New American: Dan Barber Explores a Brave New Cuisine
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.