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I Hit Bottom at the NY Food & Wine Fest

Over the weekend I attended the New York Food and Wine Fest, which is sponsored by the Food Network. I had a table at the event on Saturday serving food to people. I also had a nervous breakdown. Yes, I have hit bottom and it ain’t pretty.

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WorstDay

This isn’t going to end well.

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There comes a point in everyone’s life when they snap. There’s even a TV show about it. Doing outside events is hard on a restaurant as small as mine, but all of us have always pulled together and made it through. However, you’re only ever as strong as your weakest link, and on Saturday, October 9, I was the weakest link at Dirt Candy.

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weaklink

“You are the weakest link. Drop dead.”

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I did the Food and Wine Festival last year and for some reason it wasn’t this hard. But this year, Dirt Candy has been going like gangbusters. We’ve been serving way more people per night than we were serving last year and the kitchen has been operating on full throttle. Every day, prep is like one of those silent movies where people on a wooden train are running around at double speed chopping up the train and feeding it into the furnace to keep the boiler stoked and the train moving. We’ve done a lot of events recently, and there have been some infrastructure issues that I’ve had to deal with and it’s all been building up.

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The first thing that started to tweak my stress levels was that we had to have 1500 portions of whatever we were serving for the event. I usually serve Portobello Mousse at events and while it’s tough to make it’s only got a few different components. But I’ve gotten bored of serving it at events and so I decided to try something new, and for some unknown reason I decided it was really important to serve something that’s currently on the menu, and so I picked…the celery salad. Now, this is one of the most popular dishes at Dirt Candy. People gobble this down and ask for more. And it’s a dish that can be served at room temperature, which is important at events and, more importantly, it’s not the carrot buns. If I had told Danielle we had to prep 1500 carrot buns she would have quit. But there’s a problem with the celery salad. It has a lot – a lot – of prep.

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- King oyster mushrooms have to be sliced, cored and grilled

- grapes have to be sliced and grilled

- celery has to be thinly sliced by hand (it won’t work on the mandolin)

- celery pesto has to be made and to make it you need thousands of leaves from Chinese celery

- Chinese celery has to be sliced paper thin

- and, to top it all off, I wanted to serve it on a piece of bread so people wouldn’t need forks, so bread had to be sliced and toasted

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And that’s just the main part of the prep. There are several other steps I’m not mentioning. For 10 days, Dirt Candy was nothing but a celery salad prep factory. Everyone came in 6 days a week and even Dishwasher William was given prep work to do.

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Mushrooms.

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I normally use 1 – 2 cases of mushrooms

a week. Here are 4 out of the 10 cases I ordered

for this event.

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Every night during service Jesus was still grilling mushrooms to prep for the salad. If I had a break between orders I’d be chopping celery. We went from the kind of restaurant that orders 1 case of King Oyster Mushrooms a week to a restaurant that ordered 10 cases of King Oyster Mushrooms in a day. I went through 28 bunches of celery. And 100 pounds of Chinese Celery. It was insanity.

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Laura stripping leaves from Chinese celery

to make the pesto.

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Part of what we took to the event.

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By the time I was ready to head over to Pier 54 for the event on Saturday morning, my brain was fried. I’d been coming home between midnight and 2am all week, and getting to work around 9am. On Saturday I woke up at 5:30am to get flowers for the Dirt Candy table, go to the restaurant and get loaded up and in a cab. We got to the Pier 54 drop-off point and were then whisked away in a golf cart to our table in Tent #2. I was tense because I’d been up since 5:30am, I was tense because it had been a long week, and I was tense because I had two interviews (one of which is here), which always make me really nervous.

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Here’s the view from our table.

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The Jelly Belly table where everything was made

of Jelly Belly candy.

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We were set up next to the table from Nios a midtown restaurant that’s really trying to get on the map. They’ve brought in Chef Massimo, a really cute young chef from Canada (who has added a poutine section to their menu) and they were going to the mat to woo people at the event. They had little cones full of pumpkin puree and everyone wanted them because at an outdoor food event carnival food is king!

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The Thousand Tiny Cones of Chef Massimo.

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In the meantime, people were walking by my celery salad and giving it dirty looks because it contained the two words almost guaranteed to make people run away: “celery” and “salad.”

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The crowd around the Nios table.

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People running from the Dirt Candy table.

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After all that work, all that effort and all that suffering over the past week, I was now watching my dish, that I love, get the cold shoulder because we’re at an event where people want something that looks more like this:

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Jelly Belly has the tenor of this event well in hand.

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And less like this:

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Dirt Candy is tone deaf.

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And then there were the questions. Maybe it was my fault for making a complicated dish, maybe it was god punishing me, but the questions came fast and furious and every single one of them shredded my nerves just a little bit more. “Can I get a fork?” “No, it’s on bread.” “But I want a fork.” “There’s bread right under it.” “I don’t see bread.” “There it is, right there.” “Yeah, I still want a fork.” “There are no forks! Okay? None! If I had a fork, and I don’t, but if I did I’d stab you with it!”

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And then there was my favorite exchange of the day:

“[Amanda describing dish]…and grilled King Oyster Mushrooms.”

“I can’t eat oysters.”

“They’re just King Oyster Mushrooms. They’re not actually oysters.”

“I just told you, I can’t eat oysters. I’m allergic.”

“But these aren’t oysters. They’re King Oyster Mushrooms.”

“Do you want me to die? I! Can’t! Eat! Oysters!”

“It’s! A! Kind! Of! Mushroom! See?!?! See!?? Look, mushroom. Not oyster.”

