We had recently heard word that conceptual artist and CIA grad Jennifer Rubell was no longer the vegetable butcher at Eataly. So, we popped into the store to see who was wielding the knives and helping wayward customers dice and slice. And, of course, to learn the secrets of how one becomes a vegetable butcher.
“Customers pick out their produce and they bring their produce to the vegetable butcher. That’s just the beginning part of it, though. What’s been happening a lot is customers will come up to me and say, ‘I just bought some striped bass. What sorts of vegetables should I make with it?'” explains Joseph Nieves, who is one of Eataly’s two vegetable butchers, along with Alicia Walter. “We give them advice on how to cook their vegetables, and we introduce them to a lot of new vegetables and new ways to prepare them.”
Nieves notes that customers are intimidated by vegetables they haven’t seen before, but that artichokes and squashes are the most requested foods for assistance. “It’s very basic here,” he adds, refuting the idea that customers would ask him to brunoise a vegetable.
So how does one become a vegetable butcher? “I’ve been cooking for 13 years. I did Chinese food for a year and Thai for two years, and steakhouses. This is the first time I’m working with vegetables only. Jennifer Rubell came up with the concept with Mario Batali and she brought me under her wing and I studied with her for two weeks straight and she passed the torch down to me,” he explained. Nevertheless, potential veggie butchers need some experience. “You definitely need knife skills or you might lose some limbs and a history of vegetables. I don’t know everything about vegetables because it’s a never-ending experience, but I keep my vegetable encyclopedia underneath my station.”
Nieves added that he also helps prepare vegetables for La Verdure, Eataly’s veggie-friendly restaurant. “I’m not just here to work. I really do care about food. I’m not a salesman. I’m a foodie. I love food — preparing it, talking about it.”
Yet his aspirations go even further. “I’d like to take vegetable butchering on the road. I’m talking vegetable-butchering TV show, guest appearances on TV, and teaching worldwide about the service we provide.” Indeed, what’s a foodie career these days if you don’t have a television show?