Interview: The 'Dirt Candy Cookbook' May Be The First Graphic Novel You Can Use In The Kitchen

Cooking. So boring, right you guys? Comics: exciting! Fun! Well, why not take the two, ignore the fact that I called cooking boring because it's not, and combine them into one awesome graphic novel cookbook? That was the idea behind the Dirt Candy Cookbook, a collaboration between chef Amanda Cohen, her husband and co-writer Grady Hendrix, and artist Ryan Dunlavey. The book hits stands this week, so to find out more, we had a healthy helping of interviewing them... I don't know what that means, just keep reading, okay?

MTV Geek: You've probably been getting this all the time, but: why a graphic novel for this? And where did the idea start?

Amanda Cohen: We didn’t want to do a cookbook at all! I mean, aren’t there about five billion of them out there already? What would be the point? If we were going to do a cookbook it had to be something worth spending 2 years of our lives working on it, and we couldn’t think of anything that was worth it. Then, one day, we were having a fight and Grady said, “You might as well do something stupid, like a comic book cookbook!” And we instantly stopped fighting because we realized that was it. No one had done it in North American before, and Dirt Candy is all about having fun with food and not being pompous and boring about it, so what better format than a comic book?

Ryan Dunlavey: I’ve been making comic books for so long that sometimes I seriously think I don’t know how to do anything else.

Geek: How did you all get on board the project? I imagine for two of you, it was, "We were married." So... Hi Ryan!

RD: Grady and I are both comic book dudes that live in the same city so it was inevitable that we’d cross paths (I forget how. Lavalife, maybe?). We had talked about collaborating on some other projects before but they never worked out. When he and Amanda were putting together the cookbook the first artist fell through and he asked me if I knew anyone that would be a good match, and I was like, DUH, me! Drawing a comic book cookbook was my own personal secret dream project but I didn’t think I could write one myself. I really enjoy cooking but I only briefly worked in kitchens professionally (I was a part-time prep and grill cook all through my college years) so when the opportunity came to do exactly the kind of book I wanted with an award-winning chef, I jumped.

Grady Hendrix: I had to be lured on board - two years of working with my wife? It sounded like hell on earth. But she used guile and cunning and her womanly wiles, and the book is coming out and we’re not divorced, so that’s a big victory. However, I want to warn readers, Amanda and Ryan forced me to take out some of the best jokes from the book and the world is all the poorer for that.

Geek: This is more of a general question, but the intersection of food and comics has been prevalent in Manga for years, but seems to have just hit the USA full throttle. Is there a reason for that? Or is it all happenstance?

GH: Comic books are a great way to convey complicated information visually. In World War II the US government taught rifle cleaning and mechanical concepts with comic books drawn especially for the Army, and in Japan lots of companies use comic books for training. There’s a whole generation of kids out there who grew up on anime and manga and they get this stuff in a very instinctive way. They’re in their teens and 20’s and 30’s now, and they have an incredibly sophisticated visual sense. The olds don’t get it, and they’re confused, but this is the future.

RD: Foodie culture and nerd culture are the Godzilla and Mothra of trendiness right now - it’s inevitable that they would get together and mix it up.

Geek: In particular for this, did you have any concern about alienating two crowds - foodies who may not read comics, and comic readers who may not... eat... food... Okay, this was kind of a dumb question, but my point is, how much did the Venn diagram play into getting ready to make the book?

RD: Venn diagram?! You spend too much time on the internets. EVERYONE likes comics and EVERYONE likes food. Win-win.

AC: I’ve been alienating demographics for years. Dirt Candy is the restaurant I built after over 10 years of cooking in other chef’s restaurants, and I did it exactly the way I wanted with no regard to anyone else. But I really do believe that if you’re passionate about something, people will respond to it. When it first opened, some folks were angry at Dirt Candy and I even had people threaten me with physical violence, which was kind of exciting, but four years later, I’m packed, and I love the customers I have. People who aren’t going to like Dirt Candy stay away, and I think that’s best for both of us.

So for me it was a matter of finding an idea for a cookbook I was passionate about and two people I really wanted to work with. I figured the whole “Who’s going to buy it issue?” would take care of itself. I’d rather do something new and fun than worry about the market share, but maybe I am naive and live in a dream world?

Geek: Just in terms of execution, what was surprisingly easy and/or difficult about doing a cookbook in graphic novel form?

