Q & A with Jennifer Rubell: Cookbook Author, Food Artist, Vegetable Butcher
In Mario Batali's just-opened 50,000 square foot homage to Italian cuisine, Eataly, it’s not the paninoteca, the pasticceria or the Lavazza coffee shop that has been getting the most buzz. It's the vegetable butcher. Her name is Jennifer Rubell, and she is a Harvard and Culinary Institute of America graduate, large-scale food project artist and cookbook author. Jennifer is julienning, mincing and dicing vegetables during Eataly’s opening month.
We are accustomed to asking the baker to slice our ciabatta or the butcher to cut our salumi, but we have been left to our own devices when it comes to prepping our artichokes and radicchio. Leave it to Mario, who recently lost 35 pounds by incorporating more veggies into his diet and has said that "farmers are the next rock stars," to create a new level of service when it comes to produce.
Over a late-night dinner at Del Posto, Mario and Jennifer created the position and Jennifer was anointed Eataly's first (and definitely amazingly-credentialed) vegetable butcher. During the opening weekend, I left my basket of produce in the butcher's very capable hands and salad spinner, while I sampled and shopped. When I returned, the celery was diced and the romaine was chopped for my morning green juice, and the other veggies were washed and prepped for dinner. On my next trip, I'll have to shop for pomegranates, as I'd love to see Jennifer artfully and efficiently extract its seeds (I have yet to master this skill). I'm thrilled Mario and Jennifer are giving veggies the same reverence that we've reserved for our prosciutto di Parma. Hopefully, the luxury of a vegetable sous-chef will inspire New Yorkers to incorporate more vegetables into their home-cooked meals. Jennifer talks to MindBodyGreen about the genesis of the vegetable butcher, the dialogue on food waste in her art, and how she's incorporating Goldilocks and porridge into her yearly breakfast project.
MBG: What was the inspiration behind the creation of the "Vegetable Butcher" position? Rumor has it that a late-night conversation at Del Posto with Mario was involved.
JR: Yes, two months or so before Eataly opened, Mario Batali and I were having dinner at Del Posto. By about midnight, we had come up with this idea of a vegetable butcher, and somehow decided that I'd be the first one. That's how it all started.
Have you received any interesting requests? Reactions?
The biggest surprise is how, just two weeks after we opened, we already have regulars. People come in and talk to me, we figure out what they're going to cook for dinner that night, and then I cut it all up while they go shop for bread, fish, meat, pasta, whatever. Or sometimes they'll have a glass of wine while I'm trimming their carrots. I love that.
What role do vegetables play in your own cooking and entertaining?
Vegetables play a huge role in what I cook at home. The meat is the easy part: when I'm entertaining a lot of people, I usually do a big roast of some kind, whether it's chicken, fish, lamb, or beef. And then I serve three or four dishes of whatever vegetables are totally seasonal, prepared in the simplest ways. This week, that means last summer tomatoes with just good olive oil, sea salt, and some basil; the last summer corn cut off the cob and sauteed with scallions; a celery root salad; and roasted beets.
What originally inspired you to combine your fine arts and culinary background to develop your large-scale food projects?
I was always interested in food -- it's the medium through which I think about the world, and I spend a lot of time involved with it, tasting, cooking, writing about it, talking about it. I had a strong background in contemporary art and art history, but it took me a long time to understand that these two parts of me could come together. I started doing these projects that combined the art and food without categorizing what I was doing, and after six or seven years, I looked at that body of work, and it was so ridiculously obvious that it was art. I had always wanted to be an artist, but there was no existing medium that I would ever want to work in. The food opened all that up for me.
You create a yearly breakfast project in the courtyard of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. Why breakfast? What do you enjoy about this ritual?
I do a breakfast project because the opening at the RFC occurs in the morning. I like when projects have "givens" -- it automatically creates constraints and makes the project more interesting. And I like the idea of exploring the same space and the same time of day, year after year. This will be my 7th or 8th year doing it, and I think it's the best one ever -- much more ambitious than the previous ones. It basically positions Goldilocks as an artist, using an actual house and tons of porridge.
You've discussed provoking a dialogue on the bounty and waste in your art. How do you explore this in your art?
People sometimes look at what I do and think about decadence and waste. They see 150 roasted rabbits in a pile and think it's obscene. But the level of waste in my projects is no greater -- and in many cases, much less -- than the waste you'd find at the equivalent catered event. If you're served rabbit terrine as a first course, there might be 150 rabbits in it, and you'll probably not eat most of it, but you're not seeing the carcasses, and so it doesn't feel wasteful. There is a tremendous amount of waste in all foodservice, but it's almost never noted. I like the idea that people notice the waste and are offended by it. We should be more offended by wasted food all the time.
Favorite places to eat in New York? In Miami?
Your Last Supper... What would you eat? Where would you eat? Who would be there? Would there be art?
I'd eat with my daughter, wherever and whatever she wanted. We'd probably cook. And we might talk about art.
Who or what inspires you?
After every project I do, I feel completely drained and empty of ideas. I always think I've just done the last good thing I'll ever do. I go and sit at MoMA, in front of Jackson Pollock's Number One (31) and listen to what people say about it. That somehow gets my mind working again.
What is next for Jennifer Rubell?
I have a bunch of durational projects coming up, interactive food and drink installations that exist permanently. I'm very much interested in bridging the space between the ephemeral and the monumental, bringing a permanence to something that is fundamentally temporal. That's the next frontier for me.
For more on Jennifer and Eataly:
200 Fifth Avenue (between 23rd and 24th St)
New York, NY
Image of Jennifer Rubell: photo credit Kevin Tachman
Colleen Wachob is Co-Founder and Co-CEO at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Stanford University with degrees in international relations and Spanish, and spent 10 years working at Fortune 500 companies including Gap, Walmart, and Amazon. Wachob lives in Miami, Florida with her husband, mbg Founder and Co-CEO Jason Wachob and their two daughters, Ellie and Grace. Her first book, which is co-authored with mindbodygreen Founder Jason Wachob, The Joy of Well-Being, is being released on May 23, 2023.