for having me. Thank you for that lovely introduction.
Greg: So how old is Dirt Candy now in both of its iterations?
Amanda: I thought you were going to ask me how old I am now.
Helen: How old are you? No, you don’t have to tell us that.
Amanda: I’m 42 actually.
Helen: That’s the meaning of life number. Douglas Adams said 42 is the answer to the question, or —
Amanda: Oh yeah.
Helen: It is the answer to the question, and then the whole phenomenon of, "Well, what is the question?’
Greg: It’s the answer if you don’t know an answer, I thought.
Helen: Yeah, 42.
Amanda: 42. Well I don’t know anything, so there you go. Little Dirt Candy opened in 2008, and we closed it sometime in 2014. So it was open for a good seven years or so; six and a half, seven years. And then the new one has been open for a year and a half.
Helen: Dirt Candy, first of all, is one of the best restaurant names of all time.
Amanda: Thank you.
Helen: I remember when Dirt Candy first opened, a lot of the coverage was just about how cool the name was.
Amanda: Or how bad the name was. On the flip side, we got a lot of, "That is the worst name for a restaurant. Ever."
Helen: I don’t think that’s true.
Amanda: Well, I didn’t think it was true.
Helen: I mean, it’s demonstrably not the case. In a world where we have Baguette About It, my favorite restaurant name in Brooklyn, which is a French-Italian bakery, Dirt Candy is pretty solid.
Amanda: I think it’s pretty good. We wanted to choose something that was Google-able, really. And that people would remember. When you put in a name like Spoon or Fork, that’s impossible.
Greg: Right, Le Restaurant.
Amanda: Yeah, exactly. So we chose it so people would remember it. But still for the first couple of years, in every review it was, "That’s a bad name." "Not quite sure about that name." "Bad name." We won awards for having the worst name.
Helen: I guess all publicity’s good publicity.
Amanda: It was great that people remembered it. What do I care?
Helen: It’s super memorable.
Amanda: It is.
Helen: I think when you Google restaurants...I noticed this a couple years ago. Every city has its own two- to four-letter suffix that all the restaurants put onto their names in order to get a URL. So in New York it’ll be like Spoon NYC.
Helen: And then in Chicago it’ll be like Spoon CHI. And sometimes it’s the airport code, like in Portland it’s always PDX. But Dirt Candy you can just be — you’re @DirtCandy on Twitter, right?
Amanda: I’m @DirtCandy on Twitter, but our URL is Dirt Candy NYC because somebody had already taken it.
Amanda: I know.
Greg: That is so weird.
Helen: Do you know who it is?
Amanda: No, actually. There are a couple of other people who have Dirt Candy in their name. One’s this sort of horror-porn photography in Brooklyn.
Helen: Horror, H-O-R-R-O-R? Yeah, okay.
Amanda: There’s always these pictures with a lot of breasts and then blood. And then another one’s a motocross racing place from out west? I don’t know. Those are the two other people. When I went to go buy the URL, I wrote in "Dirt Candy" and they were like, "It’s taken. Here’s some other suggestions." And I really wish I had bought the suggestions then. One was — what was it? Nasty Bonbons.
Amanda: Which I thought was like, "Yeah!"
Helen: Yeah, Nasty Bonbons.
Greg: But then they would confuse you for, well, possibly many things, but I would assume a sweets restaurant, a bakery.
Amanda: Yeah, a dirty, dirty —
Helen: "Dirty Candy" is very different than dirt — Nasty Bon Bons is strong, man.
Amanda: It’s good, right?
Helen: You should spin-off.
Amanda: That’s what I’m thinking. That’s my retirement plan.
Greg: It’s like somebody’s punk name or something.
Helen: Like roller derby or something. That’s really good. I just looked up Dirtcandy.com on my phone while we were sitting here and it has nothing there.
Amanda: So somebody owns it.
Helen: Somebody is squatting on your restaurant’s website.
Greg: I’ve never thought about this, and never asked anybody this that works in the restaurant industry. But how many times a week do you just Google the name of your restaurant?
Amanda: Once every three minutes or so.
Amanda: No. Maybe once every day or so. Once every couple of days, just to see what’s happening. What’s out there. Something fascinating that’s happened, my mom has a Google alert on me, and she likes to tell me what’s going on. Sometimes things I already know about. Like if somebody —
Helen: Good mom thing.
Amanda: Right? She’s like, "Oh, did you know this was happening?" I’m like, "Yeah, I did the interview. But thanks."
Helen: I love that. So Dirt Candy is a vegetarian restaurant. And right now we’re living in this golden age of — I don’t even want to say "vegetarianism," because I feel like part of the golden age is that the world "vegetarian" isn’t the word anymore.
Helen But it’s this golden age of vegetable-oriented, meat-minimal cooking and eating, let’s say. And so much of what you have been doing at Dirt Candy since you first opened sort of presaged where we are now. You were, I think, among the very first chefs at least in New York to really be like, "There is all we need inside this vegetable, flavor-wise."
"There are a lot of places that call themselves vegetable-forward or vegetable-focused. But I still think of them as doing some sort of elaborate sides, or there's still meat on the menu. We really are the only one who are like, 'We've put it all on the line for carrots. We got this.'"
