Kitchen Karate Kid

June 4, 2011 — 5 Comments

What happens when an Aussie is thrown in a New York kitchen’s deep end…only to learn how to harness the powers within. Features an interview with Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen and what it’s like to work at Michelin starred, nutritionally balanced Rouge Tomate.

I really don’t like working in commercial kitchens. To me, the cooking experience involves a glass of wine in hand, relaxed and enjoying the process with no time constraints. See, I’ve had plenty of experience in an industrial setting from years in the hospitality trade, so I know that it’s certainly not glam. 80% of kitchen work involves prep – and they are the long arduous hours – the fun part of cooking only lasts about 20% of the time and by that time rocks around you’re sooooo over it! In addition it’s tough on your feet, back, and any large muscle group you can think of. It’s also wildly counter productive to a healthy digestion. Eating on the run, at odd hours, and usually made up of whatever’s around the kitchen at the time, often fries became a staple. To top it off, I’m far too sensitive at certain times of the month to man up and take a bit of kitchen mouthing off. So when I packed my bags and headed to the US for 3 months to stage at what I consider the most innovative restaurants in the foodie-health world, I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as NYC.

First stop, Reseda…well actually East Village

Dirt Candy is a one of a kind vegetable restaurant that has captured my heart, soul and imagination. Amanda Cohen has revolutionised plant-based food.  She steers clear of the obvious to create fascinating dishes to highlight the vegetable’s potential and flavours.

If I am Daniel Larusso in this story, then Amanda Cohen is my Mister Miyagi. At Dirt Candy I Iearnt the wax on, wax off of kitchen karate. I repeated the same motions of chopping and dicing hour after hour, day after day wondering what I’m actually going to learn. It dawned on me in about week 2 – with a little help from Robert Kiyosaki – that there is value in repetition. The author of Rich Dad Poor Dad posted a quote online saying:

Repetition is the key to making sure that you get good results.

Over the ensuing weeks I had hours to mull this over in my head and like Mr Miyagi, Amanda gave me the room to learn and room to fail (but to learn very quickly from failure!). Lessons I gained:

  1. Refining the technique: Each time I repeated the same task I was able to practice refining my technique over and over. I’ve diced my fair share of onions in the past, (a memorable episode of MasterChef Australia series 1 pops to mind!) but nothing makes you learn better skills than chopping a whole bucket at one time.
  2. Accuracy: Fine dining cookery is all about accuracy, so technique is important in making sure that each little square of onion is the exact size you want it, which will impact on cooking times, textures and overall presentation.
  3. Eye for detail: And that last point leads to an eye for detail. My first day I was asked to dice some jalepenos. With my Aussie “yeah no worries mate” attitude, I chopped them as I thought I was supposed to but the next day Amanda came in and promptly told me they were too big, and that no one wants to eat a big chunk of pepper. Horrified that I might upset my guru, I made a mental commitment that I must pay more attention. Because there’s more to chopping vegetables (or painting a house as in the original movie) then meets the eye.
  4. Know your tools: Handling a knife like its an extension of your hand takes practice. There is art in learning to wield that thing so it does exactly what you want without doing any grievous bodily harm. You have to respect it, know it, practice and repeat. Over and over and over again. You’ll end up with a little RSI but it’s worth it, you’ve tamed the beast and it’s yours to own!

Here I am – not at the onion chopping challenge – on MasterChef season 1 with Matt Preston

Where those pesky jalepenos were destined: Jalepeno Hush puppies with whipped maple butter

Amanda kindly agreed to answer a few burning questions I had about restaurant life and creating amazing food that’s out of box:

You’ve created a new style of restaurant, not a vegetarian restaurant but a restaurant dedicated to highlighting the best vegetables can offer. What would be your advice to those wanting to create a new dining niche? From your experience how do you get people interested?
It’s a cliche, but the devil is in the details. I had to do a lot of little things that added up to one big thing and I’m not even sure I’m there yet. I had to make sure the dining room was sleek and had clean lines so that it felt different from a lot of other tiny restaurants that go for a cozy atmosphere. I had to make sure I was front and center: in the kitchen every night, in an open kitchen, taking food to the tables and talking to the customers. I had to make sure the name of the restaurant was different and memorable. I had to make sure the menu was focused (one vegetable per dish) and changed enough to keep people coming back. I had to make sure vegetables were the star of the dish rather than doing a dish that was some protein (tofu, tvp, seitan) with vegetables as a side. I had to make sure that the weaknesses (small size, no room for wine storage, tiny staff) came off as strengths. I had to hire a publicist and do an obscene amount of interviews. So it takes lot of small things that come from a particular point-of-view, done consistently, over a long period of time (no matter how discouraging it gets) and you somehow winds up getting where you want to go.

