Dan Barber: Chasing Fertility + America’s Absent Food Culture
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Our Dan Barber interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dave Chapman: I’m very pleased today to be talking with Dan Barber. We have so much to talk about, Dan. Dan is founder and executive chef of Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City and also Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Also the author of The Third Plate. So welcome, Dan.
Dan Barber: Thank you.
Dave Chapman: Let’s just dive in a little bit about you and we’ll get to all the rest of the world. How did you come to be a chef?
Dan Barber: Well, I think I overcompensated because my mother died when I was very young and I was cooking a lot on my own. My dad was not a cook. He didn’t even pretend to be a cook. He loved food, but cooking, not so much. So I was cooking always for…my dad traveled a lot for business and I found myself in the kitchen dabbling. And I guess when I got to college I wanted to earn a little money and I felt like I knew something about cooking.
And so there I was started sort of catering business in school. And that led to me having an interest in bread and I went to work in a professional bakery, got fired very soon after working there. And then ended up just in a kitchen making money figuring out what my next move was. And here I am 30 years later, talking to you.
Dave Chapman: You went around and cooked at a lot of restaurants before you started Blue Hill?
Dan Barber: Yes, you know, in France and across the country, yeah.
Dave Chapman: All right. And then after you felt you had your craft was Blue Hill the first restaurant you began on your own?
Dan Barber: Yeah. I don’t know that I felt I had my craft I’m not sure I do yet. But the stars aligned and so I had my own kitchen all of a sudden. But the confidence of craft, no.
I feel the same way about farming. And how long between the opening of Blue Hill in New York and Stone Barns?
Well, Mr. Rockefeller, David Rockefeller, the last surviving had been the last surviving grandson of the oil baron, John D. Rockefeller, came to Blue Hill for a meal in 2002. Those two years after we opened, and we opened up Stone Barns…I’m sorry, he came for a meal a year after we opened.
So we opened Stone Barns four years after Blue Hill, New York opened. And he came to eat very soon after Blue Hill, the first restaurant, opened.
Dave Chapman: And it was his idea, he suggested?
Dan Barber: Yes. It was his idea to preserve the old Stone Barns that was his family’s milking barn that was owned for 52 housing lots about 30 miles from New York that he wanted to see preserved. And so one way to preserve was to create a restaurant that you know, throw off rent and have a farm that supplied the restaurant, and that’s what we did.
Dave Chapman: So did the farm and the restaurant sort of happen at the same time?
Dan Barber: Yes, co-evolved, yeah, for sure.
Dave Chapman: All right, could you tell me about that? I know that Eliot Coleman was involved in the founding of the farm and…
Dan Barber: Well, Eliot was really the inspiration for my cooking. I read Eliot’s Four-Season Farming book in college and I just thought it was the most revolutionary thing I had read in college actually.
At that point, I was a junior I just remember sitting on the library floor reading his book and just thinking this is a revolution you can be in a cold weather climate and grow vegetables. The idea just seemed so nuts. And you know, Blue Hill Farm was…I grew up in part on a farm on a working farm. Blue Hill farm is now a dairy, back then it was a beef cattle grazing which I took care of all summer.
So you know, I had some experience every summer you know, I’d farm the land and so the idea of winter farming just was so nuts. So then I read that book, this whole world opened up. Even though I wasn’t farming, I was in college I wasn’t even hardly cooking really I mean, just seemed so great. And you know Eliot, he’s beautiful writer and lets you into this world that I’ve never left.
So, when Mr. Rockefeller had this idea you know, immediately the first person I wanted to call was Eliot because why wouldn’t you…because the idea of four season, the idea of cold weather farming, the idea of planning you know, for the cold climate it hadn’t hit the mainstream in any way. And so I thought this could be a place that ran with Eliot’s idea which is a very old idea as we both know.
But you know, as a place that would be an inspiration for four seasons farming just outside of New York City was a good spot for that. And Mr. Rockefeller agreed. He was the first phone call I made.
Dave Chapman: I was just going to say I was very fortunate to live you know, down the road a little piece from Eliot when he was figuring a lot of that out. And you know, I was you know, very fortunate to have him as a mentor in my early farming days. And we were playing with cold frames and plastic greenhouses.
Dan Barber: Amazing.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, I got the whole inspiration for growing tomatoes in a greenhouse organically from a little booklet I got in Eliot’s library.
Dan Barber: Oh, really? His library wow, I’ve spent many days combing through the collection, incredible.
Dave Chapman: Me too. Okay, so you called Eliot, and you said we got this great idea what happened next?
