An Interview with Dan Barber
Sep. 21, 2015
Dan Barberis the Chef of Blue Hill, a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located within the non-profit farm and education center, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. He is the author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.
In the early pages of your book you state that delicious food and good farming are inseparable. Yet, a few pages later you question the sustainability of farm-to-table, a movement that has inspired many to make more conscientious choices about how their food is grown and raised – and a movement that you yourself are identified with.
As the owner of a “farm-to-table” restaurant – actually a restaurant in the middle of a farm – I’ve gone on and on about local fruits and vegetables. Like most chefs, I have preached and practiced picking out the perfect heirloom tomato, or the most flavorful grass-fed steak. I’ve been a longtime advocate of the farm-to-table philosophy, but over the last decade I’ve come to see it as flawed – at least in the way we are encouraged to uphold it. Because farm to table allows us to cherry-pick these kinds of singular ingredients – what we most covet for dinner – without supporting the systems that produced them.
In my research for The Third Plate I visited some of the most sustainable farms in the world, including a system of agriculture that has survived for over 2,000 years, and what unites them is not just the attitude of the farmers, but also the culture of the cooking. The most sustainable systems occur in places where agriculture and cuisine coevolve. What we refer to as the food chain – a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other – isn’t really a chain at all. And that’s where farm-to-table gets it wrong. It puts us in the position of end users. It’s a passive system – a grocery aisle mentality – when really, as cooks, and as eaters, and especially as chefs, we need to start to engage in this process, not the least of which is our ability to help curate truly great flavor from the ground up.
How do the choices that I make as a cook affect soil health? Or animal husbandry? Can I help build a cuisine that not only reflects but supports the best ecological practices around me? In the course of writing this book, I came to view that as my role as a chef. So I don’t disavow the core ideas behind farm-to-table, but I’ve learned that to realize those ideas we have to dig even deeper.
You are a chef, and yet The Third Plate explores different systems of agriculture in surprising detail – all the way down to the biology of the soil. How did you come to write this kind of book?
I didn’t approach this process with the ethics of an environmentalist or the objectivity of an investigative journalist. I approached it with the selfishness of a chef in pursuit of the best possible flavor. That was the starting point for many of the stories in The Third Plate: seeking out some of the most delicious ingredients in the world with the hope of understanding their secrets and bringing them back to my kitchen.
What I discovered in that search is that you can’t look at a great ingredient without understanding the ecology that it comes from. The most delicious foie gras? It turns out that it was not so much the workings of a great chef but of a great farmer taking advantage of natural goose instincts and a 2,000-year-old system of agriculture. The most flavorful wheat? It is the marriage of fresh milling, modern plant breeding, and a complex series of crop rotations designed to improve the soil. The irony is that the real recipe for flavor begins long before the kitchen.
Tell us about the title. What is The Third Plate?
In the book, I use three metaphorical plates of food to describe the evolution of American dining.
The first plate is encapsulated by the classic American steak dinner: a large piece of prime-cut (and corn-fed) meat paired with a few supplementary vegetables. In many ways that’s been the American expectation of dinner for much of the past half-century. And, thankfully, it’s largely passé.
The second plate represents where we are now, infused with all the ideals of the farm-to-table movement. Now, more and more, the meat is grass-fed and the vegetables are local and organic. Inasmuch as it reflects all of the progress American food has experienced in the past decade, the striking thing about the second plate is that it looks nearly identical to the first. The provenance of ingredients may have improved, but the fundamental architecture of our diets has remained the same. The focus is still on choice cuts of meat and darling vegetables rather than food that supports the long-term productivity of the land.
That brings us to the Third Plate, which I believe represents the future of food. I first imagined the Third Plate as a traditional steak dinner, only this time with the proportions reversed. In place of a hulking piece of protein, a carrot “steak” dominated the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of meat.
But really this is less a plate of food than a new pattern of eating rooted in cooking with and celebrating the whole farm – an integrated system of vegetables, grains, legumes, and livestock.
What I realized in my research for the book is that this is in fact how the great cuisines of the world were conceived. We forget that the culture of the 12-ounce steak – which America created, and supported, and now exports – is an anomaly. In most cultures, people did not choose their dietary preferences according to fashion or preferences, as we do today. Instead, they developed a pattern of eating that adhered to what the landscape provided.
This usually meant that grains or vegetables assumed center stage, with a smattering of meat, most often lesser cuts such as neck or shank. Classic dishes emerged – pot-au-feu in French cuisine, polenta in Italian, paella in Spanish – to take advantage of (read: make delicious) what the land could readily supply. That ecological approach to cooking is at the heart of the Third Plate. It’s a nose-to-tail approach to the whole farm.
What do you think the role of the chef is in influencing everyday food culture?
The remarkable thing about today’s food culture is that, in many ways, it’s a top-down system. Chefs are known for our ability to create fashions and shape markets. What appears on a menu in a white tablecloth restaurant one day trickles down to the bistro the next, and eventually influences everyday food culture. Which means we have the power to affect people’s eating habits.
