A Chef's Defense of the Whole Foods Vegetable Butcher
Welcome to Sounding Off, where writers have the chance to express their, ahem, unique thoughts on the food & drink world. These opinions belong to the writer, not Tasting Table.
Early last week, Whole Foods Market opened a new location in NYC where it introduced a fairly novel amenity to the mainstream market: the vegetable butcher. For the uninitiated, the way this works is patrons pick out their produce from the store then drop it off to be sliced and prepped to order while they continue to shop.
Unsurprisingly, this new service has divided the masses. After all, what does it mean for our integrity and humanity as a society if you leave it to someone else to julienne your red bell peppers?
Before you go throwing stone fruit at glass houses, though, hear me out on why this à la minute service ain't all bad, especially when compared to other precut produce options. Brussels sprouts prepped and left to sit, for instance, dry out quickly, while onions get slimy and pungent after a few hours. Having your veggies prepped on the spot not only ensures you're taking home the freshest fruits and vegetables, it's also relatively cost effective. There is no charge per item, only a limit on how much produce you can drop off: up to five pounds or five items can be julienned, minced, sliced, diced or chopped without any additional fee. Finally, if having your vegetables prepared ahead is the only way they're making it onto tonight's menu, so be it. It's better than skimping on healthy ingredients altogether.
Whatever your reason for partaking (or not), here's why as a professionally trained cook I'm asking you to keep an open mind.
There are physical limitations when it comes to cooking.
It's easy to write off such an amenity as sheer laziness, but what if precut veggies were the only means of being able to prepare a vegetable-packed, home-cooked meal for your family? There's been an outpouring of support from those stating that physical limitations have hindered what they have been able to cook. Labor-intensive veggie prep, like peeling potatoes and carrots, can be exhausting for anyone, let alone the elderly or disabled. Not to mention the struggle of carrying a large amount of groceries home when you have multiple mouths to feed. Cubing a whole watermelon might seem easy to some, but can be a challenge to others for the aforementioned reasons.
Restaurants do it.
Most restaurants are run as a hierarchy. While one cook is on the hot line, searing a thick slab of meat to perfection, a commis—the person in charge of prepping all the veg—plows through bin after bin of celery, onions and carrots. Being responsible for both is not easy to pull off, even for trained professionals.
Time is of the essence.
Cooking a meal is a time-consuming event—and one which real-world occurrences, like paying bills, picking up laundry and enduring train delays, cut into. But we are led to believe we can (and should) do it all: chase success in our careers and get dinner on the table in the same breath. Whether you're working nine to five or nine to midnight like those of us in the food industry, it's hard to bang out anything resembling a healthy meal in a limited amount of time.
The truth is we owe more consideration to and control over the meals we consume. It seems as though there is no acceptance or dignity in having a middle ground. It's either spend three days making cassoulet or be at the mercy of someone else to provide a meal. For those who don't have the luxury of spending hours prepping dinner but would still like to cook good food at home, this is a step toward that happy medium.
So whether you're for or against that nicely minced garlic sitting in your neighbor's cart, try to keep an open mind. You never know when the day might come that you decide to pay the vegetable butcher a visit for yourself.
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