Driven By Flavor
Dan Barber is chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. He's received James Beard Awards for best chef in 2006 and 2009, and was named one of the world's most influential people by Time.
August 14, 2014
DAN BARBER: When people come to my restaurant, what I try and do besides growing the best carrots and besides cooking them with the best technique is provide a story. Because when you provide a story, you generally connect people to food in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t taste certain ingredients. And I think it supersedes what I can do as a chef even on my best nights. I think I’m a very good chef. It’s not false modesty. I think I’m a fine chef, but I also think there’s this human experience surrounding it as a connection to it that makes it more delicious.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Dan Barber is a celebrated chef — but his passionate ethics and intellect have made him much more than that. He’s out to restore food to its rightful place vis-à-vis our bodies, our ecologies, and our economies. And he would do this by resurrecting our natural insistence on flavor.
Dan Barber brings his theories to life at two restaurants rooted in a working farm and educational center in the verdant Pocantico Hills of New York, the Stone Barns Center. Food & Wine has called the Blue Hill restaurant at Stone Barns one of the world’s “top 10 life-changing restaurants.” Pleasure is Dan Barber’s way in to what he calls the most exciting social movement of our time.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Dan Barber has just published a terrific book, his first, called The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. I interviewed him as part of a 2010 civic festival in Indianapolis on the arts, humanities, and religion. The “Spirit & Place Festival,” as it’s named, took food as its topic that year. Our conversation was one of the opening events, hosted at a synagogue, Congregation Beth-El Zedeck.
Dan Barber’s own Jewish identity rarely finds mention in his prolific writing from Gourmetto The New York Times. But others often turn to transcendent language to describe the experience of his cooking. A great Spanish chef, Ferran Adrià, for example, wrote this for Time magazine of Dan Barber: “When he offers you an appetizer composed of simple vegetables dewy with liquid salt, he is saying something to you. He converses with one of the things that I love in gastronomy: the essence of the produce. These are culinary preparations that retain the soul of the food.”
MS. TIPPETT: You know, Dan, we came up with this title for tonight at some point, “Mindful Eating.” But really what we want to talk about here is this conjunction of spirit, place, and food. And so I’d like to start by hearing a little bit about the beginnings of your life because I have understood that there was a connection between spirit and place and food.
MR. BARBER: I was bar mitzvahed?
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. BARBER: I had a beautiful luncheon after the bar mitzvah?
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
MR. BARBER: Well, I grew up in New York City, but I spent a lot of time on my grandmother’s farm in the Berkshires. She wasn’t a farmer and she wasn’t a cook, but she was a great eater. She was also a socialite — social light, not social heavy. I don’t know. She was the chairman of the Berkshire Theatre Festival. The theory I have is that she just loved inviting people to this home at Blue Hill Farm on Blue Hill Road in Great Barrington. And she wanted cows grazing, and she wanted things growing. And as people, you know, munched on cocktails and whatever, she talked about preserving this open space. I think she felt very deeply about it and, you know, if there’s anything that I was marinating in at the time, it was this sort of responsibility by way of pleasure.
MS. TIPPETT: So were you growing up in New York City when you weren’t spending the summers on the farm?
MR. BARBER: Yeah, right, right.
MS. TIPPETT: So were you getting different messages about food that you then had to bring together and balance and play off of that as you moved towards your path as a chef?
MR. BARBER: That’s a really great question. I’ve never been asked that. So I guess the thing that comes to mind is that, well, my mother passed away when I was very young and my father tried to cook and was not great. He was a really bad cook. [laughter] One anecdote that comes to mind is he used to cook scrambled eggs, enough that my memory of my childhood is often having these like hard, sort of burnt, like really overcooked eggs. What’s interesting is that I didn’t know they were hard, burnt, overcooked eggs until I was sick with tonsillitis when I think I was 15. And my aunt, who was an expert cook, lovingly prepared food for me. And she prepared scrambled eggs whipped over a double boiler with this French butter that she had gotten at this market. This stuff just slid down my throat. [laughter] I was like, “God,” this — first of all, “this is food. This is real. This is real scrambled eggs. This is food. This is love.” Now you would say, okay, so I dismissed my father. But actually, I think it took my father’s eggs to make me appreciate my aunt’s eggs. [laughter]
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Yeah. The idea that I grew up — I mean, I grew up in the 1960s when my parents had just discovered, as all their friends had discovered, that food could come from boxes and cans and this was progress. But if we had an idea about cooking and about chefs, it was about working magic with ingredients. It was about a metamorphosis, right? Where you took just enough of this and just enough of that and you came up with this dish that transformed all the ingredients into something completely other. And when I read about how you cook and approach food, it’s very different. It’s a completely different philosophy and approach.
