Good Flavors Need Good Farming

As executive chef and co-owner of two ingredient-centric Blue Hill restaurants in New York, Chef Dan Barber is a leading figure in the nation’s farm-to-table movement. In May, Barber’s reputation was boosted when he was voted to the Time 100 list of the World’s Most Influential PeopleTime 100 list of the World’s Most Influential People, and by his James Beard Award win for the nation’s top chef. Then of course, there was the highly publicized Presidential date night, where Barack and Michelle Obama dined at Barber’s New York City restaurant while all the world watched.

While Blue Hill in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village satisfies the urbanite’s appetite for Barber’s innovative cuisine, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 45 minutes north of the city, has become a destination for food lovers of all sizes and stripes. The restaurant shares 80 acres of Rockefeller family land with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a diversified organic farm and educational center. The center’s rich mix of programs and activities (cooking classes, tastings, farmer-in-training after-school activities) is complemented by the restaurant, which brings field to the plate by highlighting the pleasure of eating seasonal ingredients grown or raised just outside the door. Writer Pat Tanumihardja caught up with Barber at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Food Institute to chat.  

Did you have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a chef? How did the sustainability factor come into play?

I never had an “aha” moment. I wish I did. I’m still having a moment of figuring out what’s the best place for me. The sustainability question happened kinda naturally over the course of my life. I grew up working on my family’s farm where my grandmother was a proponent of open space and using farming to promote the natural beauty of the land. That’s sort of what I became inculcated with. It informs the chef I became.

You are often called a celebrity chef and receive a lot of attention for the work you do to connect the farm to the kitchen, especially at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. How are you dealing with all this fame?

I like celebrating food. I don’t know if I like celebrating myself [laughs]. People always talk about Stone Barns and me like I’m this leader leading everyone to a new frontier. I consider myself to be the recipient of a lot of attention based on an issue that has been forced to the forefront, not because of me, but because of visionary people: farmers, writers and serious academics. [These people] have taken fringe ideas and made them more mainstream. So I look at it like crashing a party. I’m lucky to have this canvas of Stone Barns to work on where what I say or do gets the light shining on it. It otherwise wouldn’t have happened with our other restaurant in midtown Manhattan.

Many great modern-day chefs utilize innovation and technology, in particular molecular gastronomy, in their cuisine. Do you use a lot of innovations in cooking?

I’m fascinated by the [molecular gastronomy] movement but I don’t tend to adopt it because that entails the vectors pointing at me and my creativity, and utilizing ingredients in ways that involve artistry and craft. This doesn’t excite me as much as creating those textures, flavors, etc., in the field and in the pasture. The manipulation of ingredients to make better food is exciting and I’m just more interested in the stuff that can be done before an ingredient gets to the kitchen than when it gets into my hands. Take, for example, our creativity at looking at the “recipe” of ingredients in the field. Just as you’re creating proportions in recipes, we’re looking at the proportions the farmers are using to grow, say, carrots. What amendments are they using? What’s the seed like? What’s the soil biology? What’s the sugar content when we pick it? That’s what’s enabling us to write the recipes before the ingredients get to us.

Unlike Blue Hill in the city, you don’t have a menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Guests are presented with a list of ingredients that were harvested from the farm that very day. What’s behind this concept?

We are challenged by trying to have everyone in the restaurant experience a part of the agriculture of the farm. That became very difficult in a traditional à la carte setting (i.e. appetizer and entrée). Say a lamb came through the door that was slaughtered on the farm and we put that on the menu–an à la carte lamb chop is a quarter of the animal! A person would order lamb and they would get into a fight, or they’d find it cooked too rare, or for whatever reason it was it would come back to the kitchen. I couldn’t bear it any longer. Getting rid of menu was actually both freeing and constricting. Clearly there’s nothing written and we’re doing what we want in a given moment. Literally, the menu’s changing constantly during service. It’s a very different way to cook.