“Oh.”

[Person takes a bite, makes a face.]

“I don’t like that at all.”

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I began to feel like it was a conspiracy. Crowds at the Nios table, and barely anyone at mine. “What do people want,” I started grumbling to myself. “Cones? Is that what they want? A bunch of stinking cones? I should take my salad and stick it in cones. Oo, look! I’ve got salad in a cone! Does everyone want to eat it now? Huh? Huh!???!” I was starting to lose my grip.

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But the worst was the candy. I bought tons of licorice peppermints a while back to use as table decoration, and I have a bunch of bags in storage. I love the way the black and white candy looks, but from what I understand it’s not being made anymore (or at least that’s what my candy lady tells me) and so I need to protect what I’ve got. I probably don’t need to be as protective as I got at the Food & Wine Festival, but as I’ve already established, I was teetering on the edge of insanity that day. Usually, at any event, some people will snag a couple of peppermints, assuming that they’re a free giveaway.

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Okay, I can see how someone might take one here and there.

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But at the Food & Wine Festival people were grabbing fistfuls. They were scooping them up. Every time I turned my back they would run up with bags and sacks and scrape my discontinued candy into them and then run away. One kid took a handful and I said, “I’m really sorry. Those are just for display. They’re probably pretty stale.” He grinned, threw one at my face and then sauntered off. I started to mutter under my breath, “Don’t touch my candy. Don’t take my candy. My candy is not for you.” And then came the Candy-pocalypse. A woman walked up, opened her purse, held it by the edge of the table and then took one hand and got ready to slide about 30 candies into it. “Excuse me,” I said. “That candy’s just for display. I don’t have a lot of it, and it probably doesn’t taste good.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “I want it.”

“But it’s mine. You can’t have it.”

“I’m taking it.”

“Please, that’s not what we’re offering today.”

“So?”

“We’re offering Celery Salad with grilled grapes and King Oyster Mushrooms.”

“I want this candy.”

“Well, have the Celery Salad instead.”

She picks up a plate of it, takes a bite and says: “That’s disgusting.”

Then she takes her hand and slides an avalanche of my candy into her bag and struts off, grinning.

I lost it. “You can’t have my candy. You can’t have my candy!” I began to rant. And then I did this.

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Let’s get another look at that.

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And again:

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The Amanda Cohen Anti-Candy Stealing Arrangement.

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That’s right. No one was taking MY candy! They could keep their grubby little paws off of it. And just to top it all off, I decided to throw out the bread. “They want forks? Then let them get forks. They can go find forks to eat this because there’s no more bread now. Are you all happy?” Now I was grudgingly serving celery salad, with no visible way to eat it, on a table with a rampart of plates on it that were protecting my candy. My precious, precious candy. Jesus, Laura and Danielle were giving me a wide berth at this point, and when they talked to me they did so in the soothing, quiet tones of someone discussing why I should put down the gun slowly and then maybe we could all go home to see our families tonight.

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Right on cue, like a sign from Heaven, the sun shifted so that it was blasting down on the Dirt Candy table like an enormous ray of celestial hate. I put on my sunglasses, which was probably a good thing because if anyone had seen my eyes they would have been looking into the gaze of a woman with rabies. For the next couple of hours I manned my sun-blasted table, muttering constantly, “You can’t have my candy. Don’t touch my candy. No one gets my candy but me.”

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The sun! The sun!

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Finally, the long day dragged itself to a close, lay down and died. We all packed up our remaining celery salad (yes, we had leftovers for some reason), the candy (no one got my candy) and our equipment. Then we went and waited for a golf cart to take us back to the street so that now, on Saturday night at 6pm in the Meat Packing district, we could find a cab. But there were no golf carts. The shuttle service was over. And so we hoisted our bags and boxes and flowers and crates onto our shoulders and the four of us started walking. And walking. And walking. We got the West Side Highway. Then we walked for five more blocks before we found a cab. No one was talking much, I think they were all a little scared of me, and that’s okay. Because at least no one had gotten my candy.

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menu


Menu

Snack

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Jalapeno Hush Puppies $6
served with maple butter
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Appetizers

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Mushroom $13
portobello mousse, truffled toast
pear & fennel compote

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Cucumber $12
roasted cucumber hot and sour soup,
black sesame, garlic chili oil, wood ear
mushroom, cucumber jelly

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Tomato $13
tomato cake with smoked feta,
yellow tomato leather, herb puree

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Potato $12
warm potato salad, crispy Japanese
yams, grilled sweet potato, olives,
bitter greens, apples

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Entrees

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Beets $20
salt-roasted beets, thai green curry,
beet gnocchi, whipped coconut galangal cream

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Pepper $18
fennel & pepper tofu,
parsley spaetzle, grilled
yellow pepper broth,
mustard crumbs

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Broccoli $21
smoked broccoli dogs,
broccoli kraut, salt &
vinegar broccoli rabe

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Corn $19
stone ground grits, corn cream,
pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche,
tempura poached egg

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- everything on the menu can be made vegan on request.

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Dessert

Rosemary Eggplant Tiramisu $12
grilled eggplant, rosemary cotton
candy, mascarpone

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Ice Cream Nanaimo Bar$11
sweet pea, mint, chocolate

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Popcorn Pudding$11
salted caramel corn

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Celery Cheesecake Roll$10
celeriac ice cream, peanut filling,

& candied grapes

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- vegan dessert selection changes regularly, please ask your server.

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Our wine list (and other beverages)

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Gift Certificates

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