Professional Crushes: Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy

It’s official and public: I am leaving my current job.

People usually respond: “But May… Why?” Don’t get me wrong. I still think Proximity Designs is definitely the best nonprofit/social organization in the country. Probably all of South East Asia. And in all of this galaxy. But something called instinct tells me it’s time for me to diversify my skill sets and therefore move, which is what I am doing … but to where exactly?

There are a couple of bizarre ideas.  And my mentors cannot have been more helpful. They take me out to lunches, prescribe me with relevant books, and give me all kinds of professional advice. Thank you. Sometimes even if someone is not my mentor, I make her one anyway, like this, across the cyberspace. Like a book you accidentally pick up at a library and cannot put it down, sometimes you read about someone and just know she/he must be a real star in person. And I crave for that kind of inspiration when my reach and access is still so limited here in Yangon.

It’s a slow morning at work. I just submitted a proposal. Legitimate reason for a quick indulgence on the Dining section on New York Times, right? That’s where I discovered Dirt Candy and the wonderful blog that the chef and owner Amanda Cohen writes. Why didn’t I see this when I was actually in New York City all of last year? Oh well.

Even though Pete Wells gave her only two stars in his review, he pointed out that most vegetarian restaurants look toward either the health food trend or ethnic cuisines, but Cohen is inventing a vegetarian cuisine that is her own. Her restaurant concept appears to have come straight from her (web) personality: straight-talk, pure energy bomb and her comic sense of humor (that even Pete Wells took notice of … probably because he was termed a Dinner Ninja).

A lot of restaurants these days tend to green-wash themselves with the term “farm-to-table” thrown around a little too quickly and loosely. But Amanda Cohen is straightforward. She says, “Part of our package isn’t about how green we are, because my philosophy is that you shouldn’t have to talk about it, you just should be.” BAM.

She also won a Sustainability Award and even though her restaurant has LED lighting and uses eco-friendly pest services and cleaning products, she doesn’t brand it as such. She uses organic and local produce whenever she can but is also comfortable using lemons, which do not grow in New York State.

Her food is green and vegetarian but she asks the eater to simply have fun once you step into her territory. No attitude, no food talk, no sass. She has stated that she doesn’t care about your health or your politics. Just eat her signature mushrooms, have a stellar time and leave! It’s only an 18-seat restaurant after all. Her menu famously has exclamation points. Even the place is named “Dirt Candy.” She just recently published a graphic novel cookbook too. I find myself comparing her with Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune and I must say that the book colored my experience at Prune, which is a lot darker than what I imagine Dirt Candy will be like.

All in all, as I am trying to think through my next career move at this critical moment, this bit of what Amanda Cohen said particularly struck a cord.

Question: If you had one thing that you could do over, what would it be?

Amanda Cohen: I definitely would have tried to have more varied work experiences.  I loved all the jobs I had, but my time as an apprentice in the kitchen is not going to happen again. So I wish I had taken the time to work in a pizza restaurant, or an Asian restaurant. Even though I could still do it, it’s not the same.

You can read the full interview here. Looking forward to my time of unemployment. 

From NY Times Review

Have your art and eat it too…

Living in Myanmar means you find out about these things a month too late.  But the pastry chef of the Blue Bottle Coffee Company at SFMOMA, Caitlin Freeman recently published a new recipe book that seems to have been a bit of a sensation.

I wasn’t surprised, however, to find out that her initial inspiration came from none other than Wayne Thiebaud. She named one of her earliest items on her menu in his honor and spoke of him as follows: “I wasn’t really sure what I loved about [Thiebaud’s painting], but I really just became obsessed with cakes.


Thiebaud’s Cakes 1963

Freeman’s Cakes 2013

This is what Freeman has to say at the end of the project:

Throughout this process, I’ve realized there are some things you simply can’t plan for.  I never would have predicted that I’d be making these modern arts desserts years ago, so I’m just letting things happen as they may.  You have to be open to waiting and seeing what comes.  The most amazing things that have happened to me are things I didn’t push or plan for.

Thank the kitchen gods

Happy Mother’s Day in advance. It’s only three days away. Order flowers. Make her a card. Bake her some cupcakes. Get her a pass to that fancy spa she has been eying on for weeks. For a change, let’s get her pampered instead.

Whenever I think about my mom, or “career moms” in general, my admiration for them is with a strange mix of intimidation. In a way, the situation resembles that of a novice hiker gazing to the peak of whatever hill she is resolved to climb – with wonder, curiosity, and a constant stream of self-reassurances. And it shouldn’t be this way.

Many moms in Myanmar are stay-at-home moms, and so are an increasing number of highly trained moms in the US choosing to drop out of workforce. When I was in college, people usually told me that a student can only get two out of three things: a good GPA, a fun social life, or an impressive track record of extracurricular activities. While I know many students that seem to have had it all, a similar tri-lemma arises here. When you become a mom, it is as if you can get only two out of these three: being a good mother, having a fulfilling career, or keeping the ‘spice’ in your marriage. Why? Because the roles are so conflicting.

Role models ranging from Anne-Marie Slaughter and Shery Sandberg to French mothers have reached different conclusions. But the bottom line seems clear: the future of feminism desperately needs participation from men. As women penetrated into the formal economy sector in the past decades, their responsibilities at home have never receded. The new freedoms are beginning to enslave women in double-duty shifts: fabulous professionals by day and glamorous moms and wives by night. It’s really scary.

Things in Myanmar are slightly different. With the help of extended family and relatives, there is some help releasing maternal pressures. But Burmese husbands also tend to be less involved, adding a different twist to the American story. Ha and by the way, thank god for the sexually repressed nature of the conservative Burmese society: married women are usually not expected to look glam all the time, like in the States. The nature of career has so far been different although things are changing fast now. Without many multinational companies in the country, most women have worked in family-owned businesses: family farms or mom n’ pop stores with very flexible hours. It will be interesting to see how this trend will have changed in ten years’ time, when there are more corporate jobs available and when the long isolated country gets immersed in prevailing trends and new, modern biases without the former “protection” of self-imposed isolation.

In any case, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. My point is, what an amazing job our moms have done today! How have they navigated their way to today? What are they feeling? Do they feel fulfilled? By how we the children have turned out to be? With their career path? And their marriage, even? Are Burmese moms today happy?

Happy Mother’s Day!

Daily Bread by Barbara Kingsolver

The clink of tin cups in the kitchen
rouses my ears. I close my book,
hold my place with a fingertip while
I listen: to the measuring cups,
little quarrels of half against quarter,
then the sifted hush of the flour.
There will be kneading,
there will be punching down,
and rising and rising again,
the press of increase constrained
by the small square box in the oven,
the immutable passage of time,
and finally a home and a hunger filled
with fragrant gold.
I return to my reading, but first
I thank the kitchen gods
for what marriage is: throughout this
immutable passage, these square
impossible constraints, these petty clinkings
of half against quarter, and oh
this needing, oh this falling and this rising,
I am blessed
with a husband who makes bread.