MR. BARBER: Well, those were the Dark Ages of cooking, I think. This goes to the heart of this question that I deal with sort of every day. One of my restaurants is on a farm, so when there’s a carrot in front of me and I followed the seed all the way through the composting and the weeding and the brilliance of the growth, you know, it really comes down to like you’re face to face with the farmers that raised a lamb that you’re roasting or you’re face to face with that farmer that raised the carrot. It’s kind of crazy to think that I would be doing something that would be more interesting or more even artistic or more brilliant than something that they have done throughout this process. So, in that sense, very humbling and, I think, a look at the future of better food. And I think what you unfortunately grew up infused with was this time we’re hopefully just coming out of, this disconnection with where your ingredients are coming from and how they were produced.
MS. TIPPETT: So there’s something so liberating and wonderful about how you talk about sustainability and becoming more ethical with our food and this also comes through in Michael Pollan’s writing and in Barbara Kingsolver’s writing.
MR. BARBER: Two writers I’m very influenced by, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And this wonderful — I don’t know why it’s surprising, but surprisingly, between doing the right thing and doing the ethical thing, is also the pleasurable thing. And that sustainability is also about resurrecting flavor.
MR. BARBER: Yeah. And the most pleasurable thing and the most delicious, so that they’re all run along parallel lines. I mean, that’s the serendipity of what I do, which is that, you know, my shiv is like I want to cook good food and it’s in the pursuit of great flavor. It just so happens that you’re attached to great ecology by definition. I mean, this is one of those things that’s so axiomatic we forget. I think it’s part because of what you mentioned. We went through this period, especially in the United States, where we’re so removed from how food was grown and where it’s coming from and who was growing it that we forget just the most obvious thing is that a delicious carrot, a delicious slice of lamb, has attached to it these decisions in the pasture and the field that are both thoughtful and intensely ethical as well as ecological, that you can’t have an unethically raised lamb, an unthoughtfully raised carrot, and have a delicious lamb and carrot dish. It’s impossible. Even the greatest chefs couldn’t do that.
[Music: “Too Many Cooks” by Portico Quartet]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, a public conversation with Dan Barber. He’s a celebrated chef and a leader in the “farm to table” movement.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I just want to bring this close to the ground for just a minute. So, for example, this carrot.
MR. BARBER: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: How would you treat that carrot differently? You’re also saying it’s going to taste different now. Maybe the carrot you’ve grown is going to taste different because you’ve been part of its life from the very beginning.
MR. BARBER: Right. So let’s talk about on the physiological level. The physiological level is, you know, a carrot that’s grown in the right way, whether it’s on our farm or, generally speaking, a local carrot because locality has a lot to do with this in the sense that local carrots are generally sold at a local farmers’ market and a local farmers’ market is generally supported from the growing part of it by small farmers. And smaller farmers tend to raise a diversity of vegetables, a diversity of carrots, different seeds of carrots, a carrot that’s grown in a monoculture. A carrot that’s grown one variety of carrot for 500 acres tend to be cheaper carrots. They tend to be, from the farmer’s standpoint, a bit more efficient in the sense that you can raise this one carrot, have a lot of command and control, you tend to have to do all sorts of amendments that are generally chemically intensive to make a carrot grow in a monoculture over that many acres.
So from the physiological definition of two strikingly different carrots and, of course, if you follow the story of those two carrots, one that’s grown in a monoculture and one that’s grown in a locally diverse system with different seeds of carrots, you generally tell a story of how the world is used, two different ways of using the world. But then there’s this other part of why the carrot tastes so good that can tell a story about the carrot. Because what is great taste? When I tasted that egg, you know, part of it was my aunt’s cooking technique, but part of it was the love and the support and the fact that I was feeling ill and this whole understanding of what surrounds eating. I mean, what is a great meal? What’s your best meal? Well, a lot of people say the best meal is when they’re on vacation in Europe or when they were with their grandmother because their grandmother could cook the best, or because the French could cook the greatest, you know, beef they’ve ever had.
But actually, both those examples lead to your state of mind. You were happiest when you were with your grandmother and you felt a certain way that you could taste flavors that you otherwise wouldn’t taste. So when people come to my restaurant, what I try and do besides growing the best carrots and besides cooking them with the best technique is provide a story. Because when you provide a story, you generally connect people to food in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t taste certain ingredients. I think it supersedes what I can do as a chef even on my best nights. I think I’m a very good chef. It’s not false modesty. I think I’m a fine chef, but I think my thing has become much more exaggerated because of the use of ingredients which physiologically — I believe there’s a physiological explanation that makes them better-tasting, but I also think there’s this human experience surrounding it, this connection to it that makes it more delicious.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a great line that Michael Pollan has that, “When it comes to food, until very recent generations, most of our food choices came out of our culture. And that when it comes to food, culture is just a fancy word for your mother.” [laughs]
MR. BARBER: Yeah, it’s a great way of saying it. That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: But that that’s been lost.