Dan Barber: Well, I thought he would never answer me. I mean, who was I? I was calling you know, my hero. And he answered me right away then he became a consultant for the project.
Dave Chapman: I’ve been to Stone Barns it’s beautiful and of course, the fields are beautiful and the greenhouse is great. I’d like to understand how that happened. Like, was it always intended to be a place to grow the food for the restaurant? Was that the initial idea?
Dan Barber: That was yeah. I mean, it became the idea as we became more and more involved at the restaurant. This idea of sustainable agriculture and culinary culture still, to this day is not a very…you know, it’s not a synthesized idea. We talk I think so much about well, look, I saw a list of people that are joining your conversations.
And I represent I think the only culinary gastronomic side of the equation. And that’s…
Dave Chapman: Alice Waters.
Dan Barber: Okay, good. Well, great you have Alice there. But you know, the…this isn’t an indictment of you or it’s not really a…it’s not pejorative. It’s just the sense that when we talk about sustainability, organic agriculture enlargement, we don’t talk about the eating culture enough in terms of supporting it not in terms of driving it supporting it.
That was an idea that just seemed, in part also based a little bit on Eliot too because he’s such a gastronorm. The guy is just so…he’s such an amazing leader. So that was ovulating revelation about him as I got to know him. But he also influenced me greatly that the two worlds do not collide enough, I guess would be the thesis of this place.
And that was the hope that…look back then farm to table was not a new idea. Of course, all these ideas are very old as you know better than me. But in terms of the consciousness of the everyday American farm to table is sort of new. And you needed a place that demonstrated a farm to the table. So here we are with you know, a restaurant in the middle of a farm.
So you know, I’ve got skin in that game for sure. And this was meant to demonstrate that. But you know, that in the last 20 years has evolved into a you know, mainstream idea.
Dave Chapman: So, when you did that…first of all, just to talk about organic, Stone Barns Farm was always organic?
Dan Barber: No, it wasn’t. To be fair, the farm was really a farm that was built by Rockefeller farm because they felt the children were getting too removed from agriculture. They’re becoming city slickers, what I’m sitting in the middle of because they wanted the kids to milk cows on Sundays after church.
The 50s they all grew up and moved away. And so it became a place that David Rockefeller’s wife raised cattle, but they were not under organic practices no. So when we took…you know, the project that we launched with this, it was from the get-go and you know, 100% organic, yeah.
Dave Chapman: Right. And was Jack the first farmer?
Dan Barber: Yeah, Jack came on a little bit soon after, yeah.
Dave Chapman: Great. Was that a steep learning curve for you guys? I mean, you had Eliot, Jack had experience. I’m just curious you know, you kind of jumped into it pretty deeply.
Dan Barber: Yeah, I mean, sure yes a deep learning curve in terms of how does a restaurant support landscape that decisions are based on you know, ecological functioning. Because if the ethic or the drive is to improve ecological functioning, then you know, there are a lot of choices that need to be made in the field, and they have to be supported by economy by commerce and that’s where the restaurant comes to play.
So your menu is really dictated by the ecological decisions that are made on the farm. And that took a lot of adjustment you know, and it’s a very different way to cook.
Dave Chapman: So you’ve written a great deal about the intersection of culture and agriculture, and how culture has changed agriculture, and how agriculture has changed culture. And when I talked with Alice Water, she was very interesting about fast food culture and saying that you know, we are losing in America, what we would call slow food culture.
And that it was interesting idea that just how we eat, not what we eat, necessarily, but how we eat changes who we are. And I’ve heard you say something similar to that, could you talk about that?
Dan Barber: Sure I can talk about it in different contexts I think. And the one that speaks to me right now as I’m looking out on a field of very diverse vegetables and some fruits just this premise, I think is at the heart of organic. There’s a bunch of probably premises at the heart of organic.
But one of them would be that there is a way to do agriculture that is not about… that improves ecological functioning. I guess that’s a very different idea than what…as you know, organic has been co-opted what it’s become and what regenerative is, whatever it means is that you do less bad.
That’s I mean to be a little crude about it and to distill it is less bad. Let’s do less chemicals, let’s do less soil degradation you know, and that’s all trumpeted as good. And to me the challenge, and the spirit of really delicious food is to figure out a way where agriculture is done to improve ecological functioning.
And that’s a very, yeah, sort of a radical idea still, it is. I mean, you know, you talk to Wes Jackson you know, he said, “We can’t do that” [inaudible]. Ultimately, somewhere down the line, someone’s going to screw it up. And you know, you really got to take it out of the hands of you know, decision making because people are going to make shortcuts, and it’s not going to…
I see the point. I’ve never been called an optimist but in that sense, I’m sort of an optimist. And I feel like there is a way to encourage improving ecological value from soil fertility forwards. And I say that with the kind of confidence I’m saying it because I feel that the connection between that and good food is absolute.
