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When In New York… Meet The Vegetable Butcher At Mario Batali’s Eataly

When we sat down to design the program that came to be known as The New York Produce Show and Conference, we knew that it would be a horrible shame, maybe even a sin, to bring so many people to the Big Apple and have them spend the whole time in a hotel or convention center.

Thus was born a tour program running from Philadelphia to New York. It has attracted about equal numbers of out-of-towners and people from the region. Some are going to Hunts Point to see a the largest wholesale produce market in the country; some are going to Philadelphia to see the newest wholesale produce market in the country in its high-powered suburban New York version, with a tour of North Jersey retailers.

While others want to see a kind of retailing that really doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in America, and so have selected the Manhattan Retail tour. Of course, we already highlighted that we would do a quick side trip on this tour to Queens to see an exceptional example of rooftop urban farming. We called the piece Rooftop Farm Just Part Of The New York Experience.

The tour is incredibly diverse, highlighting an urban interpretation of Whole Foods; presenting the quintessentially New York experience with Fairway; a Food Emporium that feels like a cathedral as it is nestled in the arches supporting the 59th Street Bridge and we’ll visit a D’Agostinos and see what happens when a family has its name on the door.

It is not unusual that the most anticipated stop on the tour should be the newest food concept — Eataly. As a result of a special tour arranged by the folks at Baldor, an important supplier to the new concept, attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference can get to see this sister to the Eataly in Turin. That store, operating in a city with a million residents, attracts two-and-a-half million visitors each year. In contrast, New York City has over eight million residents and almost fifty million tourists and visitors each year.

Eataly was founded by Oscar Farinetti, who established the original Turin store, Mario Batali and his longtime partner in restaurants, Joe Bastianich, who also serves as a co-host on Fox’s MasterChef, plus Bastianich’s mother Lidia, who is a pretty impressive food personality in her own right.

The store has incredible things for all departments, but for produce it has something unique — but maybe not for long — America’s first vegetable butcher. Jennifer Rubell has a famous uncle, Steve Rubell, who founded Studio 54, the iconic disco club. And she turns food into art. Here is an example of how she interpreted the American Breakfast:

Self-serve bananas make up her American Morning
(photo by Jennifer Rubell)

Rubell masterminded the job of Vegetable Butcher at Eataly. What does this mean? We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out:

Jennifer Rubell
Food Artist, Chef, and
Vegetable Butcher
New York, New York

Q: Your background is quite colorful. How did you brainstorm the idea of a Vegetable Butcher?

A: Mario and I were on our second or third bottle of wine at Del Posto (it just received four stars in the New York Times), a few months before Eataly was set to open. We were talking about Eataly and vegetables for three hours over the best roast chicken I ever had in my life. We wanted a way for people to engage with vegetables that was new and fun, and we played with the amusing concept of a Vegetable Butcher.

It was an enjoyable evening to say the least, but I figured once the affects of the wine wore off so would the off-the-wall idea, and then Mario calls me up the next day, “I know you’re very busy with other projects, but I need you to come to Eataly as our first Vegetable Butcher, and hire and train more Vegetable Butchers.”

I was here full time the first month, 15 hours a day, but I’ve hired a bunch of Vegetable Butchers and trained them. They’re amazing, better than I could ever be.

Q: What does a Vegetable Butcher’s job entail?

A: First thing in the morning, I walk around the produce department to see what’s abundant and in season. Today, it’s not as much about what is local, but now things are coming in from around the world. [Rubell reaches for Australian blood oranges to bring over to the Vegetable Butcher station].

Q: How do you assist customers in sorting through the myriad varieties?

A: I bring things home to experiment within New York City kitchen needs. It’s different cooking without all the commercial, high-tech equipment in Eataly. Sometimes, it’s harder to cook in smaller quantities.

Q: What are some of your favorite creations?

A: People usually don’t realize the way Brussels sprouts grow. [she points to stalks of Brussels sprouts standing tall in a beautiful display]. I set the oven at 375 degrees, rub the stock of Brussels sprouts with olive oil and salt, and put in the oven for 40 minutes to roast like a rack of lamb. Every one of the Brussels sprouts is roasted perfectly on the outside and deliciously soft on the inside.