MR. BARBER: That’s right. Well he also — Michael also often quotes this term called biophilia, which is this sort of natural, innate connection that we need to feel towards nature. And he extends that to a need, hardwired of us, to want to know where our food is coming from. The fact that we’ve become so disassociated with food just begs this larger point that we need to taste these tastes that I’m talking about. We need to know who’s growing our food, where it’s coming from. How it’s grown. Some story — not a false narrative, a real story about that food. And when you can provide that, I think you end up providing a better eating experience.
MS. TIPPETT: And I think to the extent that you’ve become an activist, it’s in this way of linking storytelling to sustainability. You’ve become an activist as a storyteller. Okay, so I’ll tell a story that came to mind as I was reading you. My only transcendent food memory of my childhood — this is sad — but the only transcendent food memory I have is just in a few summer months, we would go to this ramshackle store that was on Main Street. Which I suppose now we might call a farmers’ market because it was food that came from farms, which was totally disdained most of the time. But the tomatoes there? We remember those tomatoes, right? First of all, they were enormous, and one of those tomatoes on a plate was transcendent. It was a meal. It was beautiful and it even took us beyond this idea that progress is what we ate most of the time. So a lot of us remembering those tomatoes and then being emboldened by people like you have planted our own tomatoes, right? I did it and they don’t taste like that. And I think you also know things that I want you to tell us about. I mean, you’ve also written that everyone growing their own vegetables is also not the answer to relinking these things that may be very natural.
MR. BARBER: Yeah. I’m sorry that tomato did not — so what happened? Do you feel like you made a mistake?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, I think we don’t know. What you’re talking about is all the things that go into a beautiful tomato. It’s not just a matter of me digging a little dirt in my backyard.
MR. BARBER: Right. It’s unfortunate because a lot of the seeds of the tomatoes that were around in the ’60s and ’70s have been lost to varieties that even when you buy seeds at a store that’s selling them or through the Internet are seeds that are generally for — even in a home garden, are generally for greater harvest.
MS. TIPPETT: So we would be buying the same seeds that would be found on big industrial farms.
MR. BARBER: Yeah. You have to go back a bit further to get low-production tomatoes because the greater production that’s made on the vine, the less flavor because you’re disbursing the flavor, the energy, from the plant into more tomatoes than you otherwise would. So in other words, you know, this is because customers of seeds want a lot of tomatoes in their gardens and what they get is a good yield and what they end up suffering from is a lack of flavor, which is too bad.
MS. TIPPETT: So when I had Barbara Kingsolver on the show — I mean, Barbara Kingsolver wrote this book about spending a year where they ate almost only what they could grow. They basically ate what they could grow themselves. And a lot of peoples’ reaction to that was, great, but I live in Brooklyn or I live in Minnesota. And you actually have a farm in a part of the world with four seasons, but I also think it’s kind of a relief that you say that you also like to have citrus fruit on your plate, and that you do avail yourself of the wonderful things that technology makes possible, of modern distribution systems, if you will. I think what’s different is…
MR. BARBER: I said that to Barbara and she wasn’t like that psyched about it.
MS. TIPPETT: Really?
MR. BARBER: Yeah, a little bit. So I’m not a purist at all. Like I love citrus. That’s like my weakness. So you can’t grow citrus where…
MS. TIPPETT: What I think is different, what you’re doing that’s new is you’re calling it a luxury, right? I mean, you’re reminding us that it’s not natural to be able to have citrus in New York in January.
MR. BARBER: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, that is something we forgot; we have forgotten.
MR. BARBER: Right, and if you treat it as a luxury, I think you enjoy it more. And I think you put it in the sphere that it belongs, which is something that’s delicious and a part of the gloriousness of — the same distribution chain that makes local food so expensive is, on the flip side of it, the distribution chain that gives us pineapples and citrus fruit in the middle of the winter. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it’s one of the blessed things. It’s the question of proportion and to what extent are you taking, you know, that as your diet year-round and what percentage are you not looking at local agriculture to actually feed you in the winter. I’m glad you mentioned that we’re four seasons because one of the things I really take great pride in for the Stone Barns Center farm is that they’re just brilliant at providing delicious calories in the middle of the winter and some of the most delicious food is in the winter.
I’m just going to give you a quick example. I think it’s critical. We could be, in these cold climates in which we’re sitting now in the northeast where I am, growing the most unbelievable, for example, root vegetables. And vegetables like kale and spinach and other, Brussels sprouts, that actually thrive in the intensity of the cold. So what the Stone Barns Center is heading more in the direction of — driven by flavor, by the way. This is not driven by some kind of ethical underpinning and it’s not a moral issue. This is just simply because the best root vegetables have to go through intense freezes to get the sugar. To get the root vegetables that all of us adore, the beets and the parsnips and the celery root, the carrots, for sure, these need to be stressed under several hard freezes. And, in fact, if stayed in the ground in the right soil with the right seeds, end up becoming carrots that far, far exceed in flavor, in sugar and in flavor, anything that’s grown in a monoculture in those warmer climates.
