Barber can actually watch sheep being tended, chickens being fed, and exceptional, even beautiful compost being spread at Stone Barns, which has four acres of vegetables, a stunning 22,000-square-foot greenhouse, and rare breeds of sheep, cows, and chickens chosen for their quality as food. (Much of the farm’s production is sold: Martha Stewart, a neighbor, is an enthusiastic compost customer.) During my late-summer visit Barber showed me lambs in a paddock that were feasting on the greenest grass of the season—“the ice cream,” he calls it. With grass so plentiful and rich, he told me, animals can produce meat almost as marbled as that of animals finished in feedlots on grain.
The very variety, by season and meadow, of grass-fed meat—the small but important flavor differences that Blue Hill and all other restaurants that care about local and seasonal produce celebrate—is what makes the use of sous vide mandatory, Barber told me. Many chefs insist on the guaranteed consistency of a grain finish, because they can’t take chances with, and charge high prices for, grass-fed meat. “With grass you’re all over the place,” he said. “I could braise a shoulder of lamb perfectly, but it’ll seem dry and stringy if the pasture and open space weren’t perfect. Even if we’re managing the land perfectly and saving a rare breed, it’ll taste like crap.”
As the market for grass-fed meat grows, big meat producers want a piece of it. The USDA has proposed a standard for “grass-fed” that would allow animals finished on huge feedlots rather than open meadows and who eat more than just grass to be labeled grass-fed. Allowing animals to graze in the open air preserves the health of land and livestock alike.
Sous vide “levels the playing field,” Barber told me, by making grass-fed meat as tender and juicy as grain-finished meat all year round, instead of just during the six or so late-summer weeks when the two can go head to head. It makes even the most challenging cuts palatable and presents pure and focused flavors besides, a way to sell hesitant diners on the less prestigious cuts that are usually relegated to sausage and paté, and burgers.
Barber uses sous vide for practically every piece of meat and poultry he cooks at his restaurants. Yes, he said, he was “skeptical” when he first experimented (The aromas—they’re all trapped!”), and yes, it seems “anathema” to his beliefs. But he was overwhelmed by the results. He gives as an example pork belly, a cut now fashionable among cooks for its flavor and nearly 100 percent fat content. “I thought what I did [with it] was the best in the world,” he said. “I’d cure a little bit, braise it slowly in rich stock, let it rest, and get an unctuous, beautiful piece of meat.” He paused for half a second. Sous vide blows that away.”
I asked Barber if he could tell whether another restaurant’s “braised” pork belly, the term he still uses on his menu, was braised the way his was—how, in fact, could he tell if something in another restaurant had been cooked using sous vide? A beatific smile crossed his face. “If it tastes better than I could make it,” he said.