Rather than labeling its menu with special-diet friendly terms like vegetarian or vegan, the restaurant Little Eater's approach to feeding people fresh, veggie-forward food focuses instead on the incredible colors, textures and flavors that produce brings to the dishes. Founder and owner Cara Mangini is on a mission to make preparing and eating in-season vegetables more approachable for the average consumer. In her new book, The Vegetable Butcher, she hopes to demystify even the most intimidating produce (celeriac or kohlrabi, anyone?) by showing people how to prepare and cook it.
Here's her take on inspiring consumers to think veggies first.
What do you think is the biggest barrier to people eating more vegetables?
Cara Mangini: First, we have to change the perception and food memory associations that come to mind when people think of vegetables. Vegetables don't have to equate to sacrifice. They produce over-the-top flavor and craveable, deeply satisfying food. Vegetable-based food isn't about what isn't on the plate—it's about everything that is. Once we are all on board with this notion, we have to create more access to convenient, vegetable-forward foods and also help make the cooking of vegetables second nature in our culture.
What are your priorities when sourcing vegetables? Local? Organic? Seasonal? How do you go about prioritizing?
CM: We work with partners that we trust. Seasonal, local and certified organic produce is the most important to us. Next, we source from local farmers who are organic but not certified or mostly organic or chem-free. When we can't get produce locally, we source as much organic produce as possible from other parts of the U.S. In our restaurant, everything on the menu is inspired by a local ingredient, so if it is out of season or won't store through the winter any longer, it comes off the menu. At the grocery, we teach our customers how to let the seasons inspire and guide home cooking.
When you were putting together your cookbook, what elements did you know were important to educate and inspire readers?
CM: My book, The Vegetable Butcher, was founded on the understanding that we can all benefit from vegetable education and perhaps more importantly, a trusted professional that you can count on to help you take the guesswork out of breaking down and cooking with vegetables.
I had many different food retail experiences, before writing the book and starting my own company, and in speaking directly with customers and students I learned that most people don't know a lot about vegetables (let alone how to break them down, prepare them and turn them into a meal). Most people wanted to eat more vegetables, but once they got them home, they didn't really know what to do with them. I wanted to create a resource and a guide as well as a cookbook full of inspiring recipes that would give readers the confidence, encouragement and motivation to cook and eat vegetables every day—and ultimately, find the joy in cooking with seasonal ingredients that connect you to nature and to each moment of the year.
In the retail environment, it's not enough to say this is healthy and you should buy it or eat it. I think that can be extremely intimidating and unwelcoming. We have to give our customers the tools and opportunities to be successful. In our store, we use The Vegetable Butcher as a curriculum to train staff, to educate customers and to inspire in-store demos, seasonal merchandising and promotions. Education is the key to marketing vegetables.
Any trends you’re seeing in the retail or food industry that are exciting to you?
CM: I am thrilled to see what appears to be endless innovation and creativity coming from food artisans and entrepreneurs. They are influencing and shaping the food industry in a really positive way. Also, it is exciting to see that customers are demanding fresh foods and simply, real food, and expect to be connected to where ingredients come from. That is super exciting. I am also happy to see fine dining—good quality food and technique—translated into casual, quick-service food environments.