There’s the quick example. We’ve proved this finally. We grew a variety of carrots called Mokum carrots in the middle of February. We picked them out of the ground. Jack Algiere is the Stone Barns Center farmer, a four-seasons farmer. He picked them out and we brought them to the kitchen and we took a Brix test. We squeezed a little bit of carrot juice on a refractometer, which measures part per billion of sugar, and it registered this Mokum carrot 13.8 on the refractometer. Now for all of you, you should be gasping . It’s okay. I didn’t gasp either.
MS. TIPPETT: We’re trying to be quiet.
MR. BARBER: I had no idea what that meant. It means, I’ve since learned, that 13.8 percent of this small carrot was pure sugar. When I looked up a Mokum carrot on the Internet to find out what an average Brix number would be, the highest I got was 12, so it was literally off the charts. Now we, just for curiosity sake, took a Brix measuring of a carrot that we used for stocks in the restaurant. It’s an organic carrot, the kind of carrot you’d find in like a Whole Foods, so it’s a high-quality organic carrot. What did it measure on the Brix? 0.0.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, my gosh.
MR. BARBER: Right. Undetectable with sugar. So this just absolutely wigged me out. I mean, I knew there’d be a difference because I can taste the difference, but did I know that it was going to be so dramatic? So I finally got to a plant physiologist that I sort of fell in love with. He’s a part-time poet. And what he said to me was very poetic and I think right to the point. He said, “The carrot is converting its starches to sugars because, in those hard freezes, it doesn’t want ice crystallization. Because if it gets ice crystallization, it dies.” Then what he ended with is that what you’re tasting is sweetness, but what the plant — what the root vegetable is telling you is that it doesn’t want to die. What we have in these cold climates for certain vegetables — and I think they can provide us quite deliciously and quite healthfully for the cold season — is something that California and Texas and Arizona and Oaxaca and Florida and all the rest cannot provide. That’s working within a natural system for the betterment of food.
By the way, there’s increasingly a direct connection between Brix levels and nutrient density, which is really interesting when you think about it and it makes sense to us. I mean, you just think about it sort of axiomatically. Of course, the best-flavored food would also be the healthiest and the most nutrient dense. But there’s actually studies now that are showing that the highest concentration of nutrient density can be covered in that higher Brix, which goes back to Michael Pollan’s point is that not long ago we were hunter-gatherers trying to figure out what was good for us and for our children and healthy. And if we’re hard-wired to go for that sugar and that flavor, we’re also going for the best nutrient density and, as it turns out, the best ecological decisions for a farm.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I don’t know. I think somewhere in there you said this is not about ethics. But, I mean, were you talking about something that’s life-giving, that’s beautiful, that’s pleasurable, that has ethical value?
MR. BARBER: If I become a rabbi, this will become about ethics. [laughter]
MS. TIPPETT: But those things have ethical value in Jewish tradition.
MR. BARBER: Indeed true. Look, I’m of just the mind that I feel very fortunate that I believe in something that, from A to Z, is rooted in hedonism. It’s really a nice thing to be an advocate of, you know? It’s like even religion, especially religion, actually — I shouldn’t be saying this on the bimah, but especially religion, to get to fulfillment, to get to this exalted state, it’s often requested of you to give up something, to sacrifice. That’s part of most religions. When you are greedy for the best food, you are by definition being greedy for the kind of world, the way the world is used, the kind of world that you want used in the proper way. That’s the true definition of sustainability and why I think this movement that I stated so confidently is the most exciting social movement in America today has such legs. People always ask me, “Haven’t you seen the height of this? Isn’t this a fad?” And they’re so wrong. They’re so wrong because this is only because once people taste the carrot with 13.8 percent Brix, you’re not going to settle for the 0.0. You’re willing to pay for and invest in the kind of agriculture that will give you the flavor and the nutrient values that you want, whether you’re an environmentalist or not. So I’m like a buying opportunity for this movement.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, yeah, but, you know, there is labor that goes into it. It’s just that you don’t — it doesn’t feel as ascetic. I mean, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice.
MR. BARBER: Yeah, which is nice, right?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I actually brought this — we did a show with the Dalai Lama and three of his leaders on happiness.
MR. BARBER: I heard — I haven’t heard it, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But I want to read you this. I was preparing for you and somebody wrote to us, one of our listeners from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. This was what she said responding to that happiness discussion: “I found happiness in preparing food. No other activity grounds me more fully and alights my senses and keeps me in the now. Mincing and dicing sooth me. Reading cookbooks excites me.”
