Four or five mornings a week Dan Barber drives out from his home in Manhattan to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his celebrated restaurant in the Pocatino Hills, north of New York. On a good day the journey takes just under an hour. Barber, 47, is America’s pre-eminent philosopher chef. He has the reed-thin rigour of a stoic and the endlessly curious palate of a hedonist. He is on a cheerfully insane, one-man mission not only to serve some of the best-tasting food in America, but also to change the way America farms and eats for ever. It would be fair to say this mission is much more than a full-time job.
I’d said good night to Barber late the previous evening in the tiny galley kitchen of his Manhattan restaurant – also called Blue Hill – where he had laboured to create one of the most innovative and memorable meals I’d ever eaten and from which he was heading home to the apartment a couple of blocks away where he lives with his wife and two daughters, aged three and one. I’d caught up with him again at 7am at the Green Market at Union Square where he was eagle-eyeing what was new, chatting with old-friend farmers and buying carefully selected boxes of red, yellow and sour cherries and baby fava beans and bunches of the coveted salty Italian herb agretti. Some of that produce was now in the back of his car.
As the traffic starts to thin out of the city Barber is explaining to me how when he started out in life the plan was never to be a chef but to be a novelist. He was a graduate in English Literature from Tufts University in Massachusetts, and he got his first job in a kitchen – at the famous La Brea bakery in LA – to support that ambition. “For a year or two I would bake at night, work the breakfast line of the restaurant there, go home and sleep a couple of hours, and then wake up and try to write,” he recalls. His novel was never published, but the storytelling impulse never left him. It eventually found its expression a couple of years ago in his book The Third Plate, a compelling travelogue of his investigations into cuisine and agriculture, which doubles as a manifesto for the future of food.
That manifesto argues for a radical shift in what our standard plate of dinner should look like: away from a slab of protein (even if grass-fed) with a side of vegetables (even if organic) and toward a plate of great-tasting vegetables with perhaps a seasoning or a sauce of meat. “The balance has to change,” he says. “For all sorts of reasons we shouldn’t be serving a pork chop except on celebratory holidays and special events.”
Barber believes flavour has to start with an understanding of soil. His book is a compendium of experiments in how to improve the taste of food through planting and harvesting techniques – and only afterwards in the kitchen. Most great chefs have made some of those connections, few have taken that understanding to Barber’s logical conclusion: that a cook has a duty to not only know the farmers who provide his or her ingredients, but also to be actively involved from seed to table, by natural selecting for taste.
The Third Plate makes the argument that great cooking has always started with the stuff that there isn’t a market for. “Bouillabaisse, say,” Barber says, “was damaged fish from the dock that the wives knew the captains couldn’t sell and they created soup. Coq au vin was a clever way of tenderising old roosters.” He dissects how the great cuisines of the world all came from utilising the pairings of foodstuffs that kept the soil fertile over generations: rice and beans in Italy, say. Monocultural farming breaks that relationship, but chefs have some power to reconnect it. “Japan is a rice culture but to get the rice you need buckwheat as a rotation crop,” he says. “In the United States buckwheat is fed into dog food. In Japan you make soba noodle.”
Barber has spread this message in TED talks and editorials; he was on President Obama’s council for health and nutrition; in 2009 Time magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers. Does he feel he is winning that argument at all in America?
“No, I am losing,” he says, with a modest laugh. “I am losing in every way. But I am going to go on making it.”
As we talk and drive, Barber’s chat is punctuated by a conversation on the speakerphone with his chef de cuisine, Bastien Guillochon. Listening in to it gives some idea of what is on his mind today.
“Bastion, do we have enough of the skate wing cartilage?”
“Yes,” Guillochon says, a little doubtfully.
“What about those eggs that didn’t have fully formed shells? How about we do them with the crushed new potatoes with the sorrel sauce.”
“Sounds good,” Guillochon mutters, after a moment.
“Bastion, you don’t sound that psyched?” Barber says. “You haven’t had coffee yet?”
And then to me, quietly self-mocking. “Man, it’s not easy being the creative genius. These tattooed chefs don’t give you anything. Especially the French ones.”
He doesn’t stop. “We could do the pea on the half shell thing we talked about. Or, I know, we could do pea Rockefeller? Like oyster Rockefeller, you know, spinach, cream, egg yolk, ‘so rich only a Rockefeller could eat it.’ Who said that? Escoffier?”
There is a longer pause on the line.
Barber thinks some more. “On second thoughts, Peggy Rockefeller is coming tonight. Maybe it’s not the night to try that.”
Barber works every day at Stone Barns without a menu, to conjure a set-dinner feast of around 30 tasting plates that are served over three or four hours. He has a couple of unique resources at his disposal. The first is that Stone Barns is a sort of teaching hospital for his philosophy. The restaurant is at the centre of 80 acres of organic farmland that is set up to experiment with cultivating new varietals of everything from peppers to rye, all selected for taste. The second resource is his commitment to wasting nothing at all, a state of mind that allows all kinds of possibility.
The most eye-catching expression of that determination was a two-week experiment at Blue Hill in Manhattan in 2015. Barber transformed his restaurant into a pop-up called wastED, (the capitalisation signified “education”) where he served, triumphantly, “pock-marked potatoes”, “carrot top marmalade”, burgers made from beetroot pulp and fries repurposed from corn for cattle. The restaurant tables were made from slabs of mycelium, a fungal alternative to plastic. On them, candles flickered, labelled “beef”: the melted liquid was rendered fat, to be poured on bread, made with by-product malt and grain from craft beer breweries. Critics were almost uniformly seduced. Later that year, Barber made headlines by serving his “waste food”, including salads made from vegetable scraps, to world leaders meeting at the United Nations in New York.
In February, after much labour intensive research he will bring a version of this wastED pop-up concept to London. For a month it will operate from the rooftop restaurant of Selfridges on Oxford Street. He wants to give the restaurant a properly British flavour, so when we talk he is trialling and erroring various possibilities. From a salmon processor he is looking to harvest the rich “bloodline” flesh that gets discarded. He is making enquiries about collecting pulp from organic sugar beet farmers, and talking waste products with sympathetic chicken and dairy farms. “A project like the one I am trying to do at Selfridges couldn’t have existed even 100 years ago,” he says. “Because there was no waste from agriculture, everything was utilised.”
The statistics about what has changed since then are stark: 40% of what farms produce goes into the trash or is unsellable. Some of this is “ugly” fruit and vegetables and expired dairy. But really, he suggests, the bigger problem is the structure of the diet itself which creates this waste. “In America we grow 120 million acres of corn that we don’t eat, which leeches the soil and is fed to animals in the most inefficient way. You have heard the expression nose-to-tail eating. What we need to do is really nose to tail of the whole farm.”
The model for this practice is at Stone Barns. The farm was created in the 1920s as a kind of bucolic paradise by the Rockefeller family, in order to educate their children about the land – they used to come at weekends and practise milking in the barns. Barber, who did much of his growing up on his grandparents’ farm 50 miles away (which he still runs with his brother, and which provides most of the dairy produce for the restaurants), has been here for a dozen years. He has a labour-intensive kitchen of about 35, many of whom are seconded from like-minded restaurants around the world. When we arrive at lunchtime, Barber gets straight into briefing these chefs, continuing the conversation from the car.
Afterwards, when he has got various seasonal experiments rolling in the kitchen, he takes me for a walk in the bucolic hills. The 80 acres of organic land include 10 acres of vegetables and a greenhouse complex. A good deal of what is produced ends up on the restaurant table, but beyond that the farm is a demonstration of Barber’s latest thinking.
He starts with the field that was closest to the cow barns. And points to the verdant health of the vegetables in this field even compared to its highly productive neighbours – because it was close to the barns, the cows most often grazed here. “The richness of the vegetables here comes from a century of the hooves of the animals crushing seeds and regenerating grass and from all that manure.”
The field is a microcosm of the Midwest, Barber suggests, which had “a million years of bison running on the ground and laying manure”. That fertility was the source of America’s great food prosperity. Half a century of intensive grain farming has essentially denuded those million years of soil formation, to the extent that farming can only be sustained with fertiliser and pesticides; the major casualty of this practice, in Barber’s view, is flavour. “Scientists select for yield and size, but they never put anything in their mouths.”
The antidote to this is an organic system, Barber argues, that allows fields to rest and replenishes soil with rotation crops and occasional grazing. The problem with cover crops, however, is that “no one eats them”. This is something Barber seeks to change. He points out the vetch plants traditionally grown as nitrogen-fixing companion plants to tomatoes and in rotation with grains. He has been using the flowers of the plant to create sweet garnishes. “We are now cultivating vetch to select for better tasting flowers,” he says. “It will take a few generations, but it will become a crop in its own right.”
He is at work creating similar potential markets for his salad crops, again through selecting the whole plant for flavour. “We are doing some interesting dishes with salad butts,” he says, of the parts of lettuces that are often discarded. “I think we have to create a culture in which salad butts become sushi.” He talks me through the ways in which they are creating similar revelations in taste with radishes and cucumbers and parsnips and just about everything else.
The commitment to using what is grown at the perfect moment of freshness is the reason he doesn’t have menus. “I have to give salad to a lot of people,” he says. “I can’t put out a menu and hope people order it. I don’t have a magic wand. I have to take out what is put in.”
His luxury is having enough staff to tell stories. “Last night I put on the menu this bok choi that had a flea beetle attack. I had eight crates of it with bullet holes all through it. It couldn’t be sold at a supermarket or a farmers’ market because it looks ugly but it still has amazing flavour. How do I tell that story? I’m lucky to have a waiter to communicate this, but it shouldn’t really need telling. Slicing a tomato isn’t cooking, or heating up a decent piece of beef. But making tripe taste good, or doing something special with this crate of bok choi – that’s the challenge.”
By this time we have reached in our walk the thing for which Barber has become perhaps most famous: his own variety “Barber wheat”. He has developed it over years selecting from heritage grains, using cutting edge cultivation techniques to produce a particular sweet soft bran which is ground whole. If nothing else, he sees the work that has gone into creating the taste of those seeds as his legacy.
I wonder at one point how he otherwise measures success.
“One way to read it here is the beehives we passed,” he says. “We had 20,000 bees when we started. We now have something like a million and a half bees. That is now what the land can support. In 12 years we have made that change.”
Walking around Stone Barns in the afternoon sun with Barber this all makes perfect sense but it is the dinner he serves in the evening that clinches his arguments about soil and taste. His “Grazing, Rooting, Pecking” menu featuring the best offerings from the field and market is an eye-watering $238 per head – though included in that price is a whole new way of thinking about food. That education begins in the most modest way with a little rack of vegetables on spikes, baby carrots, and asparagus and edible flowers and tomatoes, each of the vegetables tasting more of itself than any vegetable you have tasted. It continues in that spirit for 20 or 30 courses – you quickly stop counting in favour of just enjoying – that include the skate wing cartilage and unformed eggs and crushed potatoes and excursions out to a signature barbecue of bones and branches and crab shells on which mini “beetfurters” are grilled. There is a foray into the world’s most alluring “manure shed” with its open view over the Pocantico hills, for sweet pea gazpacho, and to the kitchen itself for a tasting of Barber wheat breads, concluding with a “200%” wholemeal, (100% wholemeal plus 100% wasted bran) which he has been working on perfecting for two years. The final course is one last experiment – ice-cream made with colostrum, the rich first milk produced by cattle immediately after calving – which, like much of the menu, tastes ludicrously better than it perhaps sounds.
While I’m eating, Barber emerges from the kitchen to say that he has just had a call to tell him that the three-star Michelin chef, Antoine Westermann – a hero of his – has arrived unexpectedly with a party at the Greenwich Village Blue Hill so he is heading back to help cook for him, and I’m welcome to a lift.
We jump in the car and he races as carefully as he can back to the city, now recalling a similar occasion when the Obamas pitched up unexpectedly, now on the speakerphone to the kitchen wondering what Westermann has had to eat so far. At 10pm we are stuck on the freeway. He allows himself a little cry of: “What a life is this, huh?”
Does he ever have a feeling he might be trying to do too much?
“Constantly. But as they say, I try to keep the larger purpose in mind.” He laughs, philosophically. “There are a few times when I wish I could be a guest and come and have dinner.” And then he banishes that thought and looks out for a gap in the traffic ahead.
WastED, Selfridges Rooftop Restaurant, 24 February-2 April; reservations: 020 7788 6210; wastedlondon.com
Tim Adams’s flights and accommodation were supplied by Virgin Holidays
This article was taken from Observer Food Monthly on 15 January 2017. Click here to get the Observer for half price.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010