Helen: How does it feel to look around and see your philosophies everywhere?
Amanda: It’s a little creepy. We don’t feel quite as unique anymore. So that’s a little hard. There are other people who are doing what we’re doing, although doing it differently. And I still think we are the only one that’s really dedicated to vegetables. There are a lot of places that call themselves vegetable-forward or vegetable-focused. But I still think of them as doing some sort of elaborate sides, or there’s still meat on the menu. We really are the only one who are like, "We’ve put it all on the line for carrots. We got this." And it’s very flattering, because I feel like it means that people looked at what we were doing, and they were like, "Oh, there is a market for this. She is able to succeed, we also can do it." So that feels really good. I will say that I think this is still a really, really small phenomenon. If you look at the statistics of how people are eating and what restaurants are serving in other parts of the country, outside of New York, and maybe a couple of other hub cities, it is not vegetable-focused. It’s still really meat-focused. We’re in this elite little circle here.
Helen: I guess these things tend to take a while to spread, right?
Amanda: A while.
Helen: Like bacon is still —
Helen: It’s still cutting edge. You wear a bacon t-shirt, and you have a bacon bumper sticker, in certain parts of the world. And in New York it’s so out that it’s almost ironically in again.
Helen: We’ll give it eight or ten years and super vegetable-related things will be everywhere.
Greg: What I’ve always admired about Dirt Candy the restaurant, especially the way that it looks — the way that all the branding is, the way that the menu is written, the way everything is presented — it’s really fun and energetic.
Helen: Do you still do the thing on your menu — I remember in the very beginning, the names of the dishes were just a vegetable and an exclamation point.
Helen: It’s like, "Carrots!"
Amanda: They don’t have exclamation points anymore, which is sad.
Helen: Why is that?
Amanda: The menu feels more exciting, so it’s fine. We have all of the statistics at the back. But yeah, I want restaurants to be fun, and they all take themselves so seriously.
Greg: I was going to say, I feel like the notion of a vegetable-forward or vegetable-centric restaurant is very popular, especially in New York right now. But a lot of times it’s like, "Look at this kohlrabi, this beet, this soulful beet that’s been dredged from the ground. It’s been sitting near a flame in this beautiful industrial space for two hours, and then somebody in a fancy apron pulled it out." But Dirt Candy is this fun place, you know?
Amanda: It is this fun place. I mean again, it’s just food. It’s just dinner. We’re just going to come, eat, drink.
Helen: We don’t need to worship the kohlrabi.
Amanda: We don’t. We don’t need to worship anything. It goes in and it comes out and you eat again. To me, it’s much more important that the experience is actually fun, and that’s what makes it memorable. And I think for most people that’s why they go back. They’re like, "Oh I had this amazing time at this restaurant. The service was great. The staff was great. The whole ambiance was great. And the food was great." That’s what makes a really successful dinner. Not necessarily in the other order. You want to keep recapturing those amazing moments.
Helen: Do you think of Dirt Candy as a healthy restaurant?
Amanda: No, I don’t. I don’t think of it as a unhealthy restaurant. I also don’t think it’s necessarily my job to put that label on any kind of cuisine. I’m not your doctor. My restaurant is not your medicine cabinet. I certainly don’t have a degree in that. So it upsets me when people think that we should know these things. It’s just food. We fry it, we use butter, we don’t use butter, we use olive oil, we use all kinds of fat. I think it tends to be a little bit healthier because it is just vegetables. But that’s just happenstance.
"I don’t think it’s necessarily my job to put the 'healthy' label on any kind of cuisine. I’m not your doctor. My restaurant is not your medicine cabinet."
Greg: Since 2008 when you launched, have you noticed that diners are gravitating toward one or a few ingredients specifically more than they used to? Are people like, "Oh hold up. Kale? I’m on it!"
Amanda: No, not so much anymore. I actually think peoples’ ideas of vegetables and food have expanded a lot more. When we first opened, we had so many phone calls about, "Is this organic? Is it local? Is it farm-to-table? Is it GMO?" And we were all like, "Ahh, go away." And we rarely get those calls today. Now I just think people are like, "Yeah, I’ll try whatever."
Helen: Good for them, good for you.
Helen: I mean, I think there has been this been shift, especially in restaurants like yours that have a really specific point of view, where people are really excited to be given — I was about to say a vision, and then I realized that was way too serious. But a point of view, right?
Amanda: A point of view. I think they want something curated. And so we’re able to give them this very curated experience. And I think people do like sometimes being able to just come in and not have to choose. We do give them a menu, but it’s like, "Well I don’t know if I’m going to choose chicken tonight or beef." We’re giving them this ridiculous choice, "Do I want tomato or do I want kohlrabi?" It really changes the focus of the meal.
Helen: Do you have a sense of what proportion of your guests are vegetarian?
Amanda: I would say maybe 40 percent of our guests are vegetarians. And within that, maybe ten percent, five percent, are vegan. And the rest are just omnivores who are curious about what we do.
