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Amanda Cohen dishes on the new Dirt Candy

Amanda Cohen (Photo: Dirt Candy)
Amanda Cohen will open a larger location for her vegetarian hotspot. (Photo: Dirt Candy)

Renowned chef Amanda Cohen has been at the forefront of the making-foodies-like-vegetables (fry them!) movement for a long time. She’s also been squeezing her fans into a closet-size space for five years, which generally makes it hard to convert the masses.

So when the news broke that she’d be moving her cult-fave East Village restaurant, Dirt Candy, into a much bigger space on the Lower East Side, lovers of her Jalapeno Hush Puppies and Coconut Poached Tofu got super excited.

Since then, details about the move and what will become of the current space have been sparse. So, we caught up with the vegetarian trailblazer to find out more.

When do you anticipate the opening of the new location happening? Right now it seems to be fall of 2014, but it’ll be later if things go wrong. Things can always go wrong. I am prepared for things to go wrong.

They seem to often in this crazy city. What spurred the initial decision to move? I’ve entered a problem zone: I could be serving almost twice as many people as I do now if I was bigger. Right now, you have to make a reservation two months in advance. Not a lot of people have absolute control over where they will be in two months, and some people snap up reservations when they become available “just in case.” Then they don’t show up or cancel 15 minutes beforehand. In the meantime, I’ve got walk-ins coming in all night asking if they can get a table, and I have to say no, even though I know some of my reserved tables will open up. So I wind up turning away about 25–30 people each night. The only solution is to find more tables.

Dirt Candy's "Beans" with coconut poached tofu, sea beans and saffron sauce. (Photo: Dirt Candy)
Dirt Candy’s “Beans” with coconut poached tofu,
sea beans and saffron sauce. (Photo: Dirt Candy)

So how will the new Dirt Candy be different? The only thing that’s going to be different is the size of the space, but that makes all the difference. Having more room means that I can do more pickling and fermenting, because I suddenly have room for it. I can have more ambitious dishes because suddenly I have space for the chefs I need to prep them. I can have a longer wine list because I’ll have space for more wine. There will be bottled water! Sparkling water! A bigger menu because more space! I’ll have espresso! Cocktails! A full bar! After spending five years doing so much with so little room, this is like freedom.

Have you decided what you’re going to do with the original space? Not yet.

You’ve been a vegetarian in New York for a long time. How has the veggie food scene changed over the years? Do you see more options now for non meat-eaters? Better options? There are definitely more options, and more exciting options, on most menus these days, but the big change that is coming is going to hit in 2014. That’s the year that myself, Jean-Georges, and John Fraser are each opening big, vegetable-focused restaurants that are aiming for an audience outside the vegetarian crowd. This is the first time in almost a century that three big vegetarian restaurants catering to more mainstream diners will open in one year. We’ll either create a bigger market, or we’ll all fail together. (Editor’s note: Fraser’s upcoming restaurant in the Standard East Village was rumored to be all vegetarian, but recent stories have reported it will also serve meat.)

If you don’t fail, can we look forward to more Dirt Candy locations in the future? Focusing on one big new restaurant takes all the energy I’ve got right now. But who knows? A few years down the road, global domination might be the next step. But for now, 86 Allen Street domination will have to suffice. —Lisa Elaine Held

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