And if we know good food, and we can appreciate good food, otherwise, we have a parameter for what is truly jaw-droppingly delicious, then we stand a chance because that’s the ticket, that’s the key. Because you know, Americans, we can say everything we want about you know, fast food, lack of food culture, and we’d be right about all of it, probably never go far enough with depressing you know, statistics.
But the one thing you can say is positive is that Americans are greedy. And we’re very good at being greedy for the things that we want more of. And actually, figure out a way to pay for the things that we want more of. So the premise here is that can you produce a food culture that is desirous of the kinds of things that improve ecological functioning?
That’s a question that I have set out to try and answer. But really it’s a cultural shift. And it is in support of the right kind of farming but not because the right kind of farming is a moral ethic or because you know, I’m more of an environmentalist than you and the person who’s walking outside right now by me no. I may be, you may be, but that’s not the point.
The point is to go right to the hedonism and the pleasure principle. And to me, it’s what I should be doing as a white coat. You know, it’s not your job, it’s my job because for some reason the chef has been anointed in our culture a bully pulpit. I don’t get it but it’s a voice that I would like to use to encourage what organic farmers have taught me over 30 years, which is what they need to grow to have strong ecological functioning.
That’s the lesson. And that is a lesson that every culture and every cuisine has figured out awkwardly and sometimes disastrously but often beautifully over 10,000 years. So what can the landscape eke out and they didn’t describe it as fertility.
You know, we were restoring fertility after a crop but that’s what they were doing in rotations. And so you know, you couldn’t plant wheat after wheat, after wheat in Europe, so you planted wheat and barley as rotation. Or you know, I mean, I’m telling you things you know, much better than me.
But in Japan you couldn’t do rice after rice you had buckwheat and barley breaking up disease cycles, you have fertility issues. Same thing North Africa…global South corn it might be king crop as wheat and rice is but as you know the South is beans you need the nitrogen you have beans. But you don’t have you or me saying you better eat your buckwheat if you want to have a bowl of rice.
No, you create soba noodles. And soba noodles is your contract with nature. You have to eat soba noodles if you want your daily bowl of rice or twice a day or three times a day bowl of rice.
Not a bad negotiation actually because soba is so delicious. So those are the kinds of negotiations that I want to create for my…I shouldn’t say Americanism you fall into a trap. It’s not Americanism it’s for my microclimate cuisine. What is it that is a pattern of eating that does what the soba and rice did for most of Japanese culture, or the beans and the corn did for most of global sales?
Or the barley and the wheat? Or the lentil and the wheat? Or the millet and the…you know, so it’s everywhere in the world, there is that negotiation. And they’re often quite complex, but they’re built around cuisine and patterns of eating. They’re becoming inculcated into the everyday food traditions. So that, to me, that’s the exciting part about being a chef or the responsibility of being a chef.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, well, you know, I love it because it’s let’s say getting people to do the right thing for a reason that works for them. I will say I’m not quite ready to dismiss ethical choices yet because I think that’s important we’ll get to it. But let’s go back just for a minute you said basically, that if you stop doing something bad…so let’s just say simple one pesticides and biocides.
So if you stop putting those on, it’s actually been a conversation that I’ve been involved in the last six years. Does that mean it’s organic? And from a traditional organic perspective no, it doesn’t. Organic is about building the life in the soil sustaining it. And… Making it better, improving.
Dan Barber: Okay, that’s it. And that that’s exactly what I’m saying. And that has been co-opted and denigrated that definition as we both know.
Dave Chapman: But it’s an important thing because I don’t know what it is now. 40 million Americans are choosing to buy organic food fairly regularly. And of course, they’re often being misled that’s why the Real Organic Project exists. But it’s a wonderful thing that you got 40 million Americans who are saying, “I want to buy something that’s good for me good for my kids.”
I think we hope that it tastes better. And if it’s real organic, I think it does taste better that’s what you’re talking about.
Dan Barber: I know it tastes…I don’t know much but I know.
Dave Chapman: Okay, so let’s talk about that. Why does it taste better?
Dan Barber: Well, you would have I’m sure a more accurate definition of why or explanation, but I’ll take a stab at it.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, please.
Dan Barber: When you are applying interventions whether they’re fertilizer or pesticide, or any of the interventions that are chemical-based, you’re denying the plant the opportunity to provide for itself. And when it provides for itself it’s a stronger plant. Because the soil health is stronger, because the plant is stronger, because the seed that you picked, it’s the whole gestalt from A to Z.
