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Just because farm-to-table has become an overused buzzword doesn’t mean our work in that arena is done. Far from, says Dan Barber, whose visionary 14-year-old West Village restaurant Blue Hill (75 Washington Place, 212-539-1776) propelled him to a leadership role within the locavore movement. Barber later opened Blue Hill Stone Barns, which exists on and is supplied by a Hudson Valley farm. For the lifespan of each of his restaurants, he’s been exploring the relationship between land and cuisine, a quest that’s had some profound effects on his menus and outlook.
Now, he’s sharing that journey publicly.
Barber just released The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, a book he says started as an exploration of how unique individual ingredients are grown, and morphed into a blueprint for a new American cuisine. He goes beyond our current farm-to-table paradigm, under which we still cherry pick produce and other ingredients for our restaurants and plates, to champion a diet that considers the health of the land and a system of farming that will preserve our ecosystem for generations to come. In that system, he explains, we’ll eat cover crops and bycatch, applying a nose-to-tail mentality to the farm like we do to the animal. That will give farmers a market for ingredients that are currently viewed mostly as sunk cost throwaways, and it’ll encourage more growers to manage sustainable fields and fisheries. Importantly, nurturing the entire ecosystem means our food will be more delicious, which, Barber points out, is what chefs are constantly pursuing.
The chef visits farms where he sees those systems in play. He introduces readers to a farmer who teaches him how to correct problems like weeds and pests by correcting the soil via crops, a Spanish fish farm that nurtures an entire aquatic ecosystem, a farmer in Spain’s dehesa famous for his natural (non-force fed) foie gras, and a wheat breeder in Washington who’s using technology to create grain for flavor rather than yield, opening up a pathway toward a tasty future.
As important to Barber is how chefs weave into this system, and so the book is also rich with stories about restaurants that deal in this sphere, planning their menus by thinking about their environments. He emerges with new ways to do that at his own restaurants, though he says he still has a long way to go. Chefs are ultimately responsible for creating this cuisine, he concludes, because they bring everything together — and their work feeds cultural touchstones that pervade our homes.
It’s a provocative read, and it’s optimistic in answering one of the biggest questions of our time: How will we continue to feed people when we’ve set up a system that’s unsustainable? The answer is cuisine, proposes Barber, and we need to fix ours if we’re going to thrive. Luckily, there is a way to do that — and eat better food at the same time.
What was the vision behind this book? How did that evolve?
In the beginning, I was excited about an ingredient, and I wanted to write a book about how it was raised. I started to realize that by asking those questions, I was asking the wrong questions. I was looking at these things so myopically — I was not seeing the forest through the trees. I was not seeing the connections between how other things are grown and raised — the whole farm and the ecology work together to create really delicious food — when I put together a menu. I needed to write a menu that supported the landscape, not individual products. Individual products are the bonus. Soil-supporting crops — less coveted grains, leguminous crops, beans, and rotation crops — bring fertility back to the soil. The foods that we love are the foods that have the highest needs for fertility. Tomatoes are like the Hummers of the fruit and vegetable world, and they suck out a lot of nutrients. Same with wheat and corn. We need to eat [those soil-restoring crops] and celebrate them, and celebrate them in the right proportion. At both restaurants, we’re orchestrating a menu to put it all together — that starts to be a cuisine.
I had to go far away to see that. The lesson of the travels is all these farmers working in concert with nature. Agriculture can be a very elegant disruption of a natural system, but it’s definitely disruptive. It’s an intrusive system. Can you intrude in a beneficial way in the end? That’s sustainability. That’s the definition I came away with, anyway — sustainability is intruding elegantly and eating a diet that supports a symbiotic relationship between diets and the landscape, and that makes a lot of sense to me. I saw intrusions in natural systems that were likely impactful and, in many cases, beneficial. And the best food comes when you’re not imposing will on the land. It’s a negotiation.
What issue here is most pressing for us to address as a society? How do we even begin?
We’re at a moment that I would argue is pretty serious. How are we going to produce enough of the right kind of food for a healthy population? We have some big choices on the horizon. Our current system is unsustainable. If the ecological resources that produce our food are becoming less abundant, more fraught, and more expensive, we need a different agriculture system that’s more resilient and less dependent on the ecological resources that we take for granted, like water and weather patterns. We’re headed into a different time. I don’t know if it’s going to happen our lifetime or after that, but it’s a tight time. So we need to think about this now to make a transition. I’m not cynical, by the way — we’re looking at a delicious future. We’re not giving up anything by having other cuts of meat or other grains than beans corn and rice. This is a hedonistic movement. What could be better than that?
So what happens next?
We need to change the paradigm for protein-centric food — and I don’t mean just serving a plate of vegetables. Grains have to be a big part of this. Sixty-five percent of agricultural land in this country is in grains. Vegetable is only 5.5 percent. So when we herald vegetables as the change, it’s kind of nuts. Change grains and you change everything. And meat needs to be a part of this, especially in our ecology. The land in the Hudson Valley is suited for grazing. That’s why you have so many dairy cows.
My goal is to create a menu and a pattern of dishes throughout the course of a season and a year that celebrate the whole ecology of the Hudson Valley and puts it together — and then if we’re really shooting for the stars, those dishes become kind of iconic and repeatable and people repeat them at home. You begin infusing dishes into your every day life. It’s a guidebook for eating — it’s a diet. What’s your land telling you to grow? That’s sustainable. That will be around for our grandkids or great grandkids. That means we need to understand the local landscape.
What’s the role of the chef in pushing this change?