So the question is, can fancy restaurants help us to see nature in a more enlightened way? With its rituals, multiple course tasting menus, and the fussed-over food, this kind of cooking is easy to ridicule. The indulgences don’t bring ecological consciousness to mind.
But I argue that chefs, particularly high-end chefs, are uniquely equipped for this challenge. Working in haute cuisine gives chefs the power – and the luxury – to innovate, to be thoughtful about our ingredients and our cooking.
Our job is to pursue the best possible flavor. We’re not environmentalists. We’re not doctors or nutritionists or community activists. Chefs are none of these things, but we’re also all of them too, whether we get up on the soapbox or we stand silently behind a stove. Because truly great tasting food has, by definition, the right environment behind it. A delicious tomato does not originate from degraded soil. How could it?
With the food system failing, restaurants are poised to become laboratories to explore and raise awareness about these kinds of connections – the relationship between a plate of food and the landscape that produced it.
Which isn’t to say that the Third Plate exists solely within the world of haute cuisine. But it is to say that chefs have an opportunity – and perhaps the responsibility – to use their cooking to shape culture, to manifest what’s possible, and, in doing so, to inspire a new ethic of eating. In a time when most people don’t have a close relationship with the land (as they did when peasant dishes like pot-au-feu or paella were first conceived), chefs are now a vital conduit.
What about the at-home cook? What steps can he/she take?
As cooks, and as eaters, we need to redefine what we covet for dinner. We need to stop privileging only a few ingredients – a perfect tomato, or a pork chop – and encourage more diversity on our plates.
We can start by looking at the great food cultures of the world. The traditional cuisines of Asia and North Africa, not to mention France and Italy, are based on rice, wheat, legumes, vegetables, spices and smatterings of all cuts of meat. In just about every other cuisine, protein plays second fiddle to grains and vegetables. When meat appears, it does so modestly; it takes up less space on the plate, and more often than not it’s a piece of the animal – tripe or oxtail – that Americans so willingly discard.
This kind of cooking is going to require more time and technique in the kitchen. (After all, tripe requires more skill to cook than a pork chop.) It’s also going to require a better understanding of good farming. In the past decade, we have become more aware about the provenance of our ingredients – where and how they were grown – but we still haven’t come to a full understanding of what that means. For most of us, the inquiry begins and ends with local or organic. But the reality of good farming is a lot more complex. And we can’t rely on labels to define it.
We should all be asking, not just where an ingredient comes from, or whether or not chemicals were used in its production, but rather, what varieties are being grown on the farm? What breeds of animals? What kind of diversity is there to support the soil? Those kinds of questions usually lead to a much better understanding of a system’s sustainability, and of how the food will taste.
In The Third Plate, you travel the world investigating farming, breeding, and fishing practices that are at once traditional and cutting edge. Tell us about one of your favorite experiences.
One experience that sticks out is going to meet Steve Jones, a wheat breeder in Washington State. That visit was a late-inning revelation, and it changed my way of thinking completely. Implicit in the farm-to-tablemovement is this conviction that the way forward is to look back. Chefs are especially guilty of this. We may have brought innovation and modernity into the kitchen, but where ingredients are concerned, we’ve prioritized the heirloom and the heritage breed. In doing so, we’ve overlooked plant breeders, the people writing the original recipes, and by virtue of that neglect we have helped prevent the development of new and delicious varieties suited to our regions.
Unfortunately, most plant breeders today are instructed to breed for yield and uniformity, and that sets the foundation for the entire food system, from field to distributor to marketplace. Steve offers an alternative vision, a blueprint for very different system. Yes, he is breeding for yield (he showed me one variety of wheat that yielded five tons per acre; in Kansas the average yield is 1.5 tons per acre), but he is also breeding for flavor, nutrition, and locality. His seeds aren’t meant for monocultures, because he understands that the conditions the plant is grown in are just as important as its genetics. If the soil isn’t healthy and well managed, even the best genetics won’t be expressed.
That means working with farmers – and it also means working with chefs, bakers, and millers, whose demands influence what the farmer grows. Only by coordinating all of these parts can we establish a viable alternative to the conventional food system.
Tell us about the heroes of your book.
I was lucky to be able to meet and write about some incredible people. All of them do brilliant and heroic work, and were heroic in explaining their brilliant work to a chef whose education in biology began and ended in the ninth grade. But the most memorable “heroes” of the book for me are probably not the ones you would expect. In many ways, soil is the book’s ultimate protagonist; it unites all of the stories. And yet, when I began writing the book, I had only a vague understanding of its significance. As ecologist David Wolfe says, human beings are “subterranean-impaired.” We’re unable to see what’s underneath us.
Not so long ago scientists were referring to soil as simply “a material to hold a plant in place.” Now we know that soil is a living community. One teaspoon of good soil contains over a billion living organisms. And their health determines the health of the whole food chain. I still don’t understand this relationship completely – in fact, no one does. The most brilliant farmers I’ve met share a kind of reverence for the soil, precisely because its workings are so mysterious. (If you’re mystified by how the soil works, you’re close to understanding what’s going on.) But they all agree that soil is where the recipe for flavor, health, and ecology really begins.
