“The route to more delicious, appealing and sustainable food is to listen to what ecology is telling us it wants to grow and then figure out a way to make it more delicious and nutritious.” Listening to Dan Barber is a complete revelation. His enthusiasm is remarkably contagious. This is how food should be! – you want to cry out. And: why isn’t every chef in America doing exactly what Dan does? Let’s just say he is working on it, bit by bit.
Last year, Dan published The Third Plate—his personal field notes on the future of food—and traveled the country to raise awareness of what the American plate of food can, should, or will look like.
Ever since he opened his restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village in 2000, he has been a strong advocate of the farm-to-table philosophy, showcasing seasonality, locality, and a fantastic relationship with producers who respect artisanal techniques. When he opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, in 2004, Dan was able to source from the surrounding fields and pastures of the Hudson Valley and the local farms. In the years that followed, his cooking changed quite dramatically. Having spent some time in France at Michel Rostang’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, Dan is not only classically trained, but also benefits from stopovers with such forward-thinking chefs as Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California, and David Bouley of the eponymously named restaurant in New York.
Visiting Blue Hill farm and education center on a sunny but sharply cold winter’s day, I take the train from New York’s Grand Central Station, along the Hudson, to Tarrytown. From there a taxi takes me over rolling hills, frozen ponds and rivers, across fields and through woods to the farming complex. I’m being shown round and introduced to the geese, chickens and pigs, and of course the growers, currently busy in the glass houses. When asked what their favorite season of the year is, most chefs will say, anything but winter. But Dan tells me I’m lucky to experience the farm in the dead of winter: it’s when the young saplings are at their sweetest, most intensive flavors, when cooking techniques are at their most inventive, and when what you have on your plate is, arguably, at its most interesting.
Dan is an exceptional storyteller—his TED talks about “How I fell in love with a fish,” “A foie gras parable” (having been watched online by hundreds of thousands), and of course his latest book, are testament to that. And yet, he doesn’t talk much about himself. For Dan everything is revolving around meeting farmers, discussing original growing or breeding methods, and learning how to create great flavor.
Upon sitting down in the restaurant, diners won’t be given a menu card (Dan did away with that years ago). Instead you will be given a booklet with monthly information on the harvest from greenhouse, field, pasture, forest, farm, and cellar, and asked about your allergies and personal dislikes. It is a concept made for showcasing produce, a multitude of aromas and the inventiveness and imagination of the kitchen team.
What Dan serves me this evening is both a feast for the eyes and the palate. Each course makes me wonder in amazement at the simplicity or complexity of the technique (these two aren’t actually on the opposite end of the spectrum), laugh at the witty presentation and marvel at the many-faceted flavor of even the tiniest leaf.
I am served vegetables “on the fence,” compost-cooked rutabaga, a Brussels sprout “tree,” celery root “sushi” and beet “burgers,” food that we might know or have heard of, but probably never before prepared in this creative way. It seems far above and beyond what you see and taste in fine dining today. With Dan’s ingenuity and originality, a seemingly simple vegetable is transformed into an unheard-of taste explosion. And boy, does it make you happy! He has hit the spot with offering a dining experience that sweeps you off your feet by nature’s finest, while you’re sat in one of the most beautiful areas of Upstate New York.
But farm-to-table isn’t cutting it for Dan anymore. Simply put: America needs to change. He explains: “More than anything, an awareness and conversation is necessary that I feel has begun through chefs with farm-to-table cooking; that’s where it began. My thought in The Third Plate is that we need to expand and deepen it and that’s the challenge.” He continues: “The culture around food is changing. It’s becoming more democratic, localized and delicious, just in the last 20 years. The future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about cooking and eating that defies Americans’ ingrained expectations of dining.” He’s convinced that America is bound to get away from the expectation of a 6-8oz steak, that piece of protein on our plate as an expectation for lunch and dinner seven days a week. This, he says, is a lot to shoulder for the home cook, so he would put most of the responsibility into the hands of chefs. “I think chefs are curators for great flavor,” he says, “and if you want truly great flavor, the trick for the future of good food and good cooking is to respond to what the landscape is telling us.”
The problem he has discovered with farm-to-table is that it allows a kind of cherry-picking. The farmers grow what Americans expect and want, whatever ingredient it might be, however ecologically demanding or expensive it is to grow. However, these expectations are too narrow-minded and these monocultures don’t leave enough room for what’s sustainable for agriculture and ecosystems, according to Dan. Listening to him makes me realize with a loud bang how deeply flawed our modern food system has become.
When I ask him when he thinks these expectations are going to realistically change, he gets philosophical: “I used to think in terms of our lifetime, rather than the next years. And then I got to know the farmers better and the natural farming systems and I realized stuff doesn’t happen immediately. Now I have even more of a perspective, which is more of a biological perspective. Our lifetime is a blip and it’s hard for us to appreciate that.” He tells me about the great cultures and cuisines of the world, which were built on this negotiation with the land and great cooking and took thousands of years to develop. “So the idea that we can fix what I perceive to be a broken food system in our lifetime is a little bit preposterous, although we’re trying.”
For many chefs, an herb garden at the back of the restaurant is a gimmick for guests. For them, long-distance deliveries may be a necessary evil. Their vision of a plate of food dictates their purchases, dictates what the growers produce. Dan is different. He recognized a problem and he has the solution. And I for one cannot wait to see the future of food, both at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and the whole country.
“If you want truly great flavor, the trick for the future of good food and good cooking is to respond to what the landscape is telling us.”