So we do have to talk about seeds because of course, it’s in there. But the keystone idea here is that the plant is fighting for itself. And when it fights for itself, stronger plant, with stronger plant you get all the…when it’s a stronger plant, you get all of the benefits of that fight, which is expressed in flavonoids. And there is no question about it.
I’m not saying that there isn’t a season or a moment where an organic carrot and a conventional carrot wouldn’t taste similar. And that’s where you get tripped up because as you know, in our inorganic environment, you’re dealing with a thousand variables to which you cannot control. And part of the pleasure of cooking is that you can’t control it and that you’re adjusting.
And there are moments when the carrot sings and makes you want to weep, right that’s the jaw-dropping deliciousness. You don’t do much with it in the kitchen, but there are times when the carrot comes out and just for reasons that have to do with rain and sunshine and everything else doesn’t work, right. And that’s when you are braising the carrot, and that’s when you are…so those are the kinds of things that different cultures have figured out over thousands of years and that Americans do not have the culture for.
So in parts the issue…well, we want a consistently delicious carrot and so we dumb down what a carrot could be to get the kind of consistency. We draw it in sand, we grow lots of interventions and we get a carrot that’s pretty cheap and it tastes okay. But a very consistent, okay. But that’s the kind of thing that we want to teach against.
And you know, I find the lows of a carrot harvest interesting, in the same way, that I find the highs of a carrot harvest really exciting.
Dave Chapman: Okay, so let’s go back to the 40 million people for a minute. I think that they actually all want a carrot that tastes good. And I would even say that they’re choosing to buy organic also because they want it to not have biocides, and I would even say that many of them, not all of them, but many of them want to believe that the farm that it comes from has people who are taking care of and is taking care of the land, taking care of the environment.
They want to do the right thing. Would you agree with that?
Dan Barber: I wouldn’t disagree with that. I don’t know what percentage of the 40 million is what you said. But maybe it’s more than half maybe it’s almost all. But we’re talking about growing the movement. You’re growing outside of the 40% I think you better go to pleasure and hedonism.
Dave Chapman: Okay. You think that they won’t care about these? How about nutrition? Will they care about nutrition? Will they care about health?
Dan Barber: I mean, are we going beyond the 40%?
Dave Chapman: Well, you tell me. I know that…okay, I understand that asking people to care about, say agriculture and climate change that’s a big ask. Everyone feels like well, what can I do about that? To ask to care about flavor? Yes. Almost everyone says, “Yeah, I want food that tastes good.”
In between, there’s this thing, and you’ve suggested there’s a connection between health and flavor.
Dan Barber: Well, I didn’t just suggest there’s a connection I think those are one and the same thing. One of the problems is that we divide that into two questions. Well, what about health? No, you eat something…a jaw-droppingly delicious carrot is the healthiest carrot you can eat. Now I’m proving that not just by the tongue from me and my sous chefs which we proven over 20…I mean, we just have so much data on this now.
But it’s the carrot that’s fighting that’s fighting to defend itself from whatever nature throws at it, that is displaying, that is locked in with those flavonoids. The flavonoids are nutrition. Nutrition and taste what’s the difference? Nothing. Nothing. Now, I’m not arguing as an ice cream cone because it’s delicious is…
no, I’m talking about true flavor without additive sugars and fats. Additive, I’m talking about in its natural state. There is no disassociation between nutrition and flavor none whatsoever. Even talking about bitter foods.
I mean, we have a taste for bitter foods. Look, we drink beer you know, I mean, it’s like…you know, we drink high tannic wines. Historically every cuisine and culture has embraced bitter foods, and so does soil health embrace those bitter foods, you know, for disease inoculants and whatever, and then all the rest of the reasons.
So we have a very wide-ranging palette, we just need to embrace it. And in America, we have not developed a food culture that embraces it. I think part of the reason we’ve not developed a food culture is because this country, as you know was so young and we were so rich, we are still rich, we’re so rich and infertility. That was the main thing of writing <i>The Third Plate.</i> It’s like the research that I did about the diary entries of people the first years.
People who visited people who are here you know, in the 13 colonies, just the amount of food and the amount of food waste. I mean, look at the east of the Mississippi, what do we have? We had virgin soil, we had rainfall. I mean, what the hell, it was like a Garden of Eden.
And the history of this country…and this is not a consistent history and it’s very much, too, distilled, but it’s about chasing fertility, right. Manifest Destiny is about going towards fertility, virgin soil. And we weren’t forced into negotiations that Europeans or Asians or everyone else was forced into. Which is like, oh, you exhaust the soil what the hell do you do now?
