What's a 'vegetable butcher'?

Editor's note: The following column is excerpted from "The Vegetable Butcher" by Cara Mangini (Workman Publishing, April 19, 2016).

My Italian grandfather and great-grandfather were butchers, the traditional kind who could gracefully carve out a tenderloin and butterfly a chicken. I can wield a knife as well, but I use mine against the curves of a stubborn butternut squash and to cut thin ribbons out of crinkly kale.

I did not recognize that the craft had passed on to me until I began to explore produce-centered cookery during travels to France, Italy, and Turkey. Following my interest, I continued to travel and eat, and to learn from talented chefs and home cooks who effortlessly handled vegetables. Without much advance planning or a political agenda, they made seasonal, local produce a significant part of every meal. At the time, I was well positioned in a career in New York’s beauty industry, but these experiences were setting root. They inspired me to take the leap and train to be a professional chef.

Attending the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City led to cooking and teaching from New York to the Napa Valley and learning from great chefs along the way.

(Matthew Benson Foto)

One of my jobs was working as a vegetable butcher at Eataly, the chic Italian marketplace co-owned by Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich (among others).

From the moment I landed this gig, I knew it was meant to be. I could feel it—preparedness intersecting with exactly the right opportunity.

At Eataly, customers walked right up to me with their produce for purchase and I would clean it, peel it, slice it, and prime it. I shredded cabbage, shelled fava beans, shaved celery root, and prepped case after case of baby artichokes.

My favorite part of the job was teaching these techniques and offering suggestions for what to do with the pristine veggies at home. It was always a thrill to see such amazement from people over the simplest preparations and flavors.

I discovered that even the most sophisticated foodies didn’t always know the best way to cut and prepare vegetables, and needed some inspiration and encouragement.

The experience reinforced my innate sense that vegetable education would be my mission.

Next, I went out to the Napa Valley to surround myself with vegetables and get to know them at their source. I wanted to observe and handle produce from planting to picking to the table.

I showed up with hundreds of questions for farmers and chefs, and got practical answers that would later serve my customers and students.

I worked at the organic farms of Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena and in the kitchen of its associated restaurant, Farmstead.

I arrived at the farm early each day to harvest produce for the restaurant and farmers’ markets. I pulled potatoes from the dirt, lugged melons in from the fields, cut rows of heirloom tomatoes off their vines, snapped figs from majestic trees, and twisted bell peppers from their knobby stems.

In the evenings, I worked on the line at the restaurant, prepping, cooking, and plating the very same produce I had picked that morning.

At the St. Helena and Napa farmers’ markets, I naturally stepped back into my role as a vegetable butcher—fielding questions, educating shoppers, and helping them decide what to make for dinner.

I was filling the gap between their appreciation of shiny eggplants and frilly mustard greens and their unawareness of how to handle them.

These were special, formative days that further confirmed what I already knew: You don’t need much to make eating vegetables easy and pleasurable. With some basic knife skills, a better understanding of how to shop and care for different varieties, and a handful of simple, rewarding go-to recipes, cooking with vegetables becomes second nature. I underlined the takeaway (and circled it)! Then I began work on "The Vegetable Butcher" book.

During my adventures in Napa Valley, I met two mentors who steered the course of my professional and personal life.

Antonia Allegra, a respected writer and cookbook guru, offered me an office in her tree house overlooking the valley along with access to her extraordinary cookbook collection and brilliant advice.

Jim White, also a writer and food-product genius, encouraged me not only to continue to help people cook with vegetables at home but to use my skill to make produce-based foods more convenient in the marketplace.

In different ways, they both led me to a food industry convention in San Francisco’s Moscone Center and (out of the thousands of exhibitors there sampling and selling products) to the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams booth, where I met Tom Bauer. Tom gave me mini spoonful after mini spoonful of the best ice cream I had ever tasted while I talked about my dream of someday opening a produce-inspired restaurant and grocery. Days later we met for a business lunch, and after several hours, I was sold. (I’ve been hooked on Tom ever since.)

Tom convinced me to continue my work with vegetables in Columbus, Ohio—a city that had championed his family’s business and that he could imagine supporting mine. He showed me (a native of the San Francisco Bay area) that the Ohio River Valley would promise dedicated farmers, food artisans, and beautiful vegetables that would align with all of my goals.

So now, by way of this unexpected but perfect serendipity, I am married to Tom and living the dream that unfolded when I took a chance and started to tune in to my purpose.

I have since opened Little Eater (loosely named for the meaning of my Italian surname), a produce-inspired restaurant, and Little Eater Produce and Provisions, an associated produce stand and artisanal foods boutique in Columbus’s North Market, where my (amazing) team and I promote and encourage cooking with vegetables at home.

My businesses and I have found a home away from home in Columbus and an exceptional community that supports us.

I partner with hardworking and talented farmers who deliver us the most magnificent vegetables grown in Ohio soil. (Tom was right.) In turn, we aim to honor the work of our farm partners and support the health of our community.

My book, The Vegetable Butcher, is the product of my years devoted to working exclusively with produce, and it includes all of the notes and lessons I have gathered along the way.

I hope it will be your ultimate guide to vegetable butchery, demystifying produce with practical, how-to information (the stuff that, somehow, no one ever taught you).

Here, vegetables are at the center of your plate, not an afterthought or obligation. They are modern, sexy, and extraordinarily delicious—the way they deserve to be.