The Essence of Farm to Table Eating: Q and A with Dan Barber


Yesterday, I mentioned four of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”: thinkers and heroes involved in the food movement. Another influential person I would add to the list is Dan Barber, who was recognized last fall in The Green Revolution, a Time 100 Roundtable, and in Time’s 2009 “100 Most Influential People.”

Dan Barber is executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. His tagline, “Know Thy Farmer” sums up his idea that “great cooking starts with great ingredients. And great ingredients start with great farmers.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his philosophy toward great cooking and his thoughts about the future of the food system in this country. (Thanks to Charlotte Douglas and Irene Hamburger for assisting with this interview!)

Here are my questions and his responses:

Marcia Davis: Your grandmother and Blue Hill Farm have obviously inspired you to focus on local and seasonally grown food. Are there other sources of inspiration for creating food the way you do each day?
 
Dan Barber: I’ve been incredibly inspired on some recent trips to Europe—not only by great chefs, but by great farmers who are revolutionizing the way we think about agriculture.
 
MD: What do you see your restaurant, grocery stores, eating habits, etc. like in ten years?
 
DB: I think we’re going to see a dramatic change in our food system in the next ten years. Until today, we’ve been able to afford industrial agriculture based on three things: cheap energy, abundant water and predictable climate. It’s given us cheap food, but at an enormous cost, degrading the ecological resources that make production possible.  As those resources disappear, we’re all going to have to change the structure of how we grow and consume food. That means more diversity and fewer chemical amendments on our farms. It means less packaging and more local foods in restaurants and grocery stores. And it means diets that are more in tune with what our locality can provide. In other words, it’s going to be a lot more delicious.

MD: What’s your process for developing menus and what do you like about it?
 
DB: At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, there are no menus—at least not the traditional kind. Instead, we prepare multi-course “Farmer’s Feast” based on the day’s harvest. Each table receives a different menu, so it allows for a lot more creativity in the kitchen.
 
MD: How does it feel to cook using your philosophy and then to see the majority of people eating fast food and processed food?
 
DB: It’s hard to blame people—the irony of our current food system is that the food grown in a conventional monoculture thousands of miles away is cheaper and more convenient that food from your local farmers market. For those farmers to compete—to be able to produce and distribute good food for every community—we need to revive the regional infrastructure that’s disappeared over the last 50 years. That’s the next step.
 
MD: Our food system is structured to feed many people inexpensively; how can we feed a whole country based on your philosophy for cooking and eating?
 
DB: The good news is that small and mid-size, chemical-free, diversified farms—the farms growing the food we want to eat—are enormously productive. At the height of the last season, we produced 28,000 lbs of food at Stone Barns. That’s off of 6.5 vegetables production acres, and 22 acres of pasture. That’s an average of 1,000 pounds an acre. Which is more food than the typical Iowa cornfield, and about fifty times more flavorful.

******

To read more about Dan Barber, check out the numerous articles listed on BlueHillFarm.com, including The Washington PostThe Atlantic, The New York Times, O magazine, Gourmet magazine, and Audubon magazine, just to name a few.

And to hear it from the chef himself, read his collection of musings on the Blue Hill Farm site.

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