You figure out well, there’s a crop needs to come before and you can’t do wheat after wheat after wheat, you need the barley okay. So then patterns of eating had to develop off of that. What did we have? We had the Garden of Eden and we never had to do those rotations because we have the fertility. And you know, in some ways one could say we’re at the end of the line pretty recently, right? We don’t have any more Western expansion to go and our fertility is running out.
And we have to figure out this way of restoring fertility naturally. So I think there’s hope if there’s pleasure, and nutrition in one sentence, one word, yeah. I can tell you’re not sold, Dave, but that’s okay, I still got a couple minutes left so I can make a sale.
Dave Chapman: I make my living on taste so you know, for sure. But I do think that many, many people are quite concerned about the future, and about what’s happening, and about health, you know, and about climate.
And I think all these things are tied together.
Dan Barber: I’m not denying it. I didn’t say they’re separate, I didn’t say that. No, again, I’m wearing the white jacket, right so what is my shiv, here? Where am I going with this? I’m going with the culture because I can influence culture. I started by saying, I don’t know why, I didn’t create that. I’m just saying I have noticed that in the last 20 years chefs are listened to.
And I think there’s a way to have a conversation about the pleasure of good food and the correspondence with nutrition and with ecological function that’s all one same subject. So yeah, you can have it. I believe that the 40% has an interest in one way or another in all those things.
I do. I’m trying to grow the 40%.
Dave Chapman: So in our lifetime in my lifetime, American agriculture has gone through a revolution has been transformed. I grew up on a dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the cows went out to pasture every day. And you know, it looked a great deal like an organic farm today. But that kind of farm is becoming obsolete, it’s going out of business and it’s being replaced by CAFOs by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.
I believe…I don’t know if it’s correct but Jonathan Safran said, “99% of the meat, milk, and eggs in America come from confinement operations now.” That didn’t exist when I was a kid. So the world is changing and most people I think are barely aware of it.
Dan Barber: Yeah, I agree.
Dave Chapman: You’re aware of it?
Dan Barber: Well, I have a dairy farm too so that helps. Blue Hill Farm is a dairy so we deal with these issues every day. But yeah.
Dave Chapman: So as that’s happened, the economics have changed a great deal. In The Third Plate, you know, you write about organic dairy as being sort of a refuge for small farmers who want to farm in that way. But that’s going away pretty quickly right now because CAFOs are getting certified. And so there almost is no alternative economic system for those farmers to plug into.
And there’s no alternative system in marketing for the consumers who care about it to plug into too.
Dan Barber: For sure.
Dave Chapman: Do you have any thoughts about what we can do about that? I don’t mean to put too much on you. But you know, I think that in your role as a very prominent chef and as an excellent writer, Third Plate is an excellent book. So you are challenging and searching and looking for ideas about what’s our path forward. Have you got any thoughts?
Dan Barber: Look, I have two thoughts in response to that. The first is I think we need to think about a path forward that’s regional in this country. I don’t think we’re talking about a one-size-fits-all answer to that question whether CAFOs or large monoculture organic you know, vegetable fields, or heavily chemical intervention grain, you know, wheat fields.
What we need to really think about is our microclimates as you I’m sure believe strongly in. And that America geographically it’s just an enormous place with enormous differences and environment and ecologies. We forget that. Italy sits inside of New York, I think New York State. And Italy’s got 19 different kinds of rice within three-quarters of a mile, traditionally planted different soil types, different sun hitting where when.
You know, we need to first think hyper-locally. And we need to think about first what is it that is exceptional about a region and about a place? And what is exceptional is what grows here that doesn’t grow where you are, and vice versa, that’s what’s exceptional.
That’s what chefs have been doing for the last 20 years, if you look at the leading restaurants, not just in America, but in the world, they have flipped. When I started Blue Hill, I had to have lobster on the menu, I had to have Caviar, Foie gras, or one of these to be considered even worthy of being talked about.
Today, to have those things on the menu that I just mentioned is an acrostic. I mean, you know, it’s like you’re old. The point of a leading restaurant now is to advertise what you can’t get somewhere else it’s why people travel to restaurants. You’re tasting something very different and very particular to place that’s very exciting actually if you believe that food culture starts from up high.
I’m a bottom-up guy so it’s difficult for me to articulate this with a lot of passion but I think it’s actually true. I do think that taste and mainstream culture, in this case, food culture comes from up high. And it gets co-opted and dumbed down, I get it.
