Advocating for sustainable farming practices, Chef Dan Barber is in the incessant and passionate search for the origin of Taste while defining the future of Gastronomy
Photo by Richard_Boll
”Chefs are all evangelists for flavor. Deliciousness can change the world."
Multi-award-winning Chef, co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, Dan Barber was respectively rewarded 1 and 2 Michelin stars in 2020. Author of ‘The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food’ which aims to change the way we eat and cook, he has also become a breeder by co-founding Row 7 Seed Co., a unique seed company selling flavor-forward organic seeds. More than ‘just a Michelin starred Chef’, Dan is also an agronomist, an environmentalist, an activist, and a powerful agent of change, making him one of the most influential people in the world. He promotes the best farming practices for a more sustainable agricultural system and tastier food, by taking the farm to table movement to the next level. Strong believer in TASTE, Dan Barber proposes his own new definition of sustainability and delicious eating.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Dan last week. I'm so grateful that my path has crossed his and I was able to discuss his philosophy, beliefs, and passion. Exploring the origin of Taste of a slice of bread and the flavor of a carrot with him was a unique and memorable experience.
Welcome Dan to Chefs for Impact!
By Dan Barber as told to Chefs for Impact
You are constantly looking for implementing positive change through gastronomy. Where does that curiosity come from?
“My sense of the opportunity that a restaurant provides is education, as much as it is deliciousness and enjoyment. Part of the experience of good food is the connection through which the food came from, meaning who grows it and how it is grown. So, a lot of my curiosity is driven by self-interest in making me a better chef. That knowledge to be able to communicate that to our public is what makes the food better.
Let’s taste a slice of bread that’s 100% whole wheat and freshly mill, an experience bound to be dramatic. Now I’m going to tell you that we had five rotations of barley, rye, and leguminous crops before and that soil was locked and loaded with the kind of fertility that is needed to give you the strength of the wheat plant you are tasting. This wheat is not an ancient variety but actually a new one that honors the plant and tastes better. All of the sudden you have a story about your slice of bread. It protects ecological, soil, and historical considerations. It also brings social justice because we are talking about wheat to be a much more democratic experience to people. At the end of the day, you still get this flavor and it’s much less expensive because the economy of growing this wheat is much better. This slice of bread, deeper and richer in flavor, takes on so much more meaning.
That’s why I’ve always pursued it in a true self-interested way. I didn’t commit this to create action or save the world but just to make my slice of bread taste better.”
Does this crisis create the opportunity to educate the consumers?
“We started a program called ResourcED (“ED” stands for education) where we have been making these to-go boxes. We are looking at providing emergency resources to people in need, not just hospital workers and people who are food insecure, but also farmers who are relying on us in a very important way. This is a different world and the emergency efforts are critical but so are the efforts to educate about food production and how we have to rethink food in the post-covid world. These to-go food boxes are very expensive to put together so the long-term economics are very complicated. We’re definitely not doing it to make money right now. Instead, we are trying to protect our farmers and preserve our employees.”
Through your book you’ve stated way before this crisis, that America’s cuisine requires a radical transformation. Do you think people are realizing it now?
“They are realizing but they are also probably returning to processed food and preparing food in ways that are very alarming. If we have talked a month ago, people were seeing the end of big agribusiness as they were turning their backs on processed foods. At that time, you wouldn’t have questioned that the future of food was more regional, less processed, and more delicious. There were a lot of things moving forward like the farm-to-table movement. More importantly, big agribusiness was struggling to figure out how to maneuver in a world of millennials. But today people are buying brands of processed and frozen foods that they have never brought before. To me that is a very upsetting moment because we have been making such progress. Things have really changed so fast, at least in this moment, and I just hope it doesn’t stick. Small independent farms are very vulnerable right now.
I’m sincerely hoping that this crisis also increases the awareness and connections between food and health. I’m not saying that eating healthy prevents you from getting sick, but the numbers speak for themselves when it gets to underlying conditions. Most of them are diet related which means it’s preventable. And one big place to start is a slice of bread! Whole wheat is such a huge part of our diet and freshly-milled whole wheat is essential to our health. This is what we’ve largely turned away from. To return to a sense of wheat in its wholeness will become increasingly important and the consciousness around it will be strong. That’s what I’m trying to do with the ResourcED program.”
What is your definition of sustainability?
“My definition of sustainability is a truly delicious food. I’m talking about the flavors, whether it’s vegetables, grains, meat, or fish. These flavors are impossible to reproduce unless the ecological conditions are right.
A carrot that is memorable is a carrot that has been grown in the right soil, had the right seed and good nutrients. It also relies on the farmer that plants and harvests the carrot at the right moment. That farmer has to be local and small because he needs to be overseeing the field of carrots very intimately. That carrot needs to be harvested and gotten to the consumer pretty quickly because otherwise the flavors will degrade. That’s where flavor becomes the true teller. It has to be through an educated palate to identify what real flavor is. You can tell the truth from nutrition,soil health, ecological health, and the farmer who’s growing our food. So, you see it’s not a small thing to have a delicious carrot!”
If there would be one thing that you’d like to tell all the Chefs around the world, what would it be?
“My message would be, we are all environmentalists. Whether we know it or not, we all are activists because we are all pursuing the flavor. We are all evangelists for flavor. And flavor is under seeds right now; that is why Chefs are critical. Anyone who cares about good food – because that is what a Chef is - anybody who takes time and invests in food, culinary understanding, and gastronomy, has a power. It doesn’t matter if you are preparing street food or have three Michelin stars. What makes us unique and what makes us united is that we pursue a flavor. That is enormously powerful. Deliciousness can change the world.
You vote for the kind of world you want to live in three times a day. How often do you get to vote for your politicians? Chefs can help curate and lead a better understanding and education around where food comes from, how it was grown, who’s growing it. Chefs have become educators as well. As Michel Bras used to say: ‘Le cuisinier est un marchand de bonheur’ (the cook is a happiness dealer).”
What's your favorite seasonal product right now (May)?
“I love Fiddlehead ferns. What makes the restaurant so exciting is the tension and the energy around it. How do you get the food to the table hot and before it overcooks or before it gets cold? To me, fiddlehead ferns capture that moment when it wants to bloom into a flower but it is just caught just before it’s about to explode. We call that the edge effect in agriculture. It’s this little bicycle lane of actions. I love that area where there is so much diversity that it explodes. That edge effect is captured in the fiddlehead fern.”
Learn more: https://www.bluehillfarm.com/dine/stone-barns