Photo: Logan Fazio / WireImage.com
It was another day at Eataly, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianch's 40,000-square foot temple to Italian food in New York, where Rubell is the vegetable butcher. The idea for the job came during a conversation over dinner with her friend Batali at his restaurant Del Posto shortly before the store's opening earlier this month. He was recalling the women who work at the vegetable market in Campo de Fiori in Rome, the way they would trim artichokes by hand and toss the peels into the fountain, how it helped create a sense of place. "Somehow over the course of the night, the idea of a vegetable butcher crystallized," Rubell said. If those who know Rubell through her large-scale interactive food sculptures – like the ton of ribs, dripping with honey and studded with tongs to encourage sampling that she once installed in a New York gallery – come expecting her to carve a cucuzza squash into some vegetal Brancusi, they might be disappointed. As the name of her new job suggests, Rubell spends her days slicing celery root and shelling fava beans (free of charge), not to mention fielding questions from shoppers about how to prepare them. If this sounds more like work then art, that's because it is, Rubell said.
"If there's a work of art in this, it's the creation of the profession itself, which for me is a fundamentally conceptual act," she mused, adding that she hopes her job will serve as a template for others, inspiring other businesses to add similar positions. At Eataly, she is already training a handful of other would-be vegetable butchers.
But what motivated Rubell, who earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Harvard, studied at the Culinary Institute of America and lives an otherwise pretty glamorous life writing for magazines like Vogue and opening boutique hotels in Miami with her family, is the chance to serve as a kind of advocate for fresh vegetables, which said many Americans still find intimidating. "Breakfast cereal has a voice," she said. "Even meat has a voice. I want to give vegetables a voice."
Rubell continued: "Let's face it, any prep cook in any kitchen in America can trim artichokes. The idea is by doing it in this public way you help people cross the threshold between cooking and not cooking. The education and the elimination of fear is as big a part of the profession as the chopping and the slicing."
Still, she acknowledged, there have been critics who are "appalled" that some people don't want to cut their own vegetables. Although on recent busy Saturday afternoon, the response from customers was overwhelmingly positive. "I love the idea of a vegetable butcher," New Yorker Janis Gross gushed. "Not having to do the prep work can cut your cooking time in half."
As a Rubell sees it, "if pre-cutting vegetables means the difference between someone going home and cooking dinner for their family and not, which it does, then that's a good thing."