But generally, there are ideas that come from here that become mainstream that are quite impactful and powerful and for the good. And I see this as a movement that is just beginning and is picking up steam. That’s very exciting. Concentration on regional products which is regional ecological health is where the direction of food culture goes.
Going fast enough for what you painted a picture of, I don’t know. But let me just play out what I just said as an example in my dairy in the Blue Hill Farm dairy. Blue Hill Dairy is a 1920 head of cows twice a day. And it’s 100% grass. There’s not a lick of grain. And so of course, it’s organic.
They’re older cows mixed breeds, but older. And what I have to do to support the dairy is of course buy the milk. So we do that with great pleasure because it’s the greatest milk in the world. It has differences of taste, not just by the four seasons, but by the week, by the field that they’re on. And I had a chef friend of mine, Alain Ducasse who is to me like Eliot my hero chef.
He came here many years ago and I served him…he had never come to the restaurant he came for a photoshoot, actually, he was there for breakfast. And I made him a bread that I was making at the time, I was very excited about and butter. I wanted to taste the butter made from 100% grass-fed milk, the cream from 100% grass-fed, and I thought it was amazing butter, and I gave him the butter.
And I remember he spread on the bread and he took a taste of it and said, “Oh, delicious.” And I could tell that he didn’t think it was that delicious. And I said to him and I was so invested in the cream and the milk from the Blue Hill Farm. I said, “Chef, please tell me what…I can tell you don’t like…”it took five minutes to actually get him to tell me. He said, “Okay well, I have a question for you.” He said, “Has it rained often at Blue Hill Farm the last couple weeks?”
And actually, this was Hurricane Irene that had come through two weeks before. He’d been in Japan I checked this later from his assistant. He didn’t even know about Hurricane Irene but it rained you know, 50 inches in 20 minutes, something like that. And the pastures had been really washed out and so the cattle had produced milk and cream that was watery.
Watery I mean, it’s still beautiful, delicious butter but to a palate that knows. And Mr. Ducasse is one of the greatest palates of our…maybe of the last many hundred years since Escoffier and he grew up on a dairy farm.
He could taste the fields were washed out. And then as he was leaving he turned around he said, “I have a second question for you.” He said, “Was the butter made in a Robot-Coupe you know in a Cuisinart, or was it made by hand?” And I said no. And he insinuated very, very slightly that it was made in a Robot-Coupe. And I knew we make butter for a person like Mr.
Ducasse you don’t make it in a Robot-Coupe because you whip in way too much air and you have to control it. So “No we take great pride in how we make our butter here, which adds the unctuousness of the butter.” And so he apologized for even insinuating it. Before he left he said, “I have one question.” He sort of turned around kind of Colombo style. Said “Just one last question for you” and he said, “Was the cows were they pastoring in a field close to the barn, or were they pastoring a field far away from the barn?”
I’ll never forget looking him straight in the eye and thinking to myself, I have no fucking idea what this guy is asking me but since it’s my dairy farm, I better have an answer. And I said to him, “No, no, no” because I had been there a couple weeks before they were always near the barn. So I said, “No, no, Mr. Ducasse from the field right next to the barn.”
He said, “Okay thank you.” It was such an awkward, weird thing. And so I was thinking about that, you know, he got one of the three questions correct answer for. About two weeks later, I was up in the pastry kitchen where we make all the pastries and the butter, and I looked over corner room, I saw the intern making the butter for service in a Robot-Coupe.
And I walked over to the guy and said, “What are you doing? Said, “Oh, chef, I’m making the butter.” I said, “Why are you making the butter in a Robot-Coupe? We do it…” “No, I figured out a faster way to make the butter. And so the butter, Ducasse could taste the butter was made by a Robot-Coupe and not by hand. Then the next week, that following weekend I went to Blue Hill Farm.
Standing at Blue Hill morning lights come I’m looking out on the fields I don’t see any cows. I’ll turn to the farmer Sean I said, “Sean, where are the cows?” Said, “Oh, doing an experiment this week we are pastoring them in field seven and a half which we don’t generally pasture.”
Was basically silver pasture basically over the years with the pigs. “We’re trying it’s really in bad shape, but we’re trying to bring it back.” And that was the butter from the milk from field seven and a half, the furthest possible field from the barn. What I learned now in my studies since then and reading, which I never knew also embarrassing, is that the furthest fields from a dairy farm as you probably know were the least fertilized because if you’re a farmer at 5:00 in the morning, you want to walk the least amount of distance.
And why he asked was from the closest field is because those are always the best fertilized because you want to walk your cows the least. And my point of telling you that is that the…now we’re never going to be Ducasse, okay. And you and I are never going to be Ducasse, the country is never going to be Ducasse.