Vegetables don’t usually feel like a hero at the table, but you bring out this like a roast to the table and it’s a rock star. In my entire time as Vegetable Butcher, this is my most proud moment, coming up with my Brussels sprouts recipe. My daughter is five years old and she loves it. It’s a short season for the farmers, though, just about a month.

Q: How important is local produce here?

A: Local tastes better. It’s not that vegetables grown here are better than those in California, but if they were picked last week maybe under-ripe to prolong shelf life compared to items picked fresh and brought in daily, the result in a taste test favors local. But availability on certain products is really limited to July, August, and a little part of September. I’d much rather have field-grown than greenhouse-grown.

My interest in local has to do with my desire to support local farmers. An argument can be made that local doesn’t always reduce carbon footprints due to other factors in the supply chain and production process, but I still believe there is tremendous value to eating local food. The main thing is having a balanced approach. For example, we import wonderful Italian chestnuts that have a special flavor, a massive difference in taste from Chinese chestnuts.

Q: How does Italian culture fit into the Eataly experience?

A: The way Italians shop is they see what looks good. Americans follow a shopping list and are more directed and less exploratory. I like to buy what’s best in season and keep it simple…olive oil, salt and pepper. Have a raw crudite with Baby Romanesca Cauliflower aren’t they beautiful, a taste between cauliflower and broccoli. It’s good to cook with pasta sautéed with anchovies and toss. [Editor’s note: Mario Batali, owner of Eataly, stops by and joins Jennifer Rubell in helping a customer discern the difference between marjoram and oregeno: “Oregano and marjoram are from the same family but not the same thing. Pinch the herb and you can tell,” says Rubell. Batali is quick to add, “Marjoram is much more sexually perfumed. Oregano is intensifying, but marjoram is much tastier…”]

Mario Batali with Jennifer Rubell

Q: Continuing our tour of the produce department, what other tips could you share before we head over to your Vegetable Butcher station?

A: Italian pine nuts, long and thin, produce a totally different flavor if making pesto. They cost $5 a pound, but you’re getting an amazing flavor so it’s well worth it. People will spend $20 for meat without a second thought. At Eataly, we refer to the Mario Revolution, a philosophy of using fresh ingredients in a straight-forward, direct approach, with nothing overwrought. If pumpkin is in season and the ingredient is indigenous to the U.S., Mario will incorporate it the way an Italian would.

The restaurants serve as a showcase for produce. It’s not about wowing you with fireworks. To de-nature the food is very un-Italian. Eataly focuses on the Italian way of living. When we opened our doors, people came in and said, “You don’t have prepared food?” In traditional Italian culture, this is not the way. It’s a Manhattan city thing to get ready-made food in a plastic container to eat. Eataly gives people an oasis from this grab-and-go mentality.

Q: What role does the Vegetable Butcher play?

A: The customers come in and grab the vegetables they want; they weigh them and bring them over to the Vegetable Butcher station for chopping or tips on preparation. I show how you can trim the baby artichokes and eat the hearts. We usually peel the baby artichokes all day so you can just pick up some here.

Getting kids to eat vegetables is just a matter of exposure. It makes no sense saying kids don’t like them. It’s a big mistake to hide them in their food or shove vegetables down their throats — rather it makes sense to teach them an approach to eating. My daughter enjoys Kohlrabi root, a bulb we cut in sticks and dip in salt, or carrots in cumin. She’s part of the process, going to the spice rack and experimenting, mixing soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and Asian spices to make a sauce.

There’s no wrong, and she has a whole group of recipes she’s created. I put my daughter to work shelling the beans. Parents need to stop saying, “If you eat your mushrooms, you can have dessert.” Your whole life you develop taste. Parents need to eat with their children, and it’s OK if they don’t like something.

Sometimes customers come here last, saying they just picked up fish for dinner. We don’t choose their vegetables but tell them what to look for — the qualities — and they bring the vegetables to us. It could be something simple like potatoes for roasting and we’ll talk about leaving the skin on to give more dimension and texture.