Helen: Adventurous carnivores. So how have things changed? Little Dirt Candy — which I love that you call it Little Dirt Candy, which was the first space that the restaurant was in — was in fact extraordinarily tiny. Like itty-bitty, itty-bitty.
Helen: Nine seats or something?
Amanda: 18 seats, about 350 square feet.
Helen: Which, for reference, is the size of a bathroom in a suburban home. And now your new space is five or six times the size.
Amanda: 2,000 square feet, and we have 50 seats.
Helen: So how has your life changed now that you’re cooking for that many more people in a way bigger space? Everything just got bigger.
Amanda: Everything got bigger. My staffing got bigger, my space got bigger, my problems got bigger. It just all multiplied.
Helen: Perfect exponential scaling.
Amanda: Yeah, exactly.
Helen: Did you know that was what you were getting into?
Amanda: We knew that everything was going to get bigger and a little harder. I don’t think I knew how much harder it was going to be. And a couple things happened in between. We were running this very specific restaurant, and I do think the restaurant industry has changed a lot in the last couple of years.
Greg: How so?
Amanda: Most people don’t want appetizers and entrées anymore. And I have this very specific idea of how I think a meal should go. You go, you have a cocktail, then you order a bottle of wine, then you have your appetizers, then you have your entrées, then you have your desserts, and then you have a dessert wine, and coffee. Obviously not everybody works that way. Now really I can’t get people not to share. Which is why we switched over our menu from appetizer-entrée format to more of a shared style of food. And that was a huge, huge surprise. I don’t think I saw that happening, because I was in such a tiny little isolated world at Dirt Candy.
Helen: It’s so interesting that you don’t love share plates. I feel like a lot of chefs and owner-operators love share plates, because it raises the check average. It means you’ll get three entrées for two people instead of two.
Amanda: But it doesn’t work that way. Maybe it does at other restaurants. For us, we find that we’re not getting people to necessarily order more, and they’re not asking that things be split into two. I like eating, I like sharing my food with somebody else. But I like very composed plates, and I feel like small plates can make people really lazy. You don’t have to work as hard on all the little components — they’re smaller. Making an entrée is really hard. And that’s a challenge and it’s exciting and people are losing that skill. For us at Dirt Candy, we’ll always say and genuinely mean, "We think you should get two to three plates per person because they’re small." And they’ll order three between two people, and we’re like, "All right. You got me."
Helen: So what goes into the art of making and entrée?
Amanda: You have to captivate somebody’s interest. Let’s say if an appetizer’s about eight to ten bites, an entrée’s about 20 to 22 bites, right? And so to keep that person’s interest up that high, it’s hard. So you have to add so many more flavors, and it has to be more delicate, and it has to be more balanced. You can get away with a lot in a small plate. "Yeah, this is a tiny little spicy plate," or "This is a big hit of acid in this plate," or "This is really salty." Whereas in a big dish, it has to be so much more balanced.
Helen: Where do you learn how to balance like that? I mean, is it something —
Greg: Do you learn it in entrée school?
"An entrée has to captivate somebody’s interest. You have to add so many more flavors, and it has to be more delicate, and it has to be more balanced."
Amanda: Entrée school actually, it’s a four-year program.
Helen: I guess it’s just trial and error, or you have a sense of art? I love — I mean, I don’t love the idea, but I’m intrigued by this idea — that this is an art that’s being lost.
Amanda: Look at the restaurants that are opening nowadays, right? Where do you find entrées? You still see them, but not as much. The ratio of shared-plate restaurants to appetizer-entrée restaurants is changing.
Helen: It’s super weird. I dine out by myself a lot, and I love eating alone. But it is really difficult at a shared-plate-y restaurant to be by yourself, because you can’t — you can kind of cobble it together. But the traditional appetizer, entrée, maybe a side dish, and dessert thing works really well when you’re alone because everything is proportioned to one person eating it.
Amanda: Exactly, yeah.
Helen: But I’ll sit at the bar of a restaurant and look at this menu — and it’s also sort of screwed up by the fact that I’m a food writer, so I order like a maniac. But I’ll be like, "I would like eight dishes for one person." It’s difficult.
Amanda: It is. And they’re looking at you like, "Okay—"
Helen: "Are you a crazy person?"
Greg: Also, while there’s this move toward small plates, I find that a lot of restaurants that serve meat, some of them are going full steakhouse. Where it’s just this piece of something on a plate.
Helen: The Tom Colicchio model?
Helen: Which I guess is really the steakhouse.
Amanda: The steakhouse.
Helen: Here is your hunk of cow, and you can pay an additional $14 if you would like some leaves on it.
Greg: It’s a bummer though. I mean, it’s not a bummer, things evolve to meet the tastes of people.
Helen: We’re allowed to dislike things on this show, right?
Greg: I mean, I understand why some people like that. But I very much more like that style of dining that you described. Where you sit down and you have an appetizer. And then you have a cocktail. And then — that kind of old school thing. I don’t know if people care about it as much anymore, that experience, so much as what’s on the plate. The food. They’re here for the food.
