'Dirt Candy': A Visual Veggie Cookbook With A Memoir Mixed In Chef Amanda Cohen's Dirt Candy is a turducken of a book: graphic novel, cookbook and memoir in one. Cohen's East Village restaurant in New York City is focused entirely on vegetables — and with just nine tables, it's become a foodie destination.
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'Dirt Candy': A Visual Veggie Cookbook With A Memoir Mixed In

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'Dirt Candy': A Visual Veggie Cookbook With A Memoir Mixed In

'Dirt Candy': A Visual Veggie Cookbook With A Memoir Mixed In

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Finally this hour, we circle back to something we missed earlier this year for our series The Ones That Got Away. Today, NPR's Neda Ulaby takes us to a restaurant in New York City. We're going to meet the people behind a comic book that's also a cookbook, or you could call it a cookbook in the form of a comic. Either way, Neda says, it's delicious.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: I first saw the "Dirt Candy" cookbook in May, and I've been carrying it around ever since. It's a combination of a bunch of things I love: graphic novel, vegetarian cookbook and memoir. But because it's all those things, it's also not exactly any of them. So for me and a lot of other people, it fell between the cracks.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon, Dirt Candy. How can I help you?

ULABY: I ended up going to New York to meet Chef Amanda Cohen at her restaurant, Dirt Candy. It's focused entirely on vegetables or, as she calls them, candy from the dirt. Even though the place has become an East Village foodie destination, it's teeny - only nine tables. The dining area doubles as the prep kitchen before people come for dinner.


ULABY: Cohen's helpers slice through heaps of long beans to be served with Moroccan herbs and coconut poached tofu...


ULABY: ...and they whisk gallons of scallion pancake batter. That's what I swooned over during dinner, fried up with crackling pearl onion rings, gentled by Thai basil cream and with hot jalapeno hushpuppies to start.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) I'm going to put this lime juice in the fridge, (unintelligible).

ULABY: It's the relentless behind-the-scenes work Cohen wanted to capture in her book, and she wanted to show the difficulties of opening your own place.

AMANDA COHEN: How did we build this restaurant? What happened? What's it like to work with a contractor, and are they always trying to kill you?

ULABY: Because the "Dirt Candy" cookbook is a memoir and a comic book, you can see, in glorious black and white, Cohen's fights with the contractor and her meltdowns when the produce supplier is late, also pie charts that break down why salads cost $14 - apparently, unemployment insurance is a factor - and drawings that show her techniques - how to mold smoked corn dumplings into perfect little half moons or the right size to chop parsnips for gnocchi.


ULABY: The book is filled with tips like: vegetables need to cook way more than you think or way less; cook them hot and fast to keep them bright and seal their flavor; or, if you're opening a restaurant, don't wonder if your soul will be crushed, wonder when.

COHEN: It's evil. This restaurant is evil. I love it...


COHEN: ...but every step of the way, it has turned against us.

ULABY: Us is Cohen and her husband, Grady Hendrix. He helped write the book, and here's his take on the restaurant.

GRADY HENDRIX: This is the giant, expensive baby we never had that wants to kill us, and we wanted to depict that.

ULABY: Dirt Candy, the restaurant, had been open about three years when Cohen decided to write the book reluctantly. She'd worked in too many kitchens where the chefs became so distracted by their cookbooks they forgot about the food. She had a giant fight about it with her husband. He remembers being a jerk and saying something like...

HENDRIX: This is so stupid. You may as well do something idiotic like just write a comic book cookbook or something, and we both sort of stopped, and we're like, huh, that's...

COHEN: That's what we have to do.

ULABY: So they teamed up with a comic book artist, Ryan Dunlavy, to create something whimsical and energetic that borrowed elements of American comic books and Japanese ones.

HENDRIX: Funny animals, giant robots, you know, martial arts.


ULABY: So one part of "Dirt Candy" is drawn like a training sequence from a kung fu film. That's in a chapter about Cohen's ill-fated appearance on the TV show "Iron Chef America."


COHEN: I was the first vegetarian chef asked to be on it.


ULABY: The veggies were not with her.


ULABY: Cohen lost. The veggies were against her again for a deeply unpopular entree. It's drawn in the style of a 1950s romance.

COHEN: I was a good girl until I met my match in that plate of roasted cauliflower pappardelle. They all tried to warn me, but I wasn't listening. I was blind that winter because I fell in love with the wrong dish.


ULABY: No one wanted to eat it. Reviewers singled it out as a problem. Still, the cauliflower pappardelle was the entree version of a bad boy she couldn't give up.

COHEN: I knew you were different - the sweetness of your raisins, the subtlety of your roasted cauliflower and your pine nuts. They were dehydrated, rolled into sheets and crumbled, so deconstructed, so sophisticated. You made me feel smarter like a real chef. I love you. I love you.

ULABY: And reviewers love the "Dirt Candy" cookbook. That is the very few who've taken notice of this memoir comic mashup. One expected to hate the vegetables.

MATTHEW B. WILSON: I'm a guy who loves comics and eats a lot of chicken nuggets.

ULABY: Matthew B. Wilson reviewed the "Dirt Candy" cookbook for ComicsAlliance.

WILSON: In the comics community, there's this constant hand wringing - how do we make comics more palatable for wider audiences?

ULABY: This comic, he says, will tickle the palate of adventurous cookbook readers, vegetarians or anyone who's fantasized about owning a restaurant.

WILSON: You know, you hear about how difficult it is to actually open a restaurant and how restaurants fail within however many months of opening, you know, so many of them do.

ULABY: For a cookbook, Wilson says "Dirt Candy" manages to stay true to the essential nature of comics: one person facing adversity.

WILSON: You know, that's a superhero story.

ULABY: Chef Amanda Cohen is never drawn as a superhero in the "Dirt Candy" graphic novel, but the adversity, she says, is very real.

COHEN: I think there's sort of this idea that it's glamorous to be a chef. Especially now on TV, you have all these, you know, reality TV shows with chefs on them, and it makes it seem like this life is awesome and it's so easy and it's fun and it's filled with TV appearances. And actually, this life sucks.

ULABY: Fourteen-hour days, plunging the toilets, bickering with the prep cook.

COHEN: Yeah, you had the onion dish twice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I know he had the onion and the cabbages a day that he was here.

COHEN: I know, but that was the first day it was on, I thought.

ULABY: Still, Cohen admits this life comes with its own rewards, like convincing vegetable haters to fall in love with her kimchi doughnuts or cauliflower and waffles. After that first cauliflower debacle, she says she was determined to become the vegetarian restaurant with an amazing cauliflower entree.

COHEN: We smoke cauliflower, and we deep fry it and serve on top of waffles with a horseradish cream sauce, and it has this sort of like creamy smoky fried thing going on, and it's been on the menu for a year and a half. People won't let us take it off because they love it so much, and I think it's delicious.

HENDRIX: Cauliflower wins.

COHEN: Cauliflower wins.

ULABY: Maybe the veggies are with chef Amanda Cohen and "Dirt Candy" after all. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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