Q: So Vegetable Butchers are not only proficient in chopping and slicing but also in their abilities as chefs?

A: Everyone who is a vegetable butcher is trained as a cook as well. Behind us, in the vegetable restaurant, they make what’s in season and, today, I suggest the spaghetti squash special. The Vegetable Butcher station is the most educational area. It makes people more comfortable.

Even though vegetables are the most simple to cook, they are the least ready to cook. A piece of meat is cut and ready to grill. The role of the Vegetable Butcher is to peel and cut the eggplant. There are ways for cutting even something like an avocado. It’s not magic, but Mario shows us tricks. [Editor’s note: Rubell leaves her station to select some avocados for a demonstration. As she goes to cut the first one, she’s not satisfied with its ripeness so tosses it aside.]

Ninety percent of cooking good vegetables is buying good vegetables. Avocados are a sensitive vegetable. One thing about vegetables is not to be smug.

Q: Please elaborate…

A: Celery root is totally intimidating, so people will walk right by it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of showing people that preparing celery root is the simplest thing to do. We would be lucky to sell one a week, but when we cut it up and put it in a salad we sell three boxes a day. I have a fantastic cutting technique. From the outside, the celery root looks like a brain and appears totally impenetrable, but inside it’s completely edible and tastes slightly citrusy without the green annoying taste or texture of celery. It’s not intimidating because it’s rare or expensive, but because it’s unfamiliar. I’m making a salad with celery root, lemon, parmesano, salt and pepper. The idea is that people come here with their vegetables, then go buy prosciutto and cheese and come back and it’s all ready for them.

Q: Have you received any unusual requests from customers?

A: We try to manage people’s expectations. All Vegetable Butchers get unusual propositions. This couple came in and wanted a Vegetable Butcher to work at their house. After October, I’ll be leaving my post as Vegetable Butcher to work on my conceptual art food projects, but Eataly will have a total of four Vegetables Butchers to carry on, including Milan Pizzicarolo, working with me today.

[Editor’s note: Milan Pizzicarolo, who’s been doing the job for about a month, says he loves it. “We split the shifts, eight hours per day. It involves vigorous chopping, but I find it can be a soothing job sometimes, and I get to interact with people,” says Pizzicarolo. “I’ve worked in several Italian restaurants, French Bistros, and own a catering service. The next best thing to cooking for people is giving them tips,” he continues. “We’re all opinionated and from all different backgrounds — I’m half Italian and half Jamaican — so we provide our customers with all kinds of different preparations and ideas, and we learn things from our customers too.]

Q: Jennifer, it sounds like you’re leaving the Vegetable Butcher station in excellent hands. As you pursue your new conceptual food art projects, will any involve produce?

A: I’m talking to someone now about a very, very large produce project, but I can’t share more details about it right now. One of my interactive displays had 21-year-old apple trees cut down from a farm in Long Island, and the apples that fell off the tree along the way people could eat. Another exhibit included 2,400 pounds of bananas. Produce is involved in everything I do.

There is something quite intriguing in this concept. Most produce departments see service as a side effect of stocking. In other words, labor is scheduled not to help customers but to keep the shelves filled; then stores hope that the stockers can be useful in providing customer service.

The concept of a Vegetable Butcher puts the customer first.

Then, of course, Jennifer is so eminently sensible. We’ve written here about the issues related to trying to hide produce in your children’s food, and Jennifer dismisses the whole idea. She likes local, but rejoices in wonderful produce from around the world.

New York is atypical, and Eataly is atypical for New York. Still mainstream operators identify good ideas from all kinds of stores, and shippers can profitably question some assumptions when confronted with a new concept. For example, the store does not sell little plastic containers of prepared foods, but its Vegetable Butchers help consumers to make preparation easy.

If you would like to get more information about The New York Produce Show and Conference, you can find it here.

And if you would like to register for the whole event, you can do so here.

If you are local and can’t do the whole show but just want to sign up for the tour, you can do so here.

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