Meet the vegetable butchers

Read Time:   |  5th August 2019

Megan Tatum meets the new breed of butchers cutting up vegetables.

vegetable butchers

Last year Harrods opened a vegetable butcher counter in its iconic food hall. Expertly trained to slice, dice and spiralize any vegetable you can imagine, is it a trend that could catch on?

Wooden crates piled high with organic carrots, takeaway tubs of expertly sliced butternut squash and glass bowls lined up behind the counter, all overflowing with citrus fruits – this is the sight that greets visitors to Harrods’ brand new vegetable butchery.

Opened in November last year, the counter now occupies a space in the luxury store’s famous food hall, framed by the finest foods, fragrances and fashion from around the world. It’s a place where shoppers can witness “alchemy and amazement” from expert vegetable chefs, say Harrods, highly trained to precision chop, season or spiralize any vegetable you can imagine. Their creations can elevate mundane dishes and inspire you to make more of your salad drawer at home.

Slicing into New York

For Cara Mangini, founder of Little Eater restaurants and author of The Vegetable Butcher, it’s a brilliant addition for Harrods shoppers. “Having someone to turn to for this practical information or to break down your vegetables for you is essential to adding more vegetables to our everyday meals and in my perfect world, to making it the star,” she says. 

Mangini was herself one of the first vegetable butchers at New York’s Eataly, a vibrant Italian marketplace in the US city. Customers could walk right up to her with their produce and she would clean it, peel it, slice it and prime it. “I shredded cabbage, shelled fava beans, shaved celery root, and prepared cases of artichokes. I shared techniques for vegetable selection, storage and prep, along with vegetable-based knife skills and recommendations for what to do with veggies at home.

vegetable butchers

“I found that even the most sophisticated New Yorkers didn’t always know the best way to cut and prepare vegetables, and needed some inspiration and encouragement. It was a formative experience that confirmed my interest in dedicating my career to vegetable education, which is really what vegetable butchery is all about.”

And this demand for more education about how to work with vegetables in the kitchen has seen the role cross the Atlantic and begin to appear on our high streets too, because Harrods wasn’t the first to introduce a vegetable butcher to its stores.

Getting into every supermarket

Back in 2016, Sainsbury’s introduced the role into its Wandsworth superstore after noticing that more and more of its customers were making vegetables the main event on the plate. Inspired by the same nose to tail eating and expert knife skills found in its traditional butchers, the vegetable butcher allowed supermarket shoppers to innovate with tried and tested classics, as well as experiment with less familiar vegetables. 

vegetable butchers

Every supermarket should look to follow Sainsbury’s and Harrods’ lead on this, believes Amber Locke, the food writer and artist that manned the counter in Sainsbury’s when it first launched. “With the huge recent rise in veganism and increasing awareness of the importance of vegetable consumption for both our own health and the health and sustainability of the planet, I think fruit
and vegetables being the centrepiece of daily meals, rather than meat, is soon going to become the norm for people rather than
the exception.

“Being able to prepare fresh ingredients like fruit and veg in different ways is an important element of keeping them interesting and a vegetable butcher can provide this service.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everybody is happy at the idea of a vegetable butcher becoming the norm in supermarkets. After Harrods announced its new service there was plenty of criticism, much of it from traditional butchers, with some arguing that the term ‘butcher’ should only apply to those preparing meat products. It was a “sleight on their skills” to apply the same name to those chopping up vegetables, said the Institute of Meat.

vegetable butchers

But Mangini disagrees. “Vegetables need to be broken down in order to turn them into edible pieces,” she says. “To me, it’s an appropriate word. Certainly, it is an evocative one that I hope will catch the world’s attention and help to create change for the sake of our health and the environment. Vegetable butchery is ultimately vegetable education that will pave the way to a day when vegetables aren’t considered an obligation or a sacrifice. They are colour, texture, flavour and abundance – one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

We shouldn’t get bogged down in semantics, points out Locke. “Nit picking over a terminology seems pointless, rather we should be celebrating this really fantastic initiative,” she says. “I appreciate that traditional butchery can be a very skilled role, but I think in this context it’s a really useful term that people can easily recognise. It seems sensible to link a new concept in terms of ease of understanding and if the role and service of a vegetable butcher encourages people to be inspired to eat more vegetables then that’s got to be a good thing.” Particularly if it inspires them to translate these newly learned skills into their own kitchen.

Making use of everything

In Mangini’s own book, The Vegetable Butcher, she talks readers step-by-step through how to prepare an artichoke, chiffonade kale, slice kohlrabi into carpaccio, break down a butternut squash, and cut a cauliflower into steaks, along with 100 recipes that “celebrate the soul-satisfying flavour of each vegetable. 

“In order for home cooks to put vegetables at the centre of the plate, I recognised that they needed a more intuitive understanding of how to cook with vegetables every day,” she says. “I hope the skills that I teach make it easier to pick up any vegetable, in any season and turn it into a meal.”

After all “chopping up vegetables can be as simple or complex as you like,” says Locke. “All you really need is a sharp knife and a chopping board, there’s no fancy equipment necessary, unless you like to be creative. Differently sliced vegetables can add interesting texture and bulk to meals and also enhance the visual appeal of a dish.

vegetable butchers

“It’s also great to think of inventive ways you can use different parts of vegetables, especially parts you might otherwise have discarded, such as using beetroot leaves and stems finely sliced in a stir fry, roasting the skin of butternut squash, juicing the stems of kale, spiralizing broccoli stalk or using carrot tops for a pesto etc. This can really help to minimise waste and these can also be really nutritious parts of the veg.”

So, whether you fancy finessing your own knife skills, or prefer an expert to do the hard work for you, vegetable butchery is a valuable tool for creating vegan dishes that look as good as they taste. 

Megan Tatum is a passionate foodie, both at home and at work. A journalist specialising in food and drink – with a particular focus on how we can eat more sustainably – she loves discovering new food concepts, companies and products.

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