But imagine the amount of ecological information that man has on his tongue. And if we even approach something like that with the food that we eat because it’s possible to, we can really make decisions about the way the world is used through taste and pleasure. And it’s a very powerful resource we have that we don’t use enough of we’re not educated enough for it. And I feel like my job is to inspire people to get to know those kinds of flavors driven again, hedonism and pleasure.
Dave Chapman: Fred Provenza has written a lot about…done a lot of research for animals having that kind of wisdom that we’re probably losing to an incredible degree. So you’re trying to bring back some of our basic animal wisdom.
Dan Barber: And, you know, wisdom that…basic wisdom was DNA I think what you’re referring to. And also just what we’ve learned. Look, the second part of Blue Hill besides [inaudible] the milk has…you know, fields that are differently fertilized and produce different flavored milk and that there is a hyper regionalism to milk from this area.
And we should be celebrating that, we should be celebrating the differences. And we should be celebrating just as strongly the veal calves. 50% of the ladies are producing male cows which are veal, so what do we do with veal calves on a dairy farm? Most of the time you shoot them, and you bury them in compost or you try and get them off the farm as fast as you can because they’re just sucking milk and there’s no market for veal.
So what’s my job? My job is to create a market for veal. So if you come to my restaurant, you don’t get a menu anytime of year especially you don’t get one in the fall because you’re going to have a lot of veal. Because in the fall I’m slaughtering the veal calves that are born out in the spring and I’m doing that because I have to if I want to drink milk. If I want to have the ice cream, I want to have the milk, got to eat the veal.
That’s the negotiation with nature. And when the cows get to be eight or nine years old, and we just slaughtered a beautiful cow that’s 13 years old, we produce meat from the cow. And we have the greatest 13-year-old grass-fed beef you will ever taste in your life. With yellow fat, bated carotene-loaded fat that is so yellow, you have to wear sunglasses to work with it, this is amazing.
Flavor is drop-dead delicious. And we try and take that and honor that 13-year-old cow by stretching it over as many people as we can feed as possible. So if you come to my restaurant not only are you going to get veal, but at a certain point in the year, you’re going to get old dairy cow and you’re going to get a little slice of it, very little slice of it. And you might get it in multiple courses, but you will get it as part of a meat or a grain, I’m sorry, as part of a vegetable or a grain.
You will never get it as a 6-ounce piece of protein centered on your plate, which is the Westernized conception of what a plate of food is. That won’t happen. And I’m doing that not because I’m trying to deny pleasure, but because I’m trying to increase the awareness and the pleasure around really delicious meat, that we have to eat in a way that follows the carrying capacity of the land.
And that, to me, is my job as the conductor of these farms and ecological functioning and the kitchen. So that’s what I’ve devoted my life to.
Dave Chapman: I’m so struck by the values that guide our lives. That’s why I think well, no, we should talk about ethics and values, but they’re invisible. They’re the air we breathe, they’re the water that we swim in. And when we talk about efficiency…and I was struck in your book by Eduardo Sousa, who is a brilliant artist of, you know,
Dan Barber: Yeah. And not ruled by the kind of values that most of us are. I once met a really brilliant French market gardener that a friend of mine had apprenticed with. And when we talked and I said, “So which of your many crops do you consider the most profitable?”
And he laughed and snorted and said, “What an American question.” And my friend laughed and said, “No, it’s a farmer’s question.” But you know, it’s both. All farmers have to…everybody has to make a living. And you know, it was an American question because kind of looking at efficiency and very short-term efficiency.
So I think Blue Hill as kind of an Eduardo Sousa of restaurants and McDonald’s would be the other extreme of some long continuum, right.
The CAFO to Eduardo’s [crosstalk].
Dave Chapman:Yes, like McDonald’s is the CAFO hydro of restaurants. And yet you know many, many people choose McDonald’s. I’m just curious. I don’t believe that McDonald’s is a good deal. I think it’s a bad deal for those people. I’m curious if you have any thoughts about that?
Dan Barber: If it’s a good deal or a bad deal?
Dave Chapman: Yeah. Is it a good deal? It’s cheap.
Dan Barber: Is it though? That’s where I would go to the heart of it, is it? I don’t know that it’s cheap. Forget about the environmental costs, it’s obviously not cheap when you add those up. But I’m just talking about a few…you know, look, when I cook at home, I’m cooking rice and beans, usually mixed grains that have been soaked a little bit and some beans. Maybe there’s you know, some kale in there.
It’s generally my meal. I love it. Super delicious if you take care and you take some time, time is expensive so in that sense, maybe. But if it’s raw ingredients to raw ingredients, we beat them every day. You know, it’s just you have to change your…you cannot live by a protein-centric plate of food because it’s expensive.