MR. BARBER: This is my kind of woman. [laughter]
MS. TIPPETT: This is your kind of woman, yeah. But you could call it a discipline and it can feel like a spiritual discipline, I think, because precisely as you say, there’s that pleasure, there’s that good at the end of it.
MR. BARBER: Yeah, but…
MS. TIPPETT: Maybe we’re stretching this too far.
MR. BARBER: No, no, no, no. I love the quote. But you’re saying that she would feel this whether or not she was supporting all the things that I’m talking about?
MS. TIPPETT: No, I’m saying that the work — you said that this is greed, that’s it just about pleasure, but there’s work that goes into creating that pleasure. It’s a labor of love.
MR. BARBER: Right, right, absolutely. I mean, it reminds me of Yom Kippur in that the work you go through during the day of fasting ends up — whatever you get when you break the fast, it tastes a lot better than it would if you were eating during the three meals a day. So, yes, there’s attached to this is that you have to cook. And for those people who look at cooking as drudgery or look at cooking as hard labor and a total unenjoyment, you know, this is a problem. Because at the root of all of this actually — and Michael Pollan has said this too, and I really subscribe to it — it’s all about cooking. It’s like people always say, well, what can you do for this movement if I live in, you know, in an extreme northern climate and I really can’t do anything about it? What can one average person do who has all the constraints of either their ecologic conditions or their work conditions?
The answer is, you cook. Because when you cook, you’re opting out of the kind of food chain that’s cooking for you. And when a food chain is cooking for you, it’s usually processed. It’s usually of lesser-grade ingredients, which means that it’s usually degrading the environment, which means because it has less flavor, usually has less flavonoids, which means it has less health benefits. So all those things are attached to when you’re not cooking. When you are cooking, you’re engaging in some type of direct communication with the fresh ingredient that’s not aptly processed. And if you can get that locally, you’ve done tremendous amounts to give your contribution to the betterment of the world, besides a more pleasurable dinner.
[Music: “Fountain of Youth” by Tin Hat Trio]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Dan Barber through our website, onbeing.org. There you can also watch the complete, unedited video of my fun and edifying conversation with him.
Coming up, Dan Barber on the perception that his kind of cooking and eating remains an elite experience; also, the exciting link he sees on the horizon between maximum flavor and life-giving nutrition, even for treating cancer.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[Music: “Fountain of Youth” by Tin Hat Trio]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m with Dan Barber — an award-winning chef, deep thinker, and social visionary. I interviewed him at a live, public event in Indianapolis. He is co-owner and chef of two celebrated New York restaurants that have a working farm and an educational center — the Stone Barns Center — at their heart. We’ve been talking about the pleasure-orientation of the movement Dan Barber is part of — pursuing new ecologies and economies through taking pleasure in landscape and flavor. But, as he just told me, this is not just about how we farm and shop; it’s also about getting back to cooking.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have compassion for those of us who want to cook more, but have jobs and children and life feels hard enough as it is and food is one thing that you can buy in packages and bring home? [laughter]
MR. BARBER: Yeah. You know, you’re not making me compassionate…
MS. TIPPETT: Maybe not. You don’t have much compassion. [laughter]
MR. BARBER: You know why? Because then you’d have to say — if I said to you that 25 years ago, you know, with all the time spent on TV, we’re going to spend another four hours a day on average on the Internet, and you would say, “Wow, I can’t believe we’d fine four hours in the day.” And I’d say, not only people are going to find four hours, but 95 percent penetration of Internet use for 4.5 hours a day or whatever it’s up to today average, you would say that’s absolutely crazy. Nobody will spend that time, nobody has that time in the day. Well, we figured out how to do it. So the question comes down to priorities. To what extent is cooking and eating and all the rest of the things that are attached to that, to what extent does that become a priority? And if it is a priority, you make the time.
It goes hand in hand with the amount of money you spend because what we’re talking about — and I don’t want to skirt around it; I think it’s a big issue. It’s more expensive. There’s no question about it. You’re paying the real cost of growing food. Locally, it’s usually more expensive. So the question is, again back to the Internet example or cell phone use, 25 years ago, if I said there’d be 95 percent penetration in cable television, you all would have said, “That’s nuts. We have free television. Who is going to be able to find $125 a month extra?” You all would have agreed with Krista, right? I would have said, not only that, you’re going to find another $125 for cell phone use in disposable income. Everyone would say, “Oh, $250 extra? Nobody has that money.” Well, of course, we found it because we found it indispensable without those things. So can we excite this issue around food and pleasure to the extent that people feel the same way about dinner?