What is the creative process you go through for creating each exciting dish on your menu? And what is your favourite vegetable that provides you with the most amount of inspiration?
Every dish comes about differently. I’ve been a chef for over ten years and by now looking at an ingredient and starting to think of dishes to make with it feels as natural as breathing. I develop dishes by making them, then remaking them, then tweaking them, then making them again. It takes a while for me to get it to the point where it’s exactly what I want it to be. As long as you keep eating at different places, trying new things and reading about food as much as possible you’re always going to get ideas.

As for a favorite vegetable – I really don’t have one. I have to make sure I spread the love around equally so my customers don’t get bored and the vegetable kingdom doesn’t get torn apart over petty jealousies.

I know what my favourite is…mushrooms! This is Dirt Candy’s Portobello Mousse – forget foie gras!

From my experience, kitchen work is not for the feint of heart and as a result I really admire chefs, particularly those who put so much thought and creativity into their menu like you. Like a marriage, it takes a lot of work. How do you keep your passion alive for cooking as a career?
You have to make a choice: what’s important to you. If what’s important to you is having kids and a family and a balance between life and work, then running a restaurant isn’t for you. If what’s important to you is having a restaurant then it will eat up the rest of your life and if you keep wondering about all the things you’re not doing rather than what you are you’re going to be miserable. As for keeping the passion alive, either you have it or you don’t. I can get sick of work, sick of doing the same thing over and over, but I’m lucky. The second that happens I change my menu or do a special event like the sake dinner or the honey dinner, or I take some ridiculous risk like trying to make something I’ve never even seen before.

Your restaurant has no overarching agenda other than the passion for making veggies awesome tasting. But if you were to to have a healthy meal, what is your favourite health-focussed dish to cook and why?
I know this sounds like a cop-out, but I just don’t have one. I really do believe, down to the marrow of my bones, that you should eat what you want, as long as you don’t go crazy about it. There are so many loaded issues for women and food and I sometimes think talking about “eating healthy” is a code word for them. Not that I think that’s what you’re doing at all, but that’s the reason I just don’t think that way. I know it probably sounds crazy or self-righteous, but it’s how I think.

To date, what has been your favourite dish on Dirt Candy’s menu, and can we expect to find it’s recipe in your upcoming cookbook?
I think my most technically perfect dish is the cucumber dish that’s on the menu right now – it’s very precise and very exotic-tasting. But the dish that’s my favorite is the Cauliflower & Waffles.

Cauliflower waffles – yummo! Making my mouth water!

It’s not incredibly complicated and it’s not a dish that everyone likes, but for the people who like it this dish does everything I want my food to do: it tastes good, it’s a different taste but it’s a taste that brings up memories for people and so they find it very comforting and fulfilling on an almost emotional level, and the people who like it, love it. They get cravings for it. Making this dish makes me feel proud and amazed and a little bit scared about the power food has – I imagine it’s a lot like the complicated feelings the guy who invented crack felt.

Dirt Candy will have a cookbook out next year, but to whet your appetite check out Amanda’s blog for a sneak peak here.

So in the end it all paid off and I did get my equivalent of the yellow Ford Super Deluxe convertible along with kitchen skills and inspiration that I’ll carry forever.

Not quite what Amanda gave me, but just a cool!

The Crane Technique

A month later, I would perfect my moves at Rouge Tomate. Standing atop the totem pole at the beach I would balance precariously as I applied speed and accuracy to my new-found skills.

