Cohen and Dunlavey Cook Up "Dirt Candy"

Amanda Cohen is the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, which over the past two years has become one of the New York City's most acclaimed and innovative vegetarian restaurants. Cohen has worked at many vegetarian restaurants around New York; she was the first chef at Teany, one of the first cooks at Pure Food and Wine and was chef de cuisine at Heirloom, which won Time Out New York's Reader Choice Award for Best New Vegetarian Restaurant. Dirt Candy, which she also owns, is one of the only Michelin-recommended vegetarian restaurants in the country and has received excellent reviews for its creative and unconventional approach to vegetarian and vegan cuisine. As her website reads, "anyone can cook a hamburger, but leave the vegetables to the professionals."

When Cohen set out to create a comic book cookbook she teamed with cartoonist Ryan Dunlavey, perhaps best known for drawing "Action Philosophers." Dunlavey has also written and drawn "Tommy Atomic" and "Diarrhea Dog" for Royal Flush Magazine and "M.O.D.O.K.: Reign Delay" for Marvel, as well as writing "Wolverine: Savage" for the publisher.

Together they have teamed up for an unusual venture with the "Dirt Candy Comic Book Cookbook." The duo spoke with CBR News about the project and brought along some sample pages from the book.

CBR News: Amanda, have you always been a comics fan?

Amanda Cohen: Not really. When I was a kid I read Archie comics religiously, especially "Betty & Veronica." My great aunt had a trunk of them that I read all the time when I was over there. As an adult, I didn't really read comics until I read "Maus," then "Persepolis," and more recently "Fun Home." I've read the odd manga here and there, and "Oishinbo," but to be honest, while I think a lot about the medium, I'm not a huge fan. Right now I'm playing catch up.

On the Dirt Candy blog you wrote, "My problem has always been that I couldn't think of a reason to add yet another cookbook to the already crowded shelves." What exactly was this idea you had for a comic cook book?

Cohen: I had a few offers from different people for a cookbook. This is something that happens to a lot of restaurants in their first few years, and I have worked at enough restaurants to see cookbook projects appear and totally distract the owners/executive chefs from their jobs. They should be focusing on their restaurants in the beginning and instead they're recipe testing and writing introductions to their cookbooks. I vowed not to do a cookbook for at least five years, but suddenly all these opportunities popped up and it was hard to walk away from them. But to spend a year of my life working on something, I had to figure out an angle that would make it exciting. My husband and I were walking down the street having a huge fight (we do this a lot) and he said, "You may as well do something like a comic book cookbook!" He meant it as an insult about trendy cookbooks, but I stopped and thought, "That's it."

Dirt Candy has always been about being open. I blog about the restaurant and I'm really open about the business aspects of it, and how much work it is. I don't believe in this "Mystique of the Chef." I am the chef, I wait tables, I bring out food. I'm here every night. The dining room is open to the kitchen. There are no real secrets here. Add to that the fact that most people find the narrative parts of a cookbook more fascinating than just a bunch of recipes, and the idea of using the comic book format - always popular with memoirs - to do a cookbook seems like a no brainer. Also, comic books let you pack in a huge amount of information into a small amount of space, and conveying ideas graphically is often more efficient than doing it in text.

How did you connect with Ryan Dunlavey and what makes him a great partner in this project?

Cohen: When this came up I was looking at a bunch of artists, and my touchstone was "Action Philosophers." My husband had shown it to me as an example of a nonfiction comic book done right and it clicked for me. I wanted someone who drew in that style and I was looking everywhere, going through tons of artists, really looking all over the place. Then my husband mentioned he had Ryan's email and I thought, "Why not go to the source," and so we got in touch. From the first page he drew - and the first set of character designs - he was just dead on target. The huge advantage Ryan brings to the table is that he knows how to write non-fiction comics. It's a really tough thing to do, and a lot of artists who are very good sequential artists have a hard time realizing how much freedom non-fiction cartooning gives them. Panels can make huge jumps in space and time because the reader is following the idea - the train of thought - not the drawn action.

Ryan, how did you get involved in this project and what made you say yes?

Ryan Dunlavey: I met [Cohen's husband] Grady Hendrix a few years ago through one of Warren Ellis' many web forums and we briefly talked about doing a different project - it didn't work out but we stayed in touch. Earlier this year Amanda and Grady came up with the cartoon cookbook idea. The publishers needed to see a drawn sample, so Grady hit me up to do the preview comic that they used to pitch the idea to publishers. Doing a comic book cookbook was something I often daydreamed of while I was working on "Action Philosophers" but didn't think I could pull it off myself, so when that exact project literally fell in my lap - with a famous chef attached, no less - I couldn't say no.

Many people will see this as something akin to "Action Philosophers" because both are nonfiction projects. Do you have a particular interest in or fascination with nonfiction comics, or is this just where you've found yourself?

Dunlavey: I never planned on doing non-fiction comics - I had read Larry Gonick's work as a teenager and I liked it a lot, but my first love has always been satire and humor. "Bloom County," "Mad Magazine," "Hate" and "Tank Girl" are some of my favorites, and I'm a lifelong fan of subversive humor like Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, The Young Ones, etc. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the attitude that everything can and should be made fun of. Fred Van Lente and I applied that attitude to a goofy little Nietzsche comic seven years ago it ended up mushrooming into a full-blown career niche for us. Apparently cracking wise pairs up quite nicely with nonfiction material, so we've been able to do the goofy stuff we love while still sticking to the facts, which is also why I think we've gotten such a good response from our work. It's pretty cool.

A cookbook does seem to lend itself to comics, but based on the preview pages Amanda posted on the Dirt Candy blog, this is more than just a step-by-step instruction piece. What can we expect from the book?

Dunlavey: Yeah, the comics will mostly be memoir of Amanda's culinary career, which is pretty interesting stuff - working at a raw food restaurant, appearing on Iron Chef, not to mention the sheer insanity of opening a restaurant in New York City. There will be a lot of step-by-step instructions - how to use a knife, make sauces and stocks, basic stuff - all in comics form presented in context within the real-life stories. Some of the book will be just straight-up recipes with illustrations and photos, but the majority of it is comics. We're planning some fun extras in lots of different comics formats throughout the book.

The book is coming out through Clarkson Potter, which is one of the big cookbook publishers. How did you end up there and did they really embrace this idea?

Cohen: My agent brokered the deal. My editor at Clarkson Potter is really excited and when I met with her before signing with them, the first thing she said was, "This needs to go further." They're really interested in giving this a shot because it's new and different and they don't see any value in aiming low or playing it safe. They want to point it towards Mars and step on the gas and see how fast and far the concept will go.

Ryan, are you much of a cook?

Dunlavey: I worked my way through college as a grill and prep cook, but I'm strictly an amateur. My knife work got pretty good but I never had any aspirations in that field beyond paying my rent and sneaking chicken wings for my roommates. I'm an avid home cooker - my family cooks at home almost every night - and I picked up a love of good food when I started dating my wife Liza, who is an amazing cook herself. She came along with me when I had my first meeting with Amanda - at the restaurant no less - where we were treated to a fantastic meal. As soon as we left, Liza turned to me and said "You have to do this project!"

Any hints about we can expect in terms of fun or usual recipes?

Cohen: I don't want to say too much, but I will say that this cookbook will include Barbarians, basic knife skills, comic book Hostess ads from the 70's, Roy Lichtenstein tributes, unarmed combat, deep frying, Maple Butter, the perils of salad soup, lawsuits, evil plumbers, crybaby contractors, death threats and a journey to the Planet of the Grapes.

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