As chefs, we’re motivated for flavor. We play a pretty critical role in currying flavors, and that carries weight for the future. We’re bringing all of these disparate parts together. I use the analogy of the conductor in a book. So that’s what we’re shouldering here — we’re putting together a whole pattern of eating and shouldering the landscape. And a lot of chefs are doing it. Look at Sean Brock — he’s repatriating a cuisine. But there’s not a lot of cooking that puts it all together. So we need to do that and then make it support itself into perpetuity. That’s the lesson of the book.
Let’s talk a little about cuisine: It seems to me that you sort of pick up where Michael Pollan left off — America is a hodgepodge of culture, so we don’t really have long traditions to fall back on, which creates problems with our diet. What are the implications of that?
It was a hodgepodge of culture that came to a land that was completely abundant — we were able to supply the whims and fancies of all these different cultures because we had the fertility to do it. That made a big difference. In Europe, you get cuisines that grew because they were constrained by land. French food is essentially peasant food. Here in America, we were never forced into negotiations that peasant farmers were. So the hodgepodge ended up in garden of Eden. The ability and opportunity to not be constrained unleashed a cornucopia that we’re still experiencing today. We may be exhausting it, but we’re still riding a wave.
That makes it impossible for any type of cuisine to have emerged — why would you be forced into it? Why would you scrape by with a beef shank when you can instead have this umami-filled steak? Eating high on the hog is an evolutionarily engrained thing. We gotta change that, and chefs are the way to change.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in grain? Why did you focus on that for American cuisine?
Part of that was because of the amount of land grain-growing occupies. The other would be this pursuit of whole grain — really great flavor comes from whole grain. White flour has no flavor, and the idea that wheat has flavor is radical to some people — it has nuances and a flavor profile depending on variety. If we are fascinated by and interested in that, we learn to utilize the whole grain.
We can’t talk about this without talking about milling — you need milling to utilize that little germ in the seed, to get the oils, flavors, and flavonoids, and you have to mill it yourself to keep flavors and nutrition. Bran has bitter notes and complexity. But wheat is never bred for the bran — it’s always bred for the white stuff. Bread Lab [an organization that features prominently in the chapter on wheat] is exciting because it’s a breeder that breeds for the bran. It’s totally futuristic.
We eat more wheat than fish and vegetables combined. It’s uniquely western. Whatever your feeling is about wheat, we are a wheat people, and I don’t think that’s going anywhere. And we got wheat wrong, and you could say our diets are crashing because of it.
Your last chapter makes a strong case for the seed breeder — who breeds plants for desirable traits — in pushing our agricultural system forward. Talk to me a little about that role.
These are men and women who are super smart, but they have to be told what to select for, and they’ve been told to select for yield, and to breed seeds that are one-size-fits-all so that the same seed will grow the same whether you’re in Canada or Mexico. That’s a bizarre way to breed. That means you need to dumb down the carrot, to dial down its traits. Because if you dial up, you’re looking at distinction, and that can’t grow in vastly different ecologies.
I’m pro-science. I don’t like the idea that the idea of getting to this kind of cooking is going back to Shakerville. Good science is pursuit of good flavor and nutrition, and farming. Breeders can bring that together — but they need to be told what to select for. I want to select for a super delicious squash that’s local, thrives in the Hudson Valley, and has natural pest resistance. And resistance for the Hudson Valley is different from Florida.
The breeders write the recipe, and if they start out with a recipe that’s strong and sanctioned, they have a head start. Heirlooms aren’t that. Heirlooms were passed down from particular places; they were constantly being selected. They only became heirlooms when we stopped doing that — we stopped progressing. Chefs want to celebrate that, but the breeders who did this would be laughing at us. They’d say, “Why’d you stop?”
This feeds into the land grant university system, which you suggest is a smart way to make widespread impact on food. Talk to me about that system.
The problem, really, is how large America is — it’s so fucking big, it’s crazy. All of France fits in one state. This is such a huge country with such vast differences in ecologies and soil types — the idea that we would propose a seed to grow the same way in different ecologies is nuts. That’s why President Lincoln pushed the land grant university system — he realized we weren’t going to be able to farm without localized expertise. So he pushed through legislation that sanctions a land grant college for every state. That’s amazing. It’s maybe the most important law ever passed in the country. It certainly built the breadbasket to the world.
The land grant system has always been the name of agriculture, but it’s been turned it on its head in the last few years — agribusiness is giving money to colleges and telling them yield is paramount. But for the future of the food system, the land grant system is the perfect prescription. You need a bunch of experts, science, and outreach to promote and understand and teach and aggregate information about local conditions. To change and update seeds. To figure out how different farming entities come together. That will help enable a different infrastructure. In 1860 they had the answer. And it fucking worked. The whole world is envious of this system, and for good reason.
You’ve sort of carried the farm-to-table mantle. Where do we stand in that farm-to-table movement now?
The movement has been just amazing. The last ten years have been a game changer, and they’ve gotten the conversation going. The point is to further that conversation. Where do we push that? What does that reveal? I’m hoping that a lot of these conversations reveal what revealed itself in the book. If this movement is going to grow, we need to apply nose-to-tail eating of the farm.
Anything in this book that you wish was getting more attention?
I’m surprised that so much of the focus has been on agriculture when a big portion of the book is about cooking, chefs, and restaurants. These are places of connection to nature, and that is a big deal. We have this idea that restaurants can be escape, but they really connect us to the natural world in a wonderful way. How many chances do people living in urban communities have to engage with their landscape? A good meal does that. That’s worth exploring in more depth, and that’s my goal for the future.
I pointed people out that I think are doing that, but it has not resonated as much as the agricultural stuff has. To make the inroads in the system and make wholesale changes and affect the political and economic system, we need the chefs. They change the paradigm — they bring it together, they cook with these things. They’re the culture-makers.
The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber, 486 pages, The Penguin Press. $29.95.