It’s expensive for the environment. Forget the environment, it’s just crazy expensive, but it’s also expensive on our plate and it actually doesn’t taste that good. So I would add some meat to my bowl of rice and grains I’m not depriving myself I want to…and I love a steak by the way, I love a steak, you know. It’s grass-fed steak is like, one of the great pleasures in the world. But I celebrate it you know, once a month maybe indulge in it.
But the rest of the time. I’m really excited to eat gently. You know what I love personally Dave, I like really love the idea of…and I wonder if I could export this idea to others. I get so much pleasure…I talk to you about just pure taste the pleasure of flavonoids the pleasure of taste. But part of the pleasure of taste is knowing you know, so that’s where it goes to the ethics.
If you know you’re eating something that’s really ethical, it tastes better. Okay, I subscribe to that. To put more of a point to it, to underline it is like I love…I every morning now I’m eating this new variety of oat. I started a seed company and we’re working with this oat breeder that’s developing oat with very high-fat content.
It’s loaded with beta-glucans, loaded…it’s like maybe the most nutritious bowl of thing you can eat. I don’t know. I’ve just gone crazy over it, it’s also so crazy delicious. But what I love about is that every time I’m eating it I’m eating something that if you rotate it correctly…and we’re working with farmers that are doing it [inaudible] so I’m sure you know being one of them.
You’re improving, again, that ecological functioning. And you are giving to the farmer what the farmer really wants to grow. Because oats are a great crop to grow in most climates they’re economical, they’re a great rotation crop. They check off everything for an organic farmer if you’re into grains. And even if you’re not in grains you’re rotating in vegetable fields. And the fact that we just don’t eat oats anymore is such a criminal thing for soil fertility.
It’s such a crime. I just read a statistic that in 1964 we were eating like 27 million pounds of oats and today we’re about 3 million. And of course, we’re eating…you know why we’re eating 27 to 3 million? Well, the culture of eating oats is gone.
But back in the 60s you know, I’ve spoken to all these farmers. I don’t know you know, Fred Kirschenmann I’m sure you know, Fred Kirschenmann.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, sure.
Dan Barber: He was telling me just the other day he’s telling me you know, his father and all of his neighbors and himself up until the 80s, they all grew oats. When I asked him if he grew oats, he’s just smiling at me, it’s like, “We all grew tons of oats.” It wasn’t even a thing that you were asking about it’s like you were growing oats. And there was someone to pick it up, there was elevators to store it, the whole thing. And what simultaneously happened as I’ve now studied the history is that in the 70s, you know, this idea that fat was bad, any fat, fat is bad.
And so to get a heart-approving stamp, to get, you know, oats as being heart-healthy, you had to have oats that were under 6% fat. So the breeder that I’m working with is in his 70s, and he started breeding in the 70s against fat. And so to get it below 6% because you had to have the heart-healthy stamp of approval on your oatmeal and your rolled oats.
Still, today, the American Heart Association and the FDA will not allow you to label heart-healthy if you’re above 6%. So every breeder in the world that wants to sell into the American market is breeding for like 3% or 4% fat because they don’t want to get close. Now, I wish right now I could reach into the screen and have you taste or anybody who’s listening to this the difference between an organic fresh-rolled oat cooked thoughtfully at 3% versus one that I’m now working with for the seed company that’s at 14%.
It’s like the oats were rolled in butter and cream and maple syrup. And by the way, why do we add butter, cream and maple syrup to oats? Because no flavor because it’s been bred out of it literally. And of course, now we’ve realized that what we’ve bred out of it is actually the nutrition that those fats are heart-healthy.
Of course, they lower cholesterol the beta-glucans are exactly the anti-cancer, you know, exactly all the things that you need are what we bred out of it. Craziness. So we’ve taken the flavor and the pleasure out in the pursuit of health and that’s why I’m so skeptical this health stuff because the health… what is health in 20 years? We’re seeing different things are healthy for you and then it’s going to roll on itself again, crazy. No, it was the flavor of oats that became part of the tradition.
And it was a great American tradition, by the way, great…coming from Europe but great. And we killed it. And therefore we killed the ecological benefits of having oats in a field and the market that supported it gone. And is that ever coming back? The only way I think is through that seed I think because those oats are so delicious that it has a fighting chance, I think, of coming back.
I’m going to end with this thing, I’m sorry to answer your thing so long, but I want to be a little bit positive. Here’s a positive if you’re down about how do you fight you know CAFOs, how you fight the agribusiness you know