Amanda: I think one of the problems too is — and it’s not a problem — but people are dining out a lot more than they used to. So this is a meal that you would maybe have once a week, you know? It would be your Friday night treat. And now I feel like most of my customers have probably already gone out to eat the night before, and are going out the next night. So they don’t want to have, even between the two of them, seven plates, or eight plates. They want to have two. And they’re going to go out for lunch the next day, and dinner. And they go from one restaurant to another restaurant and they don’t want those big portions. They don’t want to order a lot of food. They just want to sample, and be like, "Oh I went to Dirt Candy. It’s very exciting."
Helen: "Checked it off my list."
Amanda: Yeah, exactly.
Greg: "I took a photo of it." Do you think about that all, that your food is going to be snapped and put on Instagram?
Amanda: I think about it in terms of my cooks making sure that the food goes out how we want it to look. Because I’m always like, "Oh guys, come on, somebody’s going to take a picture of that, it sucks." But I don’t care what it looks like in the dining room, if somebody’s taking a picture of it. When people are sometimes like, "The lights are so low here," I’m like "Yeah." It’s weird though because: A, not my problem, and B, other people manage to have perfectly fine photos. I don’t know how they do it.
Helen: You’ve just got to increase the brightness in Snapseed.
Greg: One of our critics actually has a separate iPhone, or he’ll borrow your iPhone.
Amanda: And then flash, and then somebody holds —
Greg: He wraps a napkin around it so it diffuses the light.
Amanda: Well, see, there you go.
Helen: That’s so brilliant.
Greg: That’s how the pros do it.
Helen: No, it’s genius. Diffused lighting. But I think the photography thing is — I’m a total perpetrator of this all time. I take thousands of pictures of my food all the time, and post it to Instagram like a maniac. But I do think that there has been this shift where — like you were saying about how they come to your restaurant to say they’ve been to Dirt Candy — I think there’s a certain kind of performance to ordering certain dishes. "Oh, I’m going to get this. I know it’s going to look good. I’m going to take an Instagram of it. And the act of performing my possession of this dish is going to be more important to me than actually eating the dish."
Amanda: Oh, one hundred percent.
Helen: It’s super weird. This is my theory about why watermelon radishes are so popular right now as an ingredient, because they’re very beautiful. And they introduce a sort of purplely-pink color, which is not usually part of a composition of a plate. And so it pops when you take a top-down Instagram.
Amanda: Do you think chefs know that?
Helen: Yes, I think they are doing that totally on purpose.
Amanda: We’ve always used watermelon radishes for the past seven years, so I did not know that. I didn’t think about it that way. But they are a lovely addition to most plates.
Helen: They’re beautiful.
Amanda: They are, they’re awesome.
Helen: And they taste good enough. They’re okay.
Helen: They’re not my favorite radish. Do you have a favorite radish? Hard hitting interview question.
Amanda: I don’t know. Probably like just a regular red radish.
Greg: Why make it any more complicated than that?
Amanda: Well, yeah. They’re the juiciest.
Greg: Is there anything that you really love like to eat and cook that you just know you can’t put on the menu because people don’t dig it as much?
Amanda: No. I think it’s funny, because after cooking in restaurants for so long, I don’t know how to cook for myself. I don’t know what that means. I never make my own food. If I’m at home I’m probably eating takeout or popcorn. And my thoughts about food are all about the menu.
Helen: So how has the menu evolved besides losing exclamation points? I feel like over the — I guess now eight total years that Dirt Candy has been around, it’s changed pretty significantly.
Amanda: It has, I think we’re better. So that’s one thing. Hopefully we’ve gotten better over the last eight years. We’re much more vegetable-focused than we meant to be when we started out. When I opened Little Dirt Candy, I just thought I was opening a restaurant that happened not to have meat. We weren’t calling ourselves anything. And we definitely weren’t vegetarian. Over the first couple of years we really progressed to being more vegetable-focused, and that became our narrative. Now I think we have a lot less to prove, so our dishes are actually less fussy. They have less ingredients in them. They’re much more put together, and they are more balanced. I think you have this moment sometimes when you’re like, "I have to get everything into this dish, because it’s my last dish ever." And I don’t think I’m closing tomorrow, so I don’t have to do that for every dish anymore. You always want every dish to be a home run, but I don’t really feel that way anymore. I mean, I want them all to be really good, but it doesn’t have to be the most Instagram-able dish, or the most talked about dish. It just has to be good food.
Greg: Every song doesn’t have to be "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Helen: So besides being a cook and a restaurant owner, you also do a fair amount of writing.
Amanda: I do, sometimes.
Greg: You released a cookbook that is totally unique and everyone went crazy for it.
Helen: It’s the coolest cookbook. It’s a comic.
Greg: It’s a comic book.
Amanda: Comic book cookbook.
Helen: And you also have been a regular columnist for food publications. So what else is going on in your head besides restaurant stuff? Or what else about restaurants is going on in your head?
Amanda: I’ve kind of taken a step back from a lot of stuff. One of the things that we found is that so much of the story of Dirt Candy became the story of my views on something. And I’m not sure that’s actually helpful to it. As much as I like talking about things — and I do have a lot of opinions about a lot of things — I felt like the story of Dirt Candy was getting lost, and the food that we do, and how hard we work, and all of that. So the truth is that my focus right now is really on the restaurant and pushing that, more than my views on lots of things.