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me what — I’m interested in this link between beauty and eating, that it actually has historically been a visual and communal as well as just as something about taste. So when someone is in your restaurant and a plate appears before them, what does it look like? I mean, the whole table. Visually, what…
MR. BARBER: Okay. Well, so there are two parts to that question. First of all, the whole table and the experience in place. So I’m talking now about Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Just outside of New York City; it’s at an old Rockefeller estate. So surrounding the restaurant is 80 acres of pastoral, agriculture, iconic New England landscape that’s 25 miles from Manhattan. So very relaxing, very beautiful. Rockefeller inspired and donated land that’s just absolutely unheard of anywhere in the world really. So there’s that beauty and then you come closer into the beauty. My brother is my business partner in the restaurant and my sister-in-law is the designer, and so she designs everything that you touch and feel and look at. She’s extraordinarily talented. You sit down and I think at the table you become a part of this farm experience through elegance. There’s white tablecloths and there’s nice silverware, but she has a mindset and an approach to this that’s quite lovely. Okay, so I’ve set the scene. So now the food comes.
And so, you know, what we charge — and again, I don’t want to shy away from this. It’s a really expensive restaurant, for sure. You’re paying a lot of money for all of this bounty and style and beauty. My plates, compared to what other chefs — not compared to, say, the chicken pot pie that your children are eating tonight — I’m not demeaning the chicken pot pie. I’m saying my food would look more like your chicken pot pie than it would look like the high-end haute cuisine that’s being played, so the food is, like, not ornate and, you know, it’s not beautiful. What’s beauty? But a lot of people have a definition of beauty as being very constructed plates of food.
So my plates of food generally are not deconstructed, but unconstructed, and they tend to look like I would imagine one of the farmers is standing over me — and often he is, one of the two — and kind of laughing when a gratuitous garnish is placed or a stacking of something is placed that takes away from the work that they’ve done. Because that’s what it does. It takes time to do it; it takes your focus. The vectors come point at me, the chef, the stylist and the creator, instead of the agriculture that produced it. But then the question’s like, what is beautiful for this? I would like to think the beauty in it is that it connects right to the farmer. I don’t want to say that to everyone. It’s hard. I would go over to the diner and say that. What do you do about it?
MS. TIPPETT: Sandy Sasso told me that the food she got was beautiful, and some food writer called coming to your restaurant like a spiritual journey. So I think it’s beautiful, and I know my chicken pot pie was beautiful. [laughter] But I think what you say also is that this is also an essential part of eating. It’s the ingredients, it’s the presentation, it’s seeing this as something beautiful and blessed and to be honored, the whole experience.
MR. BARBER: Right, but I have the luxury of working with my sister-in-law and I mentioned my brother is a brilliant businessman and can help put all this together. Then, you know, it’s much easier to talk about these things on a canvas where there’s agriculture surrounding everywhere you look. So when you’re in the middle of midtown Manhattan — and I know this because I have another restaurant in the middle of midtown Manhattan with my brother and sister-in-law — it’s very hard to talk about these issues because it’s the way you feel when you sit down in the middle of the West Village and the tables are quite cramped and the energy is quite kinetic. So you end up having a different experience. It’s not bad. It’s just two very different experiences, but I think the agricultural connection, the beauty that you’re talking about, is a lot easier to get across when you’re in the middle of a farm.
[Music: “I Am The Arm” by Cale Parks]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with chef-thinker Dan Barber at a civic event held at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis. The audience was also invited to submit questions.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay, Rabbi Dennis Sasso is going to moderate questions.
MR. BARBER: Rabbi, come to the bimah. I’ve always wanted to say that. [laughter]
RABBI DENNIS SASSO: This question came up from several members of the audience, and I’ll ask it from two different people because they’re complementary. “Is the idea of food that is carefully grown and prepared only for the well-off? How do we nourish this way of thinking for a wider part of the population?” And another question along the same lines: “How do you expand local healthy food systems to feed low-income, inner-city people?”
MR. BARBER: So the first question is, is this a movement for the elites? And the answer is — I sound often defensive when I answer this because I feel defensive — it has been a movement that’s pretty much started with the people who can afford to pay for this kind of food. Do I think that’s unfortunate? I really don’t because, again, you mention Michael Pollan who’s on my mind now, but he often says that a lot of great movements in this country, including women’s suffrage, including the civil rights movement, started with elites and ended up becoming mass movements through powerful ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that. It takes a long time, especially in America, generally a generation. But those ideas can be quite powerful if they come in that sense from the top.
The sort of second and even connected to the first part of the question, moving forward, I expressed to you how powerful I feel like these ideas are for the future and that this is really we’re at the start of something, not at the high point; we’re at the start of something. And that this is going to become a much more American universal experience of wanting this kind of food. I think that way, in part, because I think the real cost of producing this cheap food is going to catch up to the agribusiness and conglomerates that are supporting our conventional, for the food that we eat, mostly the 80 to 90 percent I’m talking about. The cost of bringing that to market is going to be too expensive in our generation and certainly by the time our children are our age. And by that, I mean that to produce the food that we’re eating today, it’s just too environmentally expensive.