GH: The speed. Most graphic novels have a three-year production schedule. We had two years from the time we signed the agreement letter (about two months before the contract was signed) to the book hitting shelves. It was insane. There were times when I would lurk outside Ryan’s apartment so that he couldn’t leave to get groceries. If he wanted to eat, he had to turn in pages. Amanda was at Dirt Candy from 10AM until 1AM and then she’d come home and I’d force her to get up at 6AM to edit recipes. I was getting edits on the entire manuscript that had to be turned around in five days. Our editor was getting massive scripts from us that had to be edited over a weekend. At times it was like driving a dune buggy at 150mph, with the wheels falling off and the engine on fire, trying to make it over a finish line that angry gremlins kept moving.

RD: Originally we envisioned the recipes as full-on comics, woven into the narrative itself. We’re all very independent minded renegades in our respective fields - Amanda owns and operates a gourmet restaurant with no meat, I self-publish anarchic non-fiction comic books and we’re all natural born wise-asses. So the hardest part for all of us was channelling our natural creative habits into a (somewhat) respectable cookbook that met with publishing standards AND within our deadline. All the credit to the former goes our fantastic editor Rica - she really whipped us into shape while still being true to our original point of view. As for getting it done on time that was all thanks to caffiene. Also, I needed to buy groceries for my kids.

Geek: Ryan, for you, is there any difference tackling a project like this versus, say, Comic Book Comics or Action Philosophers? They all seem to be "take potentially dry subjects, and make 'em more fun through comics." Or is that too broad?

RD: No difference really. Amanda and Grady are just as funny and insightful and talented as my Action Philosophers partner in crime, writer/co-creator Fred Van Lente. All I had to do was draw my ass off!

Geek: Do you have a favorite recipe, or section of the book?

GH: For me it’s the last chapter about desserts. Amanda and I have been married for 18 years and I’ve watched her cook for almost 14 of those years, and one of the things that’s always struck me is the difference between what a chef gets out of a restaurant and what a diner gets. For a diner it’s about the food, but for a chef there’s this rush to being in service, to having the line come together, this weird transcendent experience of doing the actual cooking and keeping your head in the midst of all this chaos. I really wanted to try to capture that, and I’m not sure I got it right, but I feel like I came close.

RD: I like the Pickle chapter because it’s got ultra-violence AND robots! The recipe for tempura poached egg over grits is pretty damn tasty too, and I just really like how Amanda and Grady’s attitude towards de-mystifying cooking and making even gourmet techniques easy and accessible.

AC: Blah, blah, blah. The Pasta chapter has a killer panda and a talking monkey in it. Pasta chapter wins.

Geek: Taking a step back, what's the philosophy of Dirt Candy? Both the book, and the restaurant?

AC: To have fun. Chefs can be pompous stuck-up snobs about food, and I think that trickles down. Food can get really ultra-serious and snobby. I want to make having a meal at Dirt Candy fun, and surprising, and unexpected, and playful. If more people were having fun with food, and less people were hyperventilating about the provenance of their mushrooms, this would be a better world.

Geek: For someone who has eaten meat all their lives (not me, I was squarely vegetarian for a solid decade), why take a chance on vegetarian cooking?

AC: Why take a chance on any kind of cooking? Don’t you want to do something new? Don’t you want to taste a tomato turned into pearls, and a cake, and paper, all at the same time? Do you hate fun? Are you allergic to excitement? When you stop taking chances, that’s when you start to die.

RD: The last time I checked human beings were omnivores. Everyone eats vegetables, no one eats JUST meat. Were these interview questions written by a shark? Or perhaps a wild jungle cat?

Geek: HEY! Don't spill my secrets, Ryan. Okay, now that you guys have a graphic novel, are we going to see the Dirt Candy Anime? What about a Dirt Candy video game? Or more generally, what's next for you guys?

AC: Dirt Candy plush toys, please!

GH: Dirt Candy anime series, stat!

RD: Wrong, wrong wrong - Dirt Candy sugar coated breakfast cereal!

I’m currently drawing Action Presidents (written by my non-romantic life-mate Mr. Van Lente) which is exactly what it sounds like, and I’m hoping Amanda & Grady will bring me along for their next book!

Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant is on sale NOW from finer bookstores everywhere, and also I'm a shark who can write I MEAN NOTHING NEVER MIND GOODBYE.