Helen: Was there a moment when you made the decision to push the restaurant to the front?
Amanda: We took a step back from doing a lot of writing. There’s a couple things I’m still involved in. But about, I’d say, maybe six months ago or so, we had a lot of chefs coming in and industry people, and they were like, "Oh I just know you from your writing. I had no idea about this restaurant."
Helen: They didn’t know it existed?
Amanda: They knew it existed, but to them it was just a vegetarian restaurant. And they were like, "Oh I want to come, because I really admire your writing and your views on the industry and I wanted to support you. I had no idea my meal was going to be this good. I thought it was going to be this sort of little dirty hole in the wall restaurant in the Lower East Side where you were just serving, you know, vegetables." And they were like, "It’s so much more exciting than that, and I can’t believe I didn’t know this." And it sort of clicked with me that we’d done something wrong there. In my PR, in how we presented ourselves, we let all the writings, all that kind of stuff, move ahead, and the restaurant fell behind.
"It’s really important that we keep pushing this industry forward. I feel like we’ve taken a couple of steps back in some directions, and we need to keep pushing or we’re never going to become the grown up industry that we’re meant to be."
Helen: It’s kind of a backhanded compliment, for them to show up and be like, "This is great, I had no idea you were competent at your job."
Amanda: Pretty much. I get that almost every single night.
Greg: It’s interesting because there are a bunch of chefs out there who are name chefs — who you might read about or see on TV, they’re somebody and they do something — but you don’t even know the name of their restaurant, or what their food is all about. Actually, we were talking about this not too long ago with Curtis Stone. I didn’t realize he was this accomplished chef. And he has this restaurant in LA, it’s a big deal.
Helen: He came at it from an interesting perspective. Not that you’ve not always been a writer, but you were a cook first.
Amanda: Yeah, I was a cook first.
Helen: And then started writing. You wrote about women in the kitchen, and the economic trials of owning a small business, and the financial fucked up-ness of the food industry, and all sorts of things that I think are really galvanizing. And to certain people who are not really ready to have these conversations, that can be really shocking or alienating. And for people who are ready to have those conversations, it’s so exciting.
Helen: And for Curtis, he was this hunky TV star. There have been a lot of super good-looking TV chefs who have attempted to open restaurants, and then their restaurant are just complete garbage fires. And his actually was great.
Greg: Right, it’s not the perfect analogue.
Amanda: Curtis and I look exactly alike, so it is.
Helen: You’re also a 6-foot-4 blonde Australian.
Greg: I find that interesting that the role of a chef has sort of evolved in the media’s eye over the last ten years.
Helen: That balance of being a public figure as an individual, and being a public figure as the face and ambassador of your restaurant. It’s a weird balance.
Amanda: It’s a weird balance and I’m not sure it’s possible to find. You do one, and then you do the other. You go back and forth, and maybe you can’t do both at the same time. I still talk about tipping all the time, I talk about restaurant issues, but we’re really trying now to be like, "Look: We make food. Delicious food."
Greg: I feel like you were one of the chefs that started a lot of conversations that are still going right now. Do you still keep up on all this stuff?
Amanda: I do, I read. I still participate in them. I think it’s really important that we keep pushing this industry forward. I feel like we’ve taken a couple of steps back in some directions, and we need to keep pushing or we’re never going to become the grown up industry that we’re meant to be.
Greg: So you’re a very strong advocate of a no-tipping model. Something we’ve been covering a lot on Eater NY is that some big restaurants, some big restaurateurs, have tried the no-tipping thing and then dropped it a few months after.
Amanda: I know.
Greg: With an explanation of like, "This is really great, we’d love to do it sometime. Not right now."
Amanda: I know, it’s so disappointing. I do think the model works. I think you have to stick with it. I’ve written about this for you guys before.
Helen: We’re making you do what you don’t want to do.
Amanda: The truth is, it’s hard. And I do think part of having no tipping has made the work of opening a new restaurant twice as hard as it should have been. We do still struggle with, "Have we done the right things?" And before I go on with this: I don’t have any answers. I’m just trying to make my restaurant run.
Helen: I think nobody has answers for this.
Amanda: So I’m not an expert on anything. I’m only an expert on my restaurant. But to those people who have tried and have taken a step back: You have to keep trying. And I think part of the problem is we’re not communicating it to the customers properly. We used to have an admin fee and we don’t have it anymore. Now we’re just all-inclusive. And we were terrified about doing it. But we actually had to because it was illegal. So we sat down with our staff and we were like, "How are we going to do this? Our prices are going to go up, and they’re going to look absurd." I mean, they just are. I’m giving you a bowl of vegetables and it’s going to cost over $20. People already think we’re too expensive, and they’ve come to the Lower East Side to just be angry. We have to tell them. When they sit down we have to say, "You know what? We know these prices look too high. We one hundred percent agree. This is why we’re an all-inclusive restaurant. Please trust us, this is how we want you to order. Get two to three dishes per person." Whatever the shpiel is. Get our tasting menu, and you’ll see at the end that you will have paid the same. And the truth is, once we started doing that, our check averages either went up a little or stayed the exact same.
