I’m big on cookbooks. I prefer the kinds I can actually cook from, but I’m also known to enjoy just paging through them, looking at pictures, getting ideas, reading about chefs and their inspiration. Rare do I find a cookbook that not only is instructional and precise in its teaching, but funny, emotional, smart, and graphically thrilling. That cookbook, is Dirt Candy, by chef Amanda Cohen, with art by Ryan Dunlavey (The Comic Book History of Comics, and the ALA Award-winning Action Philosophers), and assistance from the journalist Grady Hendrix (Variety, Slate).
In case you don’t know, Dirt Candy is an acclaimed all-vegetable restaurant on 9th Street. It’s as big as a shoebox, with all of 18 seats. It’s run and owned by chef Amanda Cohen who does things to vegetables never done before. She turns them into food you want to devour. She smokes them, dehydrates them, grills them, and purees them. She sweats, sautés, caramelizes, and enchants them like some kind of magical vegetable sorceress, and in her book, she’ll teach you to do the same. But not in any way you’ve ever seen before because this cookbook is a graphic novel.
Why has no one written a cookbook like this before? It’s BRILLIANT! You are not only given detailed written instruction, but visual diagrams and tips all throughout every recipe. You can’t go wrong. Just follow the pictures. You’re three year old can help you with this book. (Plus there are monkeys, pandas, cool monsters, robots and Asian superheroes in there, so that’s always fun.)
Recipes include all of her greatest hits from the restaurant including asparagus paella, roasted carrot buns, hush puppies with maple butter, smoked cauliflower and waffles with horseradish cream sauce, stone-ground grits with pickled shitakes and tempura poached eggs, and popcorn pudding.
She begins with how to wash, slice, dice and care for your veggies, then takes you through her repertoire of basic techniques for making their flavors rise and shine, not wilt and drown. The main point being: get the water out of those veggies, and don’t be afraid to use fat—oil or butter or both—to get the result you need. Most recipes include options for making them vegan as well.
What I like almost more than the detailed recipes and illustrations, though, is the story Cohen shares in this graphic novel form. She spills her guts about the reality of opening a restaurant with a cast of characters that includes her loyal crew —sous-chef, Jesus, and prep chef, Danielle—who have been with her from the start. You are led through the opening of a restaurant, delayed and over-budget thanks to a shyster contractor, then through the excitement of competing on Iron Chef, to her punishing defeat.
She lets you into the madness of the restaurant world where she not only cooks, she waits tables, takes reservations, answers PR calls, and unclogs toilets. Oh, the glamour of it all! One of my favorite stories is that of her first night of service, which was so hilarious in the retelling, though I am sure that on the night of, without gas or produce—YES BOTH WERE NO-SHOWs—it was far from funny. The book is filled with great Dirt Candy tales.
This is a book I could not put down once I opened it. Seriously, I tucked it into my purse and read it on the subway, not able to leave it at home on the evening I started reading it. Seems to me it should be made into an HBO Series (It'd be a lot better than Girls), or a film post haste.
Pick it up. It’s on sale August 21st. Watch the trailer for the Dirt Candy Cookbook here.
Rock on, Amanda!