James Beard-nominated chef/owner of Dirt Candy and Lekka Burger, Amanda Cohen, has climbed the culinary ladder. You might recognize her from both Iron Chef Canada and Iron Chef America where she got her start as the first vegetarian chef to compete. Her stubbornness and will to win both in and out of the kitchen created the foundation for her success and allowed her to be a voice for women in the industry. And while chefs and restaurants are experiencing a shift that no one could have predicted, Amanda is keeping her head high and focusing on the future.
We sat down with Amanda for a raw, unfiltered discussion about her journey, the industry, its current landscape and what can be done to make it a more sustainable environment for everyone.
How would you compare the Canadian food scene to the American food scene? What was it about New York City that made you want to stay here and open your award-winning Dirt Candy restaurant?
For a long time, most of Canada’s talent cooked outside of Canada. In the last few years, everyone’s started coming back home, taking the best of what they learned and applying it to the traditions of Canadian cuisine, so these days Canada’s food scene is enormously vibrant, and there’s a whole new generation of chefs coming up who don’t plan on going anywhere else. For me, I wound up cooking in the States more by accident than design, and by the time I had a chance to really think about it, this is where I’d built my career, and it was too late to go somewhere else and start over.
You are an authority on vegetarian cooking, even though you are not a vegetarian yourself. Tell us about your culinary journey and why/how you became inspired to focus on veggies instead of meats?
Vegetables are ignored, reviled, dismissed, and treated like nothing more than sides that chefs begrudgingly slap on a plate. Where they saw a dead end, I saw an opportunity. They can play with their steak and fish and pork belly all they want. I’ve got a much bigger canvas: beans, greens, grains, and dairy. Flowers, leaves, nuts and seeds. There’s so much to vegetables I’ll never be done learning, but maybe that’s why the big boys ignore vegetables? They like to have all the answers, not ask the questions. I’ve had a harder career, been pigeonholed and been dismissed, but the one thing I’ve never been is bored.
What is your favorite Iron Chef Canada battle and why?
I’ll always remember Battle Egg. Duncan Ly is a friend, so it was fun to go up against him, but, more importantly, it was our second battle. and it’s the one where my team found our stride, and our creativity was just over the top. Making cacio e pepe from sheets of egg, building Cadbury Crème eggs from scratch—every idea seemed ridiculous and so much fun to execute.
Rising up the ranks in the foodservice industry can be unforgiving and uninviting for women. What was your experience as you pushed through your career? What inspired you to persevere?
For many, many years I had my head down, working hard, grinding it out on lines, and I never saw what was going on around me. I never experienced harassment in kitchens because I was a woman. I just experienced harassment because I was a chef. But after I opened Dirt Candy, I wondered why things weren’t coming together for me the way they seemed to be for the guys doing the same thing, and I looked around and saw how obvious and outrageous the discrimination was, and it blew my mind. The way the press only covered the same boys over and over again, the bullying, swaggering rock ’n’ roll attitude that got celebrated. Watching places like New York magazine try to make good on covering #metoo after aiding and abetting the careers of rapist chefs for years gives me such a vertigonous sense of disconnect. What’s kept me going is sheer stubbornness. I won’t let them win.
The press only covered the same boys over and over again, the bullying, swaggering rock ’n’ roll attitude that got celebrated… What’s kept me going is sheer stubbornness. I won’t let them win.
You’ve had to close both restaurants due to COVID-19. You re-opened Lekka Burger in June and recently reopened Dirt Candy. How have you had to pivot to stay afloat, and what challenges are you facing as you are reopening? Any advice for those business owners who want to give up?
I don’t. I’m sorry, but I’ve got no advice for anyone. This is something we’ve never experienced before, and I can’t pretend it’s just a speed bump and soon we’ll go back to business as usual. This industry has changed in ways no one understands. I’m taking it one day at a time, trying to take care of as many people as possible and trying not to panic.
You are part of the leadership team for the Independent Restaurant Coalition; pushing for the Restaurant Act to pass $120 billion in relief to independent business owners in the restaurant industry. How did you get involved, and what was your experience like having to present your case to Congress?
After I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, the IRC reached out, and I immediately joined forces. In terms of testifying before Congress it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, including Iron Chef. I felt the weight of 500,000 independent restaurants on my shoulders, and I could have easily screwed it all up. To their great credit, everyone involved in the process was very kind, and it wound up being really energizing, but it was also totally and completely terrifying.
Serving just one of your customers involves many more in the restaurant supply chain. How have your peers responded to assist vendors during the pandemic?
We’ve been asking vendors to sign onto the Restaurants Act. The fact is, without restaurants the entire supply chain will collapse. If restaurants keep closing at the current rate, it will mean the death of small farms. You don’t want all agriculture owned by two or three massive corporations? Then keep restaurants open. We’re uniquely situated to save multiple small businesses.
What progress do you feel has been made in the last few years since the #MeToo Movement impacted the restaurant industry? What would you like to see be done to make continuing progress for women in this business?
Is there any progress? The New York Times just wrote an entire piece about amazing vegetarian food on the east coast that didn’t include a single female or BIPOC chef. They even wrote me out of the history of vegetables to prop up some white guys. The press needs to be accountable. Publishing has sensitivity readers, the press needs them too so they can ask their writers, “Are you sure there’s not a single female chef you could have included in this story? You’re sure there’s not even one BIPOC chef who had a recipe for rutabaga?” If you’re a food writer, learn your field. Learn its history. Stop humping the legs of white guys and embarrassing yourselves. Ask more questions, do more research, meet new chefs.
What can the industry take and learn from the #MeToo Movement to promote racial equality and push for an anti-racist workforce?
Get rid of tipping. It’s racist, it’s sexist, it exploits inequality. If you dine at a restaurant that has tipping, you’re participating in a system that exploits women, BIPOCs and the poor. I’m tired of tiptoeing around that fact.
Can you mention an influential person that you particularly admire for having created positive change for women working in the food business?
Anita Lo, Sylvia Woods, Edna Lewis, Leslie Revsin, Dorie Greenspan, Dione Lucas, Elena Arzak, Li Li, Einat Admony, Sue Torres, Sara Jenkins, Barbara Sibley, Alex Raij, Jody Williams, Jean Adamson, Rita Sodi, Lidia Bastianich, Rebecca Charles, Leah Cohen, Zahra Tangorra, Sawa Okochi, Molly Nickerson, Kitty Thammasat, Gazala Halabi, Rawia Bishara, Wafa Chami, Katy Sparks, Ratchanee Sumpatboon, Pam Panyasiri, Sho Boo, Jeannie Ongkeo, Gina Liu, Sara Kramer, Sara Moulton, Sally Darr, Anne Rosenzweig, Diane Forley, Sasha Miranda, Amanda Freitag, Debra Ponzek, Patricia Quintana. The list goes on. These are a tiny fraction of the women who’ve run businesses, who’ve made the grade, who’ve risen above and beyond. The fact that many people don’t know their names says a lot about how successful food writers have been in writing them out of our history.
What advice would have for women who want to get into the food business?
Be loud. Never keep silent. Never give up. Reach out. Find female allies. The boys won’t watch your back, so we have to do it for each other. And when you’re looking for a job, don’t go for the glamour kitchens. Work in the ones that give everyone a shot, that put fairness first, that believe in teaching and giving you a chance to grow, that promote from within. We’re past the point where having that fancy name on your resume will let you succeed. You need to work in kitchens that teach you how to succeed.
Be loud. Never keep silent. Never give up. Reach out. Find female allies. The boys won’t watch your back, so we have to do it for each other.