Greg: Wow, that’s like: Take the Pepsi Challenge. Just give it a shot.
Amanda: Just give it a shot.
Helen: You’re also breaking this major taboo, which is talking about the prices.
Helen: You’re talking about money. And I suspect that some of the restaurants that have tried going gratuity-included — or no gratuity, or all-inclusive, whatever we’re calling it these days — and have pulled back, have never, because it a horrifying thing to do.
Amanda: It is.
Helen: People, when they recite the specials, won’t tell you how much it costs in most restaurants, because as soon as you enter that dollar figure into someone’s head, the whole psychology game of trying to sell them stuff gets screwed up.
Greg: There is a Brooklyn restaurant that I really love that just switched to a no-tipping system, and we were looking at the menus and they had avocado toast as $21. And we were like, "Hey now, here we go. $21 avocado toast." But I was thinking: What was it before, $16? And then you tip.
Helen: That’s just a 30 percent tip —
Greg: But it’s a psychological thing.
Amanda: It is, and one of the problems. This is why we were fighting it. Although I’m not talking about it a lot, the tipping, anymore, I am still participating in a lot of studies, and I have think tanks that are using all our data for their studies.
Greg: Think tanks?
Helen: That’s so cool.
Amanda: I know, right?
Greg: Like what kind of — think tanks at universities?
Helen: Wait, I want to know everything about this.
Amanda: Yes. Those kinds of think tanks. Because this is a system that people actually think could work elsewhere. And how do we implement it sort of across the board without harming other restaurants? One of the things they discovered is when you pay your bill, you only remember the first number you see. You don’t remember how much tip you paid. And so that’s where it’s become this really expensive thing. So if I give you a bill and it’s $100. And you tip $20. You remember that restaurant experience as $100.
Helen: Oh, wow.
Amanda: You don’t remember the $20 that you tipped on top of it.
Greg: Oh geez.
Helen: That’s crazy.
Amanda: It’s crazy, right?
Helen: And also feels extremely accurate to the way I’m now thinking about it.
Amanda: Right, right? I was like, "Oh yeah." And they were like, "So that’s why when people are seeing your admin fee, they’re thinking you’re really expensive because that’s the number they’re seeing. That last number." They don’t have to pay anything else, and that’s why we started being like, "Okay we really have to like talk to people."
Helen: You’ve got to prime them for it.
Amanda: Yeah, it’s going to be expensive. But you’re going to walk away. And then what we’ve seen in reviews about us since we started this, they’re like, "We loved it, it’s great. It’s a little bit on the pricier side, and I would totally go back." I’m like, "Okay, fair enough."
Helen: That works, right?
Amanda: They’re calling it like it is. It is a little on the pricier side, I agree.
Greg: So people don’t remember the tip. I wonder —
Helen: I’m so stuck on this, I’m totally shocked.
Greg: I’m mean, also, have you guys ever had the experience where you tip with a credit card, and then you just see it go through on your credit card. You’re like, "Oh, $150." And then a week later you get that credit card charge, and you’re like, "What, what is that, what?"
Amanda: Yeah, exactly.
Helen: Yup. No, I totally — that’s bonkers.
Amanda: It’s cool, right? So this is a whole new world that people are studying, because I think ultimately most people don’t like the tipping system. So we can all say, "Oh it’s going to work, it’s not going to work, what are we going to do?" I can’t imagine that it’s not going to be the future. Some part of it will be the future. I don’t know how, when minimum wage goes up, how people are still going to have tipping. I don’t know how people are going to afford to pay their staff.
Helen: Yeah. Our New York restaurant critic Ryan Sutton wrote a really extensive analysis of this back in October when Danny Meyer announced that all the Union Square Hospitality restaurants were going to be going tip-free over the course of a several-year roll-out. And he tried really, really hard to make — I thought he did a spectacular job in this piece of making the case that it’s not just an ethical and professionalism move — even though I think there’s a big case that tipping is bad for a lot of reasons — it’s this preventative measure against minimum wage going up.
Helen: And from my sense, of the restaurateurs and chefs that we heard from, and a lot of the really vocal diners , they sort of missed that half of the argument. They were like, "No, tipping is really important for servers!" Servers were really angry, so many furious servers who were like, "You don’t understand how hard we work." And it’s like, dude, when minimum wage goes up, either restaurants are going to cut staff significantly and you’re going to have no income, or they’re going to start having to fold this into prices and get it in through legit channels.
Amanda: Well, from a customer perspective, the hardest thing to explain to them ...particularly when we had the admin fee but even before that... they would be like, "Just pay your staff better." Well, how? How? That doesn’t work.
"If you go into a supermarket and the cashier’s surly, are you like, ‘I’m going to take some of these bananas for free, and then I’m going to dock your pay’? You would never do that. So why is that okay in the restaurant industry?"
Helen: Where does it come from?