Going from Dirt Candy to the kitchen at Rouge Tomate was like jumping into an ice-cold pool on a stinking hot day. It took my breath away! Dirt Candy’s kitchen could fit into Rouge Tomate’s kitchen 20 times over (and I suspect more). The kitchen – like the dining space – is huge and this meant that the overall operations were completely different. Here I learnt all about the Brigade de Cuisine and hierarchy of a kitchen. I learnt the “yes sensei” of the kitchen; “yes chef!” And in my last days, I even got to practice in the ring – I was given responsibility to put together the 3 accompaniments to the duck salad for each order.

When service was on, I was captivated; it was like a theatrical stage production. An order would come in and the head chef would call the individual dishes. Then the chef de partie responsible (eg pasta, salad, seafood etc) would repeat his or her relevant dish to confirm they’d got the order. A well-oiled machine, the chef de parties would then communicate with each other to make sure their dishes came up at the same time for the same order. Despite all of this calling across the kitchen, there didn’t seem to be a lot of noise. With all the mechanics in place, the food produced is visually stunning. It never failed to amuse me seeing these big macho chefs delicately putting micro herbs and edible flowers “just so” on the plate, each time creating a piece of edible art.

The delicate flowers are placed “just so”

Meanwhile, each week I would spend two days with the delightful Natalia Hancock, Rouge Tomate’s Culinary Nutritionist. This is where I would learn how a Michelin starred restaurant balances world-class fare and nutrition. I cannot begin to explain how much this excites me, but if you’re reading this blog you’d already know this is where my passions lay. The restaurant has even developed their own health through food charter called Sanitas Per Escam (SPE for short) in conjunction with nutritionists and chefs. Nothing short of cutting edge and the future of food! I can’t wait to see a little more Integrative Nutrition added to the charter though.

With Rouge Tomate’s Culinary Nutritionist, Natalia Hancock

To top it off, “Rouge” is Green Restaurant certified (check out the certification standards here). They compost ALL kitchen scraps, source local and seasonal produce, and have designed the restaurant to be environmentally responsible fittings, energy efficient ovens, fridges and lighting systems and feature organic and bio-dynamic wines in their extensive wine list selected by Master Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier.

Rouge Tomate’s sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier serving us an Aussie Shiraz from the Barossa

For more detail on the food at Rouge Tomate, visit my last post here.

All Valley Karate Tournament

Unlike the original Karate Kid, this is no underdog story. In this story I come up trumps sans bad-ass bully and thus far, love interest. But like all good 1980’s films there is a moral to the story. In my case several that I’ve also borrowed from Mister Miyagi:

  • Technique: start afresh and learn how to do it properly, then apply speed. Don’t get stuck in a rut of bad technique and doing it fast, you’ll only end up loosing in the end like the Cobra Kai. “First learn stand, then learn fly”
  • Balance is necessary, even in the kitchen: “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?”
  • Patience: “Man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything.”

Yes a fly swatter would be quicker, but we wouldn’t learn the fundamental lessons of patience, practice and repetition and reap their rewards of kick-ass nutritionally sound food.

A big Aussie THANKS goes to everyone who helped me out and was very patient with me:
Dirt Candy 430 East 9th Street, New York, (212) 228-7732,
Amanda, Danielle, Jennifer, Vincent, Emily, William and Diana

With (some of) the Dirt Candy team: (L – R) Amanda, Emily, William, Me, Diana

Rouge Tomate 10 East 60th Street, New York, Tel (646) 237-8977,
Natalia, Jeremy, Anto, Alan, Atilla, Colin, Gabrielle and Shannon (and the Latino guys for lots of laughs!)


5 responses to Kitchen Karate Kid


    Rouge Tomate is amazing! Great people serving fantastic food.

    Lesh @ TheMindfulFoodie June 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

    Totally agree with your cooking philosophy! I’d never work in a commercial kitchen either, even though I love food and cooking. BTW, Rouge Tomate looks amazing! I must try it if I ever get to New York again 🙂


      It’s a funny thing hey Lesh? But it gives me a hell of a lot more respect to chefs who work in such testing conditions (and hours!) but produce amazing food. So much skill! And these people who go on cooking shows think they know what it takes to work in commercial kitchens – humph! (I’m having a joke at myself here 🙂 )

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