Eating clean and green with chef and author Cara Mangini

Columbus chef and author Cara Mangini. Photo: Matthew Benson

By Paula Johnson

Most everyone is now becoming familiar with the trend towards “reducitarianism”, if not by the name then by concept – eating less meat. Whether it’s done for the health benefits or for concern for animal well-being, it’s a movement whose time has come. One of the most exciting and well received cookbooks celebrating this trend, came out in the spring of this year: The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini. It’s been awarded the James Beard Award for Vegetable Focused and Vegetarian.

Just what is a vegetable butcher? It all started with her work at Mario Batali’s Eataly, where Mangini immersed herself in everything vegetables, educating customers to select and prepare produce in new and exciting ways. If you had no idea what to do with a cardoon or a rutabaga, Mangini would break it down for you, literally by peeling, chopping, and prepping your produce and teaching you how to cook it.

Cara Mangini’s food career started with a culinary arts degree from the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. She partnered with acclaimed chefs and cookbook authors, working at the James Beard House and as a sous chef at New York’s Culinary Loft. After traveling extensively throughout France, Italy, and Turkey to research their produce-centered cuisines, she moved to Columbus and launched Little Eater in the Columbus food mecca North Market. I visited to sample Little Eater’s popular “choose four” platter option. There’s also a market space to purchase fresh produce to take home (which I also did), along with recommended recipes. I had the chance to chat with Cara Mangini, who is in the midst of opening her first stand-alone restaurant. I wanted to find out about that, and how she came to her career in food.

PJ: Tell me about the new restaurant.

CM: It’s located in the Clintonville area of Columbus. The core of the menu is seasonal vegetables, and now you can have a glass of wine too! Our mission is to honor the work of our farmers and support our local community by providing a space to come together and share a meal.

PJ: I have to mention the irony of your name, which in Italian means Little Eater. Do you feel like you were destined to have a life in food?

CM: I definitely feel like that was my destiny. I had another really successful career, but I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do. At one point I met with a professional mentor who asked me “On your day off if you could do one thing that you truly love what would you do?” and I realized what I love the most is cooking for people I love. I come from a big Italian family and the core of the family is what happens at the table. That simple realization paved the way for my life in food.

PJ: Can you talk about why you don’t like the term vegetarian?

CM: Yes, technically our food is vegetarian but I feel like that word is outdated and has such negative connotation, like something is missing from the food. It brings a certain style of food to mind for a lot of people and not in a good way.

Our food is produce inspired – that’s the term we use. This style of food is not about sacrifice or obligation. It celebrates the season and the hard work of the farmers who produce it for us. If we are going to bring everyone to the table we have to modernize the way we talk about vegetables.

PJ: Do you see a disconnection in the level of knowledge the average American has about food (I’m thinking the popularity of Food TV) and how often they actually cook? 

CM: Yes! Intuitive cooking happens when you do cook- when you get in the kitchen and make mistakes. Knowing about food isn’t the same as actually learning by cooking. In particular when it comes to vegetables, these ingredients can sometimes really intimidate people and they don’t grow up knowing what to do with and how to prepare them.

It’s not just about starting to make cooking vegetables more second nature but we get excited about cooking them and enjoying them. If we stick with one technique, we’re not going to be very excited about it.

PJ: You’ve worked with a lot of accomplished chefs, like Mario Batali. Who has influenced you the most? 

CM: My family and grandmother, who is still cooking at 95, is my first and biggest influence. My whole professional pursuit is trying to get people to pause and celebrate a moment and gather the people they love around a table, and that came from them. The team of people who work with me are a huge inspiration – their talent and how much they teach me. And my travels have really been important. To see the way other cultures treat vegetables as second nature has really informed me a lot.

PJ: Is there a thought you’d like to leave our readers with?

CM: I think the most important thing we touched on that we do is honoring the work of farmers and supporting the health of the community by bringing those we love together around good food that just happens to be healthy.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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