RABBI SASSO: Here are two questions that I’m going to tie together: “Why aren’t you a vegetarian?” “Have you made any connections between ethical food preparation and kosher food preparation?”
MR. BARBER: Yeah, okay. This is a great question. I feel like I’m in the fifth set with Nadal here. [laughter] The first question is about why aren’t I a vegetarian, and why am I not standing up here and saying, you know, eat less meat? The answer is because I come from the lower Hudson Valley, New England, and my ecological conditions are dictating that we eat a lot of meat because we’re grassland. What we grow best, besides those carrots, is an amazing diversity of healthful grass for animals — the grasslands, by the way, that built New England, that built the dairy industry. There’s no surprise that this is iconic landscape that I reference with my grandmother. That wasn’t just about building beauty; that was about building what they were taking advantage of, which was cows grazing on great grass to produce great milk.
That same ecology holds true today. Those iconic open pasture lands I talked about produce the best-tasting meat in the world. So for me to be a vegetarian and be a strict advocate of it wouldn’t be listening to the ecology that the land is telling us it wants to grow. So one of the requirements of a chef, I think, for the future is not to propose a cuisine on the landscape. It’s going to have to be listening to the landscape to determine what kind of chef and what kind of eater we want to be. And if you’re in southern Los Angeles and San Diego and you want to be a vegetarian, God bless you. You should be, you should be.
But if you want to be in New England and you want to improve the ecological conditions of where you are, you’re eating meat. There’s no question about it. There is no healthy ecological system that I’ve ever seen that doesn’t include animals. It just doesn’t because the manure from the animals is a free ecological resource that amends the soil, that gives you better-tasting and healthful vegetables. That’s been around since the beginning of time. So to say that vegetarians live on this higher plane of ethics — and I’m not here to argue that slaughtering animals doesn’t carry with it some weight, but you have blood on your hands when you eat vegetarian as well, especially if you’re in the northeast. Because food’s coming from somewhere, and your cows are coming from somewhere in the winter. And if they’re traveling hundreds of miles, in many cases, thousands of miles, you are burning fossil fuels to get them there. And generally they’re produced in monocultures, and that has a huge cost on natural living systems. They might be animals that you and I can identify with, but they’re insects and bugs and whole types of flora and fauna that are dying to produce those vegetables. That’s not an ethical way to eat, I don’t think, in the future.
The kosher laws, though, is a very interesting question because I’ve become fascinated by it. I have a relationship with a grain farmer in the northeast who grows organically in a very diversified grain system named Klaus Martens. He’s probably one of the more brilliant farmers I’ve ever met. What he told me is that, when he grows — a big part of his business is growing spelt for matzos for Passover. And he’s strict I think it’s glatt kosher — it’s kosher, anyway. So he needs a rabbi at the farm when he’s harvesting. The rabbi grabs hold of the combine and walks with him on the field. These grain farms are enormous, even in upstate New York. It’s a lot like what you have here, thousands of acres. And a combine with a rabbi walking next to it has to go a lot slower than it would without, which generally makes kosher food, by the way, more expensive. That’s one of the issues related to kosher food.
But what he realized, when the rabbi would stop the combine, he would stop it because there was wild garlic in the field. Wild garlic in the field would make the matzo treyf for Passover. You have to go and pick out the wild garlic. So he started researching both kosher law — what was it? Why is wild garlic in the field, it’s natural? Why is that considered treyf ? What he discovered was that, from a biological point of view, wild garlic was an example of low sulfur content in his soil. He had an imbalance in his soil and, when he corrected the balance — by the way, by manure, by taking extra runs of his cattle through the spelt field — he corrected the imbalance and got rid of the wild garlic. And he made more money because he could go faster on the combine with the rabbi, and the quality of his grain was improved dramatically. Now he’s given me many examples — I think that’s a really good one — of kosher laws that seemingly have no reason to them. But, of course, if you research them and think about it, they have to be grounded in agriculture, in the proper agriculture that produces the best food and the best nutrition.
[Music: “Rag Doll” by Sonia Dada]
MS. TIPPETT: This is chef and social visionary Dan Barber. I’m Krista Tippett; Rabbi Dennis Sasso is moderating questions from the audience.
RABBI SASSO: “Tell us how we can prepare ourselves to come to the table and enjoy the experience optimally.” And a related question: “Does food taste better when made with love? My hypothesis is that, yes, it does taste better. Have you ever come across any evidence that would be able to support this theory?”
MR. BARBER: Well, again, I go back to some of the same things as just like producing food that’s delicious. That ends up getting you to the table, whether you’re in the right frame of mind or not, because you’re after the good food. Then I guess the second part of it is — what was the second part? I’m sorry. Food with love, food with love. I’m a very like angry cook in my kitchen, so I’m not the right guy…
MS. TIPPETT: Are you?
MR. BARBER: Yeah. I yell a lot.
