Tonight, May 23rd, is a very big night for the food world. It’s not often you can drag 45 of the city’s best chefs out of their kitchens, never mind get them all in the same room to demonstrate their culinary talents. But this is a great cause: It’s Share Our Strength’s Taste of The Nation, which raises money to end childhood hunger across the country. If you can’t get a reservation at ABC Kitchen, Blue Hill, Eleven Madison Park, Roberta’s, Kin Shop, Tia Pol, Dirt Candy ,and the list goes on and on, you might want to grab a ticket to this momentous tasting event. We got a chance to talk with ABC Kitchen’s chef Dan Kluger, who’s still celebrating with Jean-Georges and the rest of the staff, this year’s James Beard award for Best New Restaurant. (I wholly agree.) He’s a New Yorker through and through, but he regrets not traveling enough and credits Floyd Cardoz and his training at Tabla with “shaping his palate” and balancing flavors.
And who would’ve imagined the chef of a vegetarian restaurant with just nine tables would be cooking alongside the likes of Daniel Humm, Dan Barber, Bill Telepan, Marcus Samuelsson, and Michael Anthony? Owner-chef Amanda Cohen has earned Bib Gourmand status from MIchelin and has a rather unusual cookbook that’s one part graphic novel, one part recipes, which debuts next summer. Where does Amanda get inspiration for her vegetable cuisine? “It’s easy,” she explains. “In New York City, cooking vegetables is the wild west of food.” Here’s what we learned about the two chefs…
Q & A With ABC Kitchen’s Dan Kluger
What will you be cooking in honor of the occasion?
Salmon tartare on warm, garlic-herb toast
Why is it important to support Taste and other charities?
Many charities need help, something like Taste and SOS are extremely important, especially with “no kid hungry.” The thought of any child going without food is heartbreaking.
You’ve had a big year. Did you ever think you’d win best new restaurant?
No. We really were just trying to open a restaurant with some great commitments to making really good food that was locally sourced, using lots of the farmers we are friends with. The fact that ABC has been so well received is amazing.
What’s are some highlight from the spring right now?
So many — ramp toast, cavatelli with spring vegetable, sugar snap salad, asparagus, fiddleheads (which I never even liked before this).
Any chance you’ll sell your homemade yogurt someday? After all, you’re located in a retail store.
You were born and raised in New York City and have been cooking here most of your career. Have you ever considered moving somewhere else in America or even Europe?
We talked about England at one point, but I really love NYC and find it hard to think of going anywhere else. I wish i had traveled a bit when I was younger though, i think that is an invaluable experience that I missed out on.
You were part of the opening staff at Tabla, working under chef Floyd Cardoz. How do you transition from Indian to French to American? Are there any Indian influences in your cooking at ABC Kitchen, perhaps the homemade yogurt?
Floyd really helped to shape my palate, which I think evolved over time into one that is very similar with JG’s (and his corporate chef Greg Brainin). I think a lot of the sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter and textural balances that I use today are very much a part of my Tabla training.
Any plans to open a restaurant of your own in the near future?
I am SOOOO happy working with Phil and JG that for now I just hope I can continue to work on projects with them.
Is there an ABC Kitchen cookbook in the works?
Q & A With Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen
What will you be cooking in honor of the occasion?
I’m cooking teeny tiny versions of my cauliflower and waffles dish. It’s smoked, corn flake battered cauliflower, on a wild arugula salad with maple dressing, sitting on a buttermilk waffle with horseradish cream sauce. It’s one of the few dishes I serve at Dirt Candy that I can still eat. Usually I get tired of cooking my own food night after
night, but I’m sort of addicted to this one.
You’re not a vegetarian, so what drew you to vegetarian cooking
throughout the years?
I was a vegetarian for years and years (and a vegan for a few years, too). But about seven years ago, I realized that the only way to keep up with other chefs was to eat their food and to eat the food they made, that they cared about, which was rarely vegetables. So I started eating seafood. I just think I have a professional obligation to keep up with what other chefs are doing. I’ve worked in places cooking meat, but vegetables are my true love and my real passion.
Are you surprised about the success of Dirt Candy and media attention the restaurant’s received?
Very. Who would have thought that a tiny, nine-table place like mine would be doing this well? It’s crazy. But good crazy, like a kooky uncle who collects poodle statues.
Did you ever imagine earning Michelin star at Dirt Candy?
I actually don’t have a star, but what I do have is Bib Gourmand status. To Michelin, Bib Gourmand means you’re a restaurant that doesn’t offer the starred dining experience but still serves exceptional food – you’re the chilled out joints that let diners kick back and relax as opposed to the uptight overachiever restaurants who want to climb the Michelin star ladder. If you can get two courses and a glass of wine for $40 or under you’re Michelin Bib Gourmand, you’re not Michelin starred. But I love it. Dirt Candy is one of only three vegetarian restaurants in the city to be awarded Bib Gourmand status.
Where do you draw inspiration for such tremendously creative cooking with vegetables?
It’s easy. In New York City, cooking vegetables is the Wild West of food: there are no rules, no one to tell you what to do and every day you’re cooking something you’ve never made before. There are so many vegetarian traditions around the world that don’t get a ton of exposure here, so I can always find something new to try.
Your cooking is vegetarian, but it’s not necessarily healthy. In fact, you passionately embrace the butter and the fryer. What’s your cooking philosophy?
I just believe in making vegetables taste good. That’s it. No political agenda, health agenda, ethical agenda. Just making vegetables taste great.
It’s a tiny restaura
nt with just a few, precious tables. Any plans to
expand or perhaps open another in a new neighborhood?
Do you know any investors? I’ve got an awesome Power Point
presentation if you do.
Would you ever consider opening a restaurant that serves seafood, or even meat in the future?
I’m just not that interested in meat or seafood. Plus, there are more than enough people who do meat and seafood really beautifully. Vegetables haven’t been so lucky.
Is there a cookbook in the works?
Summer 2012, from Clarkson Potter. It’s a comic book cookbook so the entire thing is a big, fat graphic novel. Half of it is about my experience building and running Dirt Candy and the other half is recipes and general information about how to get the most out of vegetables. The artist I’m working with is Ryan Dulavey who did the amazing ACTION PHILOSOPHERS.
Why do you enjoy partaking in Taste of the Nation? How many years have
you participated for?
This is my third year and I love doing it. Doing events like this are a great way to have new people try my food and the fact that it’s for a good cause doesn’t hurt, either.
What goes into preparing for a major tasting event like this one?
Too much. Every time I do an event I swear I’ll never do another one. For a restaurant that’s as small as Dirt Candy we have to close when we do an event and getting ready is an all-hands-on-deck situation. If you look through the Dirt Candy window Monday around 10AM, it’ll look like a cauliflower farm exploded in there.
Taste of The Nation
When: Monday, May 23rd
When: 7:30-9:30 (6:30-7:30 VIP hour)
Where: Center 548 at 548 West 22nd St., nr Eleventh Ave.
For tickets: www.newyorktaste.org