By Chris Mohney
Amanda Cohen is chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a New York restaurant known for its innovative “vegetable-focused” cuisine. A restaurant veteran, she is a James Beard nominee and semifinalist among other awards. She frequently advocates for equitable pay and labor practices in the hospitality industry and is a board member of Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.
Brussels sprouts have been maligned more than any other vegetable. Everybody always hated them. Then around 2010, it was suddenly the Year of Brussels Sprouts. People started cooking them in restaurants—deep-frying them, roasting them, wrapping them with bacon. They became so incredibly popular. You could not go anywhere in New York and not see Brussels sprouts on the menu.
And then one day, the poor little Brussels sprouts just fell off the map. You don’t see them as much as you used to. Nobody wants to talk about them or cares about them. And that to me seems so dismissive, particularly in the world of vegetables. You’re never going to have the Year of Steak, and then never talk about steak again. You’re always going back to steak. But there’s something so disposable about vegetables. It’s like, “Once I’m done with Brussels sprouts, I’m done. I’m never going to see them again. I’m never going to talk about them. I don’t want to eat them.”
I think this phenomenon has probably always existed, but certainly in the last 10 or 12 years, I feel like every year it’s the Year of This Vegetable, it’s the Year of That Vegetable. It’s the Year of Kale, the Year of Brussels Sprouts, the Year of Carrots, the Year of Cauliflower. Every year it’s a new vegetable. But vegetables as a whole never take off. Meat is still king.
We haven’t really committed to the vegetable as an important part of our diet. I mean, yes, as a healthy part of our diet. But not as a fulfilling, necessary, life-sustaining, exciting part of our diet. Even though you see plant-based everything now, and everybody’s like “Ooh, I’m eating more vegetables”—we’re eating them because they’re good for you, or they’re supposed to do something for you, or make you feel better about the planet. People haven’t embraced them as like, “Oh my gosh, I’m just eating this Brussels sprout because I love it.”
Even when it was the Year of Brussels Sprouts, they were still always just a side dish. But here’s this delicious vegetable, this tiny little cabbage. It has so many different textures and flavors. You can really bring out all those different notes. Why can’t we make it an entree? Why is it only the most delicious side dish? Because nothing’s ever going to last when it’s just a side dish.
When we opened the bigger Dirt Candy in 2015, we put Brussels sprouts on the menu. That was the first time I dedicated a whole dish to them. But by that point, everyone had moved on to kale and cauliflower. Brussels sprouts were done. I was definitely trying to bring them back and make people remember they existed.
We put Brussels sprouts in the center of the plate, sizzling on a hot lava rock with recado negro—a Oaxacan paste usually made for steaks. It’s black pepper and garlic and herbs. I wanted to take what would be a traditional meat seasoning and show that you could do it with Brussels sprouts—cook them a totally different way but just as satisfying. We didn’t just throw them in the oven for 10 minutes to crisp up.
When I see new fad vegetables, it makes me feel so sorry for them. You’re the “it” vegetable for the moment, and then you get old and you’re relegated to the bad roles. Nobody wants you after awhile. Sorry vegetable, it’s coming for you. You’re going to be a second-class vegetable soon. Right now the fad is cauliflower. I cannot tell you how many heads of cauliflower I’ve gotten with a steak knife stuck into them. You don’t need a steak knife to cut a cauliflower. Almost never.
But vegetables aren’t side dishes to me. They’re really important parts of the meal, and they’re the most delicious parts. You just have to know what to do with them.
I want to take back the vegetable, because I think everybody serves them, but it’s the same flavor profile and texture that you’re getting everywhere on any particular vegetable. I’m trying to do them in some way that’s totally different.
People have really definite ideas about which vegetables they like and which vegetables they don’t like. They’re really committed to that. Often we can get people to come in and try one again. I don’t care if they like it. I mean, I always want people to like my food. But I want them to try it in every different way possible before they commit to their absolute hatred of the vegetable.
I want people to feel like they can do whatever they want with vegetables, try out a bunch of new things. If you have a chicken recipe that you love, maybe use those same seasonings on a carrot and see how it works out. Play around. It’s just a carrot. It’s just dinner.