MS. TIPPETT: It took us all this time to get to that.
MR. BARBER: Yeah, well, it’s only ’cause we have a minute left to get to the truth. [laughter] Yeah. I mean, I yell a lot and I’m very disciplining with the cooks and a little bit abusive. I mean, I’m nothing like what I trained under, nothing. It’s never physical, but the mental is like sometimes really pointed. So why am I doing another confessional? Because I don’t know that there really is this connection between love and happiness and smiling and cooking, and does that actually make the food taste better? I hope not because I’m really in trouble.
MS. TIPPETT: We could call it passion instead of anger. Okay. So we’ve really, I think, mined your wisdom tonight. Is there something that you’re newly passionate about? Is there some emerging chapter of this story that Michael Pollan hasn’t yet written a book about?
MR. BARBER: Yes!
MS. TIPPETT: Tell us.
MR. BARBER: There’s two things really quick. The first is that I think one of the things that’s been overlooked in this issue that we’ve talking about is breeders. I’m not talking about bioengineering, genetically modifying seeds. I’m talking about old-school breeders. At Cornell, they’re like the hippies that came in the ’70s that are there and have seeds literally in their desk drawers that we’ve been growing now; unnamed varieties of tomatoes, unnamed varieties of onions, unnamed varieties of squash have been sitting for years in the desks of these breeders.
So these breeders — and they are largely retiring, at least at Cornell — are the ones who have literally a vault — literally a vault — of information that I think is going to be so important as we transition away from the conventional mindset of agriculture and into this more regional look at agriculture, which is going to rely on these seeds that can withstand the challenges of growing locally and in a diverse system. So I’m really excited about that and I’m working with Jack Algiere and with a lot of these breeders in trying to get them to stay on and work more with us. What they say to me over and over again is, “No one’s ever asked me about flavor.” I hear it every time from the breeders. It was like clockwork, it’s so weird. No one asks me about flavor. They always ask me about yield and about disease resistance. They’re just like all we have to do is select for flavor.
And then the second, it’s just the most exciting introduction I had to Dr. William Li, who’s the head of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Boston at Cambridge, and he’s working on researching capillary growths that feed tumors; not the tumor themselves, but the blood supply that feeds the tumors. So why is that of interest to me? It’s of interest to me because Dr. Li’s approach is to target foods that are high in anti-angiogenic properties that literally shrink tumors. When I saw and heard Dr. Li speak, I felt so moved about what he was talking about. It made so much sense. Food and cancer and food and this idea that, if we eat right, we can actually eat well and starve cancer. What I did when I met him — I had thought for sure he had thought of this, but I said, all these foods he’s identified as being high in anti-angiogenic properties, like parsnips and grapes and certain teas, I said, “Have you ever studied how those parsnips and grapes are grown?” In other words, is a parsnip just a parsnip or a parsnip grown in the right kind of soil with the right kind of amendments? He looked at me and said, “We’ve never done those studies.”
So what we’re embarking on very slowly is taking ingredients from Stone Barns and sending them to him and getting a read with those Brix levels. Because, again, my own personal wacky theory is that this high Brix level is going to correspond to high nutrient density, which is going to correspond to the kinds of foods that will shrink capillary growth to tumors. He believes it and he’s a foodie, and so we’re going to have a lot of fun, I think, trying to identify these foods that are grown in the right way and giving you 13.8 percent Brix level. Does that correspond with cancer-fighting properties? His theory and mine, for what it’s worth to you, is that there’s a large correlation. So I’m really excited to pursue that. I think we’ll see more of that as we move on with this movement.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s a great place to end that correlation again that’s run all the way through this between what is life-giving and pleasurable and sustainable. And I really want to thank you for making that equation come to life in your work and for us tonight.
MR. BARBER: Thank you, Krista.
[Music: “Too Many Cooks” by Portico Quartet]
MS. TIPPETT: Dan Barber is co-owner and executive chef of two restaurants — Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. His new book is well worth a read. It’s called The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.
There was a lot in my live, unedited encounter on stage with Dan Barber that I wish we could have fit into this broadcast. Like his life-changing encounter with an apricot when he was an apprentice chef in France and his fresh and informed perspective on why farmers’ markets and home gardens are only a small slice of the new regional food economies we need. You can watch the video of that full conversation and take a visual taste of a nine-course Dan Barber meal through the eyes of a photographer at onbeing.org.
And don’t forget that we now have a free On Being app. For iPhone and iPad users, go to the iTunes store; for Android users, download the mobile app in the Google Play store. And please let us know what you think as we develop the next version.
[Music: “Arrabal” by Gotan Project]
MS. TIPPETT: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, and Julie Rawe.
Special thanks this week to the Spirit & Place Festival of Indianapolis and Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, especially Rabbi Sandy Sasso, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, and Shari Lipp-Levine.