Farm-to-Table Pioneer Chef Turns Skeptic
How did a chef who opened a restaurant on a Hudson Valley farm come to write a book questioning the very thesis of the farm-to-table movement? It started with a magazine’s prompt to illustrate the future of food on a plate.
Dan Barber, 44, the co-owner and forward-thinking executive chef behind Blue Hill in Manhattan and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, answered the question by sketching three philosophical plates instead of one, as he explains in his book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin Press, 2014).
The first two plates reflected the evolution of a steak-and-carrots meal, from its corn-fed, seven-ounce standard served with steamed baby carrots to a more modern farm-to-table ideal that featured a similar portion of steak, now from grass-fed cattle, accompanied by organically grown heirloom carrots.
But the third plate pivoted to an idealized future: Carrots became the centerpiece, formed into their own steak, and “underutilized” cuts of beef were transformed into a sauce.
Barber recently explained that the dish is one example of the many he thinks should compose a new American cuisine, or several localized cuisines, based on ingredients that are part of a healthy soil-building system at the farm. He has taken on the challenge at his own restaurants, reinventing the menus to reach beyond featuring what he calls “cream crops” like asparagus, which remove nutrients from soil, and elevate rotational crops like buckwheat, which weave nutrients back into the soil.
I spoke with Barber about his new book and his ever-evolving theory on the future of food; edited excerpts follow.
Q. What was your original goal for this book, and how did it change over the decade during which you wrote it?
A. I set out just to write about good flavor. I didn’t set out to write about any of this stuff. Actually, it was going to be a collection of essays, based on one ingredient and the best agriculture practices for a recipe that begins in the field.
But I got into realizing the connections between all of these things. And I was asking the wrong question.
Q. What’s the right question, and how does The Third Plate answer it?
A. You can’t look at these things in single-ingredient paradigms. You need to look at the whole farm.
That’s how I got to cooking the third plate, cooking the whole farm, because how could you support just one thing?
The third plate is a way to say that farm-to-table has become too individualized. You’re supporting these individual farms and really individual crops, like tomatoes and peas and asparagus, which are great, and they make the farmer a lot of money because they’re specialty. But from a soil perspective, they’re very expensive. They’re like the Hummers of the vegetable world.
Besides the silliness of calling yourself a “farm-to-table chef” and supporting one ingredient from a farm, the shortsightedness of that is just not sustainable.
Q. If farm-to-table eating isn’t the full answer to fixing the food system, what is?
A. We need a culture around food that puts it all together. If you eat a cuisine, a pattern of eating, it doesn’t allow you to just eat tomatoes, asparagus, peas and grass-fed steaks. That’s why the farm-to-table movement is not going to go any further.
I see promise with farmers markets as long as we stop heralding these cream crops and start to engage in a conversation with farmers — and I think chefs are uniquely positioned to do this — to understand what I didn’t understand just a few years ago.
I’m not saying farm-to-table is the wrong idea. It’s great. But it has a fallacy attached to it, which is that it can change the world. I’m a little skeptical now.
Q. Your book talks a lot about how cuisines relate to soil health. Can you expound on that?
A. What I realized after five years of researching cuisines was that all of them — all of them — are built on nitrogen-fixing crops. If you’re in India, you’re looking at lentils; if you’re in France, looking at beans; in Italy, beans and different grains, like chickpeas. Mexico does beans.
They were all negotiations that peasants made to eke out something from the land, to get fertility back into the soil after the crop is harvested, because we eat fertility for energy. They were just trying to figure out, how do you extract a harvest and get fertility back in? And they built their cuisines to support that.
But we in America have borrowed mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and wheat as Italian cuisine. Because we’re such a rich country — from a soil fertility perspective, we were so rich — we could ride high on the hog, literally, because we had the fertility to do it.
Q. What is the role of chefs in this?
A. The role of chefs is huge. I’m not just saying that because I am one. I mean, how do you create a cuisine? I don’t know. I really don’t. That’s what I’m trying to do.
I just think there’s a wide-open opportunity for chefs to put this all together, to cook with the whole farm: not just local, but hyper-local.
Your everyday diet is based upon this certain kind of scaffolding. I think chefs can create that scaffolding, and do it deliciously.
Pipkin, a freelance journalist, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.