Amanda: The margins are slim, guys. So we have to now charge you more money, and then you’re going to be angry because it’s too expensive. So, you have that. And then from the servers, I sat on a panel with a server a couple months ago, and he was like, "Oh you know, I totally don’t believe in no-tipping. I work for my tips, and it’s so important to me." I was like, "Yeah, but you know what? You have nights where you’ve only been paid $50." And they were like, "Yeah." And I was like, "Right, so in a no-tipping establishment, you never have those nights. You get your guarantee." Work in a better restaurant. We pay our servers $25 an hour. There are some restaurants that are paying $30 an hour. Find a higher paying job. I am guaranteeing you, once these prices go up, you will not be making the money you think you are making anymore. Because people aren’t going to tip 20 percent anymore.
Greg: That’s very real. So I’m a diner who actually likes tipping. Because I like to feel sort of magnanimous — I’m a big shot, here we go. Look at how generous I am. But the other system feels pretty great too.
Amanda: But then still be a tipper. Great! Say, "You know what, at the end of the night, I loved my service." Make it actually what it should be, which is the tip. You know, "Joe, you were the best server I’ve had in a really long time. Here’s $20, thank you so much."
Helen: But that requires personal interaction. And that’s the weird, fucked-up psychology of all of this: Diners mistakenly believe that a tip is a way for them to exercise control over their server. Which I think infinite studies have proven is completely not the case. But they want to exercise that control without ever actually interacting with the person or with their manager.
Helen: It’s this weird passive-aggressive way of communicating through just a series of numerals on a piece of paper, exactly how I, a random person you will never see again, considers your value as a human being.
Helen: And so, if you’re like, "Oh no, I want to go up to Joe and say, ‘You were an amazing server.’" That requires me to put myself in a position of talking to somebody.
Amanda: Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Helen: People don’t want to do that.
Helen: They want to have no engagement.
Amanda: When people are like, "What if my service is awful? What am I supposed to do?" I’m like, "Well you don’t punish the person by taking away their living."
Greg: Yeah, right.
Amanda: I’m always like, if you go into a supermarket and the cashier’s surly. And they’re always surly. You’re like, "I didn’t like how you like rang up my bananas. I’m going to take some of these bananas for free, and then I’m going to go complain to the manager."
Helen: "And dock your pay."
Amanda: "And dock your pay." You would never do that. So why is that okay in the restaurant industry? If you don’t like your service, that’s totally fair. Sometimes servers suck. Complain. Say something. See something, say something.
Helen: No, it’s totally, so weird. And I’m one hundred percent philosophically in the camp of tipping is terrible, we should professionalize the flow of money through the restaurant industry so that everything can be better. By having people actually pay the amounts that they are paying when they tip, but having all the money go, you know, blah blah blah. But I’m also lucky to be able to be in a position where I’m a pretty generous tipper. And I like doing that, and especially if you go into a restaurant and you’re a food writer, and you know people who work there, and they send out a couple extra dishes, and you leave some 40, or 50, or 60 percent tip, you can feel like you’re part of the friend club.
Amanda: Right, but there’s two problems with that. One is, because I hear you and I agree with it. The problem is that you’re giving that tip, if somebody comes to my restaurant and we comp the meal for them because you know, they’re a friend, or they’re a chef, or somebody. And they leave a tip, well that’s great. But you know what?Who’s getting that tip still? It’s only your server. So that great tip that you’re leaving isn’t going to the kitchen, right? It still can only go to the server, no matter what. That is the law.
Helen: The law is weird.
Amanda: The law is weird. So that sucks.
Amanda: Like it just does. And the other problem with this conversation that we’re still having is we’re so worried about the server and we’ve lost the discussion about the kitchen workers. We’re like, "Oh the poor servers." And that doesn’t mean I don’t think servers deserve the money they make. But why are we focused on how much the servers are making and what’s happening with the servers and we’re still not talking about the back of house workers? "Oh, well we’re going to lose all our servers." Well, you know what? We’re losing all our cooks. I’m still having a hard time finding cooks to work for me, and I pay really well. And we have profit-sharing, we have Dirt Candy University, and you can go out for dinner and we’ll pay you $50 if you do it. Or $50 towards your bill. And we’re still not finding people, because they don’t live in New York anymore.
Greg: One thing I find really interesting about that is how you were talking about how people want share plates more, and they’re like, "I need that, I want to go to a restaurant every night of the week, I want the food." In that scenario, I see it as like the kitchen is even more important.
Greg: People are obsessed with the food, the food is the focus.
Helen: Right, it’s not a five-hour luxurious service experience. Where you develop a deep, intimate relationship with your service captain.
Amanda: No, we’ve lost the thread of it again. Where the whole point of this is to make sure the restaurant industry survives. It’s still not.
Helen: I mean, this is all capitalism. Everything is terrible, let’s all be socialists.
Greg: Ah, socialist New York, the daydream.
Helen: An attainable future. It’ll be beautiful for everyone. Well Amanda, we have come to the portion of our Eater Upsell interview that we like to call the lightning round.
Helen: We’re going to ask you some questions, and you can say whatever you want.
Amanda: All right, let’s do it.
Greg: Question number one, you are at the airport and you have an hour to kill, and you have $30 in your wallet. What do you do?
Amanda: That’s a tough one. It depends where I’m going, and why I’m going there. But if I’m on vacation, let’s say, I am buying a glass of wine or a beer and a magazine, and just spending some time at the bar.
Helen: That’s a solid airport move.
Greg: Sounds fun.
Amanda: Yeah, the problem is the airport I go to most is this tiny part of LaGuardia. Because I go home to Toronto all the time, and there’s nothing in there. So I can’t do that. There’s like an Annie’s Pretzels.
Greg: Ah, LaGuardia.
Greg: It’s a real New York airport.
Amanda: It is.
Greg: I kind of like that about it. You still drive up.
Helen: Didn’t Joe Biden call it a national disgrace of an airport or something?
Greg: It’s like an airport from an Eddy Murphy comedy.
Helen: It’s a terrible airport.
Amanda: But this is really the — I hope they let me back in again — it’s just this awful tiny part of it where nothing happens. There’s one Hudson News stand.
Helen: It’s not where the Shake Shack and the other cool restaurants are?
Amanda: No, no. There’s nothing cool there. I don’t even think the bar’s actually inside the security.
Helen: Speaking of bars, our next question is if you show up at a bar that you’ve never ever been to before and you know nothing about it, what is the drink that you order?
Amanda: Probably a Guinness.
Helen: Oh, but that’s a challenging drink.
Amanda: I know. But I’ve never been to a bar where I’ve been like, "Oh I don’t think this is right," where they haven’t been like, "Yeah, you know, it sucks, I’ll get you something else."
Amanda: So I feel they’re pretty honest, they know whether or not their Guinness is good or not.
Greg: Do you serve Guinness at Dirt Candy?
Amanda: I don’t. I don’t think it goes with our food.
Helen: It’s a little heavy.
Amanda: A little heavy.
Greg: If you were not a chef, writer, published author, what would you be doing? What was your dream job if it couldn’t be those things?
Amanda: I don’t know, it’s always what I’ve wanted to be. It’s the only thing I’ve ever known how to do, or wanted to do, so I’d probably just be dead.
Helen: Speaking of death, if you could bring back into existence any now-closed restaurant, what would you bring back to life?
Amanda: When I was little I lived in Ottawa, and I’m pretty sure this was like the height of sophistication to me, but there was a restaurant called The Dill Pickle. It had a really good salad dressing, and that’s what I would bring back to life.
Greg: What was the salad dressing?
Amanda: You know, I think it had some dill in it. Creamy, it was a dill, sour cream, ranch-y thing. It was really, really good.
Helen: I love that answer.
Amanda: That, sorry, and I’m going also to the Royal Canadian Pancake House.
Greg: Which you wrote a lovely piece for Eater about. And it sounded like — I couldn’t imagine it actually, in the fabric of New York City.
Amanda: It was awesome. I mean, it was a different time. 80s, 90s. Giant pancakes, tiny pancakes, Canadian crackers.
Greg: Would you ever want to do your own version of something like that?
Amanda: We do, we have the Canadian cracker at brunch.
Greg: Right, but your own dedicated —
Helen: You could call it Nasty Bonbons.
Amanda: Nasty Bonbons!
Helen: Nasty Bonbons, the pancake restaurant.
Amanda: Unfortunately I’m not sure if giant pancake restaurants work anymore. You know? In general the center of the pancake was always kind of raw. So I don’t know if you could do it well.
Greg: Okay, so next question, you’re on a road trip, you’re by yourself, you’re gunning down the highway, and you’re singing something out loud. What is it? What are you listening to, and what are you singing along to?
Amanda: First of all I don’t drive. So, these questions are really tough for me.
Greg: Well, you know —
Helen: You’re being shuttled along the highway by a driverless car.
Greg: You just learned how to drive. It’s the future and we don’t need drivers anymore.
Helen: Let’s just reroute this: What’s your karaoke jam?
Amanda: Oh, "I Touch Myself."
Helen: Oh, mine too.
Amanda: That’s my favorite.
Helen: It’s so good.
Amanda: It’s so good.
Helen: We should do that sometime.
Amanda: Let’s do it. A duet?
Helen: It makes people kind of uncomfortable.
Helen: Because it’s about masturbating.
Amanda: Yeah, I know, especially when you do the moves with it.
Greg: Wait, hold up, what?
Helen: So, I don’t know if you listened to the name of the song? But it’s called, "I Touch Myself."
Greg: I thought it was more metaphorical, on the inside.
Amanda: No, it’s really not. And it’s good, you get some moves going with it.
Helen: Oh wow, I really ought to do that. That’s very strong. Cool.
Greg: Well, Amanda this has been a real pleasure. Thanks for coming by the studio.
Amanda: It was lots of fun.
Helen: People can find Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side of New York, or at dirtcandynyc.com.
Greg: And your Twitter handle is Dirt Candy NYC?
Amanda: No, my Twitter is @DirtCandy.
Helen: Weren’t you paying attention?
Amanda: My Instagram is @DirtCandyNYC.
Helen: It’s a hard life.
Amanda: It really is.
Helen: Thanks for coming by, Amanda.
Amanda: Thank you.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin