Featured in Coyote + Oak Volume IX
Writing by Kendra Aronson
Photography by Kayla Tierney
Ask any Californian what their favorite cuisine is—it’s likely Mexican food. Who doesn’t love hot-off-the-griddle-still-sizzlin’ street tacos garnished with chopped raw onions, punchy cilantro, and a generous spoonful of salsa? Or belly-busting burritos brimming with rice, beans, proteins (or produce)? Mexican food is California comfort food, and California cuisine is innovative—so naturally Vegetable Butcher has been a hit since day one with its sweet spot intersection of vegetable-centric modern Mexican menu offerings like guajillo pork with jalapeño pickled pineapple, red fresno chilies, cilantro, and crispy fried shallots; or little gem salad with radicchio, avocado, red fresno chiles, hibiscus pickled onion, queso fresco, sweet dried corn, bourbon pepitas in a cilantro vinaigrette. I sat down with Chef/Owner Becky Windels to get the inside scoop of how Vegetable Butcher came to be, and what we can look forward to in the upcoming months—warning: it’s going to be extremely delicious. Enjoy!
Tell me about your childhood—what kind of food did you grow up eating?
I was raised real hippie, we made everything from scratch with natural ingredients, I’ve always eaten very pure. Both my mother and father are excellent cooks. My mother would grind her own wheat and make her own bread. The sweetest thing we had in our home was unsweetened peanut butter, raw honey, and carob chips. Back in the day this was not trendy—just weird.
That’s incredible! Clearly, your parents had a big influence on both your own eating habits and current cooking style. Did you go to culinary school?
I am self-taught, I moved to Arizona where I met John [husband, co-owner and GM of Vegetable Butcher]. I started out in the restaurant business working for corporations as a server—admittedly I was a terrible server; I was fired from most of those jobs. I ended up having interest in working back of the house. I connected with a dear friend and we started up a catering company 23 years ago in Arizona. I had no formal culinary training.
Did he have a formal culinary background?
Yes, he was a classically trained French chef, but I kept going in my own creative direction. We started our catering company in 1995, and over 2 decades it evolved into two restaurants of this size [comparable to Vegetable Butcher], and a to-go Food/Cheese Shop Market in Scottsdale. At my 20 year anniversary I sold to my business partner. My husband and I wanted to explore more and relocate.
What brought you to San Luis Obispo specifically?
Our friend and local resident, Rich Hanen, found out that I was selling my business, and he said we had to check out the Central Coast. Over the years—and through the wine industry and all of our mini vacations—we had always ended up in LA, Southern California, San Francisco, or Northern California, so we decided to take Rich up on his recommendation. After I sold [my business], John and I spent about a year traveling with our rottweiler and Airbnb-ing. The Central Coast… you almost want to keep it a secret! We Airbnb’d in this area and it was such a good experience. We met and got know to know locals, visited farmers’ markets, and cooked at wineries. We are very simple people, we aspire to enjoy time with our rottweiler, and live amongst the locals. We love the community—so friendly, kind, passionate and genuine artisans of their trade. And we are blessed.
Agreed, the Central Coast has the best people! That is a genius idea to stay in a city for a few weeks before uprooting your whole life to relocate. What an unique way to get a true flavor of the pace of life, the neighborhoods, and the people. What cities did you Airbnb?
We stayed in Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Oakland, San Francisco, Durango [Colorado]—but we just kept finding ourselves back on the Central Coast.
So, what drew you to open up a restaurant in downtown SLO versus Morro Bay?
We were Airbnb-ing, and we would ask people—every demographic—what was needed, what was missing, what people wanted. It was exactly what I wanted to do, exactly what I had in mind and my type of cuisine. People would say they wanted Mexican food, and more of San Diego-style tacos, and I wanted to put my clean eating style toward it. Our friend Rich was determined that it would go well here in San Luis Obispo. We studied the demographic with the students, the travel times, the tourists, we just thought it would be a good fit.
I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to market research—where did you get your facts and figures to make sure Vegetable Butcher would be a viable fit in SLO?
Reports from the Chamber of Commerce—our bank said our business plan was the best business plan they’ve ever seen because we were so thorough! Having owned a business for 20 years, if I’m going to do another one, I know what to do, what not to do, and I wanted to make sure it was the perfect, so we really studied. Rich flew out to Arizona, spent 10 days with us while we were selling our home, and we would put our business plan up on the AppleTV and just knock it out, it was pretty intense.
Clearly having all ducks in a row paid off. At any point were you scared? You sold your business and home, and how you were coming to California! Were you a bundle of nerves or a bundle of excitement?
The bounty of the California culinary scene can be intimidating to any chef on the outside coming in. Of course I was nervous coming to California—I never thought I would be able to be in the same realm as them. Me being so head-down-chop-chop in my own business, I pay attention to what’s going on—but I never thought I was good enough, to be honest. I just have my own little style, I don’t do what everyone else is doing. I have received genuine welcome by local chefs, in that alone I am truly grateful. And we’ve been very well-received from local residents and businesses. People are thanking us for being here, and they are loving it.
Of course people love it! Vegetable Butcher is farm-fresh, ever-evolving, unique and unexpected. I mean, c’mon—sweet potato and corn tacos topped with pomegranates, flower petals, avocado, and cashew crema! Where else can one find a tasty taco like that topped off with Becky’s homemade carrot habanero sauce. She makes a 22-quart batch every 5 days using organic carrots and a variety of chillies: red fresno, habanero, serrano, jalapeño, and red chili. It’s complex, tangy, spicy, and you should definitely buy a bottle for $7.50! Everyone does Taco Tuesday—so Becky put her twist on this weekday special with Tamale Tuesdays featuring her non-GMO organic blue corn tamales. These tamales are only available on Tuesdays starting at 4pm, made in limited batches, and they always sell out—consider yourself warned. In the Spring she plans on rolling out a larger variety of enchiladas, new vegan desserts, and vegetable + beans + grains bowls. With so many healthy, delicious, craveable items on the menu, it’s easy to get decision-making disorder when ordering. But fear not—Chef Becky to the rescue with her genius ordering hack, “A lot of restaurants traditionally have a protein plate option, like a ribeye and mashed potatoes and vegetables, instead of having a set 3-layer combo, we are just going to do a ribeye with red chimichurri, or halibut with a tomato fresca, keep it simple, and then you have the option to order other fun items of your choosing like shishitto fritto, or korean cauliflower.” Yes! Think of it as your own mix-and-match adventure for your curious palette. As for refreshments, try Becky’s fresh squeezed juice margarita mix she sweetens with palm sugar and Sabé (24% fortified agave wine), and come summertime, wash it down with a refreshing aguas frescas: cucumber + watermelon, pineapple + coconut, strawberry + basil, and cantaloupe… is it just me, or are you getting hungry, too?
Visit Vegetable Butcher at 712 Marsh Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. Open Monday–Saturday 11–9:30 with Happy Hour 3–6:30 (featuring mini plates of appetizers and $5 tacos) and Brunch on Sundays 11–3:30. Learn more at vegetablebutcher.com.