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Personal choppers: Meet the world’s first veggie butchers

Peeling, chopping, slicing – that’s what Jennifer Rubell and her employees spend their days doing as butchers at food emporium Eataly in New York City. But it’s not meat they are prepping for their customers — it’s vegetables.
/ Source: TODAY.com

Jennifer Rubell and her staff of butchers spend their days wielding the sharpest of knives and dishing out tips to customers at the luxe New York City food emporium Eataly. But it’s not meat they are peeling, chopping, slicing and discussing — it’s vegetables.

Meet the world’s first crew of vegetable butchers.

“I’m just like a bartender,” explains Rubell, 40. “But the advice customers seek from me is about what to do with vegetables, and to introduce them to unfamiliar ones like cardoons and celery root.”

Rubell and star chef Mario Batali, who co-owns the 50,000-square-foot food hall, got their bright idea about vegetables while enjoying a bottle.

“Mario Batali and I were having dinner at Del Posto and were talking about Eataly a couple months before it opened. We were addressing this question of how to get more people to eat vegetables at home … and so around midnight, after a bottle of wine or two or three, we came up with this idea of a vegetable butcher.”

Making veggies approachableSo what exactly does a vegetable butcher do? Rubell, a large-scale installation artist who says she was thrilled at the chance to “invent a profession,” says it’s pretty self-explanatory.

“It’s a really simple idea: You grab any vegetable here, you bring them to us, and we cut them free of charge,” she said. “What we really do — which is so much more than cutting vegetables — is we help make the world of vegetables less intimidating.”

And it can be intimidating. Walk through Eataly’s produce section, and you’ll see 10 types of potatoes, four kinds of artichokes, nine varieties of onions, and carrots in several different shades. There are vegetables that look like prehistoric fauna to people whose idea of cooking is nuking up some mac ’n’ cheese — puntarella chicory, Cucuzza squash, cardoons.

In September, the Centers for Disease Control released a nationwide behavioral study showing that only 26 percent of American adults eat three or more servings of vegetables per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines suggest three to five servings of vegetables daily. Rubell says that her newfound profession can make a difference.

“We can be a resource to help people. You don’t think about it, but people have an intense fear of vegetables,” she said. “You go into a supermarket and you know the characters selling you cereal, and there are thousands of ads selling you canned goods. So much time and effort goes into getting you to understand what they are. In the vegetable area, you’re on your own.”

Joseph Nieves, one of two additional veggie butchers who were trained just before Eataly opened at the end of August, said the position has helped him build a rapport with patrons.

“I have customers that come all time; they share the recipes they like, ask questions about what they should eat — we have great conversations,” said Nieves, who has been a cook for the past 12 years. “I have at least a dozen customers that I know on a first-name basis.”

Nieves says that he’s seen firsthand the influence that the veggie butcher has on customers.

“The introduction of celery root has been really big. At first, it wasn’t doing well; people didn’t know what it was. But now, people see us chop it, we tell them what to do with it, and it just flies off the shelf.”

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To this writer, a celery root looks like a cross between a fennel bulb and a deformed potato: Even though I’m a food-loving vegetarian, it’s not something I would have chosen to purchase without guidance. But after watching the veggie butcher cut one open, slice it thinly and transform it into a salad with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and Parmesan cheese, I had to have a taste.

It was starchy, slightly tangy, and utterly delicious when complemented with a couple of condiments. I ended up buying some sliced celery root to make the salad myself at home.

A new luxury
But don’t feel bad if you just want some plain old onions or green peppers chopped. After all, cutting and prepping those staple veggies can be the most tedious part of cooking at home.

“If you look at how much time it takes you to cook anything, it’s the cutting and prep work; you come here and that time is gone,” Rubell points out. “You just get to do the really fun part — cooking it, hearing it sizzle in the pan.”

For some customers, heading to the veggie butcher is an indulgence. “It just makes me feel so luxurious,” said Suzanne Shapiro, a 45-year-old interior designer who bought sliced celery root. “I love raw vegetables, and I love having this option.”

Rubell says the questions she gets most frequently are about artichokes. “People love them, but they just don’t know what to do with them,” she says. “And only freaks like me actually enjoy trimming them.” She adds that she practiced trimming a couple of cases of artichokes before Eataly opened, “just to make sure I was up to snuff.”

Even Batali decided to outsource artichoke-trimming for his dinner. Decked out in bright orange Crocs and pink-striped socks, the chef strolled into Eataly and declared: “I love the vegetable butcher. I love having someone else do my work.”

He went home to braise his trimmed artichokes a la Romana style, with mint, red onion, garlic, sweet peppers and chili flakes.

Rubell sees herself as a “voice” for the veggies and hopes that the seed that was planted over drinks with Batali will have much bigger repercussions.

“My dream is to see a vegetable butcher in every supermarket in America,” she said. “I think we could fundamentally change the way people eat.”