Dan Barber, chef of New York’s pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill, has long been a champion of the local, organic food movement. But now he thinks it’s time for the movement to grow up.
“Farm-to-table has failed to transform the way most of our food is grown in this country,” he writes in his new book The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food. Local, organic meals basically resemble what Americans have been eating for generations—a large hunk of meat in the center, veggies pushed off to the side. The sourcing’s better, but the diet hasn’t really changed.
In order to transform our agricultural landscape—and make farm-to-table truly sustainable—Barber insists we’ll need to develop a “Third Plate:” a form of eating that harnesses the incredible power of ecological relationships, while reflecting the proportions of what farmers can reasonably grow. In his conversation for this series, Barber told the story of how his search for better wheat flour led to a culinary epiphany, and explained why a line by American naturalist John Muir helps him articulate his vision for our food’s future.
When The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s now-classic 2006 work, questioned the logic of our nation’s food system, “local” and “organic” weren’t ubiquitous they way they are today. Embracing Pollan’s iconoclasm, but applying it to the updated food landscape of 2014, The Third Plate reconsiders fundamental assumptions of the movement Pollan’s book helped to spark. In four sections—“Soil,” “Land, “Sea,” and “Seed”—The Third Plate outlines how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story—and demonstrates how land, communities, and taste benefit when ecology informs the way we source, cook, and eat.
Barber is the recipient of multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation, including Best Chef: New York City (2006) and the country's Outstanding Chef (2009). His second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is a working farm and celebrated educational center in the Hudson Valley region of New York. In 2009, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Dan Barber: My revelation in the kitchen occurred 10 years ago, standing over a bag of all-purpose flour.
The flour-bin is parked outside my office window in the kitchen, so it’s constantly in view. I watch it being emptied and refilled, emptied and refilled, all day long. We use a ton of flour at Blue Hill—we’re not unusual in that regard. All-purpose flour is probably the most ubiquitous ingredient in my kitchen. But I realized one day that I knew nothing about this particular ingredient. I didn’t know where it came from, or how it was grown—I only knew that it had absolutely no flavor, and it was in everything.
There I was, running a farm-to-table restaurant—meticulously sourcing my produce, cheese, and meats—and I hadn’t given a thought to this basic facet of my cooking.
So I decided I wanted to get my hands some delicious flour, flour from wheat with a story, flour with presence you could taste. Like any farm-to-table chef, I figured I’d start by finding a local, organic grain farmer. I found a guy named Klaas Martens, from upstate New York, who grew emmer wheat. This particular variety of emmer was, at the time, nearly extinct—but Klaas was preserving it, and he started to supply Blue Hill. I bought a grinder for the restaurant, and we ground Klaas’s wheat, milled it into our own flour, and made this stunning whole wheat bread.
There I was walking the farm-to-table walk with my organic heirloom wheat, basically milled to order. But before long, things started to get more complicated.
I went back to visit Klaas’s farm, thinking I’d write about him for my book, which was then in its earliest stages. On that visit, I had a second culinary epiphany—one that took place not in the kitchen, but in the field. Looking out from the middle of Klaas’s farm, about 2,000 acres, I realized there wasn’t any wheat—at least, not at that time of year. I was surrounded by millet, and oats, and barley, and buckwheat, some mustard greens, some kidney beans—but no wheat. All these crops, I learned from Klaas, had very specific functions. The beans gave the soil nitrogen, and the barley was there to build soil structure, the mustard plants helped cleanse the soil of pathogens and diseases. They were planted in this carefully timed sequence throughout the year. All of this was to prepare the soil, to create the best possible conditions for that great, amazingly flavored emmer wheat. Klaas couldn’t grow his healthy, vigorous, chemical-free wheat without those rotating those other crops in, too.
I remember thinking: Oh my god, I’ve got this all wrong. I'd created a market for this local, heirloom emmer wheat, but I wasn't doing anything to support the entire system that sustained it. Seventy percent of the crops supporting me weren't even being used. They were essentially dumped into bag feed for animals. At the time, there wasn’t a local market for buckwheat, for barley, or for millet, or rye, so Klaas had no alternative. He was just breaking even to build up enough soil fertility for wheat and corn and the stuff that could actually make him money. It just struck me as insane. I realized that, to support a farmer like Klaas, I needed to change my cooking. I needed to cook with the idea of the whole farm in mind.
Around that time, I read a line from John Muir for the first time—or if not for the first time, I read it consciously for the first time—that helped me articulate what I’d discovered on Klaas’s farm.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
When he wrote this, over a century ago, of course, Muir wasn’t talking about agriculture—he was referring to the interconnectedness of natural systems. But the same holds true for farming. I had come to Klaas looking only for the wheat; but I learned that, in a healthy farming environment, you can’t separate one crop from the rest. Remove the barley, say, and the quality of the soil will degrade to a certain extent—eventually, the wheat will change, too.
I discovered that you can't look at a great ingredient—a jaw-dropping, delicious-flavored anything—without understanding the ecology it came out of. In fact, without Muir's quote, I don't know if the full meaning even of the term ecology—and all the interrelationships that that word implies—would ever have made as much sense to me.