Soil is the first hero you meet in this book because it provides the foundation for everything that follows. Its lessons resonate even on an aquaculture farm in southern Spain. That aquaculture farm, Veta la Palma, is where I met another hero: a humble fish by the name of grey mullet. It was a fish I ignored on my first visit to the farm – which was a predictable oversight. We tend to cook with top-of-the-food-chain fish like swordfish, salmon, halibut, and cod. The mullet operates at the opposite end of the chain. It’s an herbivorous fish, a bottom feeder. In fact, Veta la Palma doesn’t even feed the mullet they raise. Instead, the fish feed off the natural algae in the farm’s ponds, and, in the process, they remove excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous which might otherwise contaminate the system. They are basically a water purification plant in fish form.
It took a biologist, Miguel Medialdea, to show me that the grey mullet could be so ecologically important. And it took a chef named Ángel León to show me they could be delicious, too. (As he told me, “The mullet is the most misunderstood fish in the history of fish.”) The average grey mullet’s diet translates into a flavor that’s notoriously oily and off-tasting, like the muddy water they often inhabit. But Veta la Palma’s system is so healthy, the mullet’s flavor is sweet and rich – like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
Your book is deeply researched and beautifully written. How did you find time (and quiet) to write?
My office sits in the corner of the kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The drafting chair at my desk faces out so I can observe the cooks, and to my right there is a window that looks out over the Stone Barns courtyard, the farm’s fields and pastures just beyond. It’s an incredible set-up and, between the noise and hustle of the kitchen and the distractingly beautiful surroundings, about the least conducive place for writing that I can imagine.
My grandmother used to tell me the story of going to visit the home of W. Somerset Maugham on the French Riviera. It was an incredible villa, with gardens, and terraces, and an unrivaled view of the Mediterranean. Maugham took my grandmother up to see his writing room, which was located on the top floor – perfectly situated for panoramic views. But when she entered the room she discovered that he had boarded up all of the windows. Apparently he found the view of the Mediterranean too distracting.
I thought of that story a lot when I was writing the book, and I think it was what inspired me to start working in the basement – really the boiler room – of the restaurant. I carved out a space to write alongside humming generators and clanking pipes. (That’s the Stone Barns equivalent of a boarded up seaside villa.)
Carving out the time to write was a different story. The realities of running a kitchen (and getting married, and having a child, and sleeping more than four hours a night) meant that writing was pushed to the margins of my life. That may be why this story took me ten years to write.
The fact that it took so long may have benefited the book in the end. Its message, and my cooking, evolved in that ten-year process.
This book investigates some of the most elite foods in the world. How can looking at these kinds of ingredients be instructive when it comes to transforming our food system?
Ethical foie gras, jamón ibérico – these are some of the most rarified and expensive foods on the planet, paragons of haute cuisine. But their real value comes in looking at the systems that produced them. These systems are models of what can be. They are laboratories – historical and modern – with something important teach us. (And, in each case, the lessons are surprisingly humble.)
There is a right way to learn from these examples and a wrong way. Take the dehesa, a 2,000-year-old system of Spanish agriculture that integrates forest, grassland, crops and livestock – and, in the process, produces the best ham in the world (not to mention high-grade olives, acorns, cork, dairy and beef). My hope is not that we look at the dehesa and attempt to replicate that in the U.S. It is designed to suit a very different ecology. Instead, we need to study the principles that make the dehesa successful – a sense of ethics surrounding the health of the land, a style of farming that is deeply intertwined with and supported by the culture and cuisine of the place – and ask how can we apply those here.
For examples that are more directly applicable (and readily adaptable) to our food system, we can look at two of The Third Plate’s central characters, Steve Jones and Klaas Martens. Steve, as I discussed earlier, is a wheat breeder for one of our land grant universities. Klaas is a mid-size organic wheat farmer who diversified his farm with other grains, legumes, vegetables and animals in order to revive the health of the soil. Both of these examples offer very realistic visions for feeding our growing population.
You end the book with what a truly sustainable meal might look like in the future – a menu for 2050. Are you optimistic about the future of food?
By nature, I am not an optimist. My wife accuses me of always “looking for the hole in the doughnut.” But I am hopeful, even confident, that our food system is going to change for the better.
The Third Plate is not an exercise in idealism – first, because it is rooted in agricultural realities. As our ecological resources such as fresh water and fossil fuels disappear, we will have to change how we grow and consume food. That means more diversity and fewer chemical amendments on our farms. It also means a way of eating that is more in tune with what our locality can provide.
And, second (and this may be where my inner optimist comes out), because it always takes the shape of delicious food. Tasting truly flavorful food is a pleasure that people come back to. It can be a guide in reimagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.backcomments powered by Disqus