It’s also constricting because we are really staying true to a few ingredients, that’s all we have to work with. These are the realities reflective of the agriculture. It’s not perfect but to that certain extent I think it’s a good “menu.”

Do you think that chefs like yourself have a responsibility or a role in pushing the farm-to-table movement forward?

The most important role that a chef can play is to remind people to put these kinds of ideas and interests in the context of delight and pleasure, and not restraint. What we’re talking about is really hedonism and fulfillment from food. Restaurants have always been places of escape. In this way, chefs can make restaurants a place of connection. It seems to me a very delicious way to enjoy a meal. Any chef worth their chefdom is looking for food with flavor and food filled with flavor by definition has good ecological decisions behind it. I have never come across a delicious carrot or a really tasty leg of lamb and not been able to see the connection between good flavors and good farming. They’re indispensably one and the same.

So are you saying that restaurants should start running farms too?

You don’t have to own a farm to do what we’re doing. I know it because we were doing it before we had our farm. It’s about being closely connected to the farms that are providing your food and knowing the farmer who is growing your food. In some parts of the country this means a small involvement depending on the season and for others it means an intense relationship year-round. If a chef is willing and able, and passionate about securing this relationship, the better the restaurant will be and the more responsive the customer will be to paying a fair price for the ingredients. This is a big issue — customers being loyal to supporting not just a delicious meal but good use of the landscape that surrounds the restaurant.

One of my grievances about the farm-to-table movement is that it tends to be very elitist by virtue of how much it costs to eat at such restaurant/events. Do you think that it is your responsibility as a chef to make this experience more accessible to everyone?

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I do feel I have a certain responsibility to provide good food at a reasonable price. I run a café with incredibly affordable breakfasts, lunches and late afternoon meals with high quality ingredients at rock-bottom prices. The idea of cost is relative. If you arrive at Stone Barns in the morning (it’s free except for the $5 parking fee which is refundable with any purchase from the farm or café), you can go to the café and have breakfast then take a free class or workshop. Next, you can walk around the farm and learn about what’s going on. Maybe you take a nap on the grass followed by a little bit of lunch then in the afternoon you take another class or a more formal tour or stop in the gift shop. Eventually, you’ll have an evening meal in the restaurant that will last several hours. It’ll be an expensive meal for sure but if you amortize the cost of the meal by the experience of the day in terms of the enrichment, money spent and value received, I think it’s a bargain! It’s cheaper than Disneyland and you get quite a bit more out of it. I’m not trying to argue that the food isn’t expensive; it is but it’s fairly priced for what we attempt to deliver.

I’m sure many people just come to eat at Blue Hill restaurant. But I think of Stone Barns as a destination for people who are seeking an ecological connection to the world around them, not just a place to enjoy a meal and then go home. Would you agree?

If you don’t take advantage of it as a destination, you’re missing a lot of the point of the whole project. I don’t think you can just pull up, eat a meal and get a sense of everything that we’re doing. It’s hard to do that any place you go but it’s especially hard here because it encompasses an idea of a community that’s very important to the ecology of eating. That’s an experience you have to invest some time to appreciate. My advice is to block out the entire day, plan in advance and experience the farm with the same kind of interest you’d experience the restaurant and vice versa, and hopefully you’ll engage yourself in the educational experience. I think that’s a key part of enjoying the food at Blue Hill. The food’s going to taste better if you appreciate the place.

When I travel, I always seek out dining experiences unique to the communities I visit. What do you think is the connection between food, sustainability and travel?

People are becoming more conscious about food and where it comes from and who’s growing it. And where there’s a consciousness of food and where it’s coming from, there’s a better chance the community will be involved in food production. When a community is involved in food production great things happen. In terms of travel, those are the kinds of places you want to go to. You want to go to a place where food, aesthetic, open space–whether it’s direct farmland or pasture land–and a sense of culture around food is there. Culturally rich places tend to have a community around food. The best travel experiences are usually related to food and community. They’re all connected. You can’t disassociate that.

Photos: Courtesy of Blue Hill

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