Chef Amanda Cohen on her comic book cookbook, Dirt Candy
Flavor-forward food in graphic novel form from the New York City vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy
Chef Amanda Cohen does not play by the rules. And her vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy, has never been considered mainstream. All this, makes her idea to create the first comic book cookbook perfectly suited to both Amanda and her flavorful food.
Her vegetable recipes are sophisticated and daring, beloved by omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diners alike. From indulgent Stone-Ground Grits with Pickled Shiitakes and Tempura Poached Egg, to hearty Smoked Cauliflower and Waffles with Horseradish Cream Sauce, to playfully addictive Popcorn Pudding with Caramel Popcorn, Amanda’s secrets are shared in the pages of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook. This first-of-its-kind graphic novel also details Amanda’s crazy story of building a restaurant from the ground up to its currently being one of the hardest-to-get reservations in New York City.
Now, Amanda shares how she came up with the concept of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook and her three favorite comic book illustrations.
By Amanda Cohen
I really didn’t want to write a cookbook. What on earth did I have to add to the ranks of great cookbooks that are already out there? But there’re a lot of pressures and a lot of opportunities to write a cookbook when you have a restaurant, and I was resisting them as hard as I could. Then I had a giant fight with my husband and one of us said, “We might as well do something stupid and write a comic book cookbook!” And we both stopped fighting at the same time: that was it. We lured Ryan on board with promises of free meals and money, and we started working.
The whole process took two years – which is like an elephant’s gestation period – and for a long time no one quite understood what we were doing. No one had done this before, and so while Clarkson Potter “got” cookbooks, they had a hard time getting the comic book side. Everything was moving forward, but it was like running a six-legged race in a dark tunnel: we’re all moving in the same direction but there’s a lot of running into walls and a lot of tripping. But a picture is really worth 10,000 words and once the art started coming back from Ryan everyone suddenly saw what we were doing you could see the lights go on in their eyes. Even for us: I mean, it was late in the game before we were sure that what we were doing would work.
The process was also very fast. Most graphic novels have a 3 year production schedule, but we only had 2 years from signing the contract to the book hitting stores, so we were on maximum overdrive the entire time. We were turning around notes, drafts, edits, comments, and art changes at an absurd speed. I think Ryan had to soak his hand in ice for about a month after he was finished.
I have three panels in the book that I really, really love.
This is one of those instances where the comic book format works perfectly. When you’re responsible for a restaurant you get calls at 3AM when the alarm goes off, calls at 5AM when the cops show up because someone threw a brick threw your front window, calls at 1AM when there’s a leak in the apartment upstairs and the ceiling of your restaurant has collapsed. It’s really hard to get a good night’s sleep. This stress is a defining factor in my life, and Ryan surprised me by summing it up in one panel. Also: monkey!
Because talking vegetables are funny. I’m serious about food, but I don’t want to be that horrible pompous chef who takes herself way too seriously. I bust my butt to make awesome dishes, but you shouldn’t see the sweat. After all, meals should be fun, food should be fun, dinner should be fun. You’re not in church, you’re having a meal! In a lot of ways, Dirt Candy is my way of saying, “Lighten up!” So a comic book with talking drunk eggplants at a bar was the perfect way to convey that feeling to readers.
This was one of the first pages of art we got back from Ryan and it was our “Ah ha!” moment: an education in one panel about how much information we could deliver visually. It’s one thing to have a big block of text explaining shocking then blanching vegetables. But showing it in a comic book is faster and clearer. Frankly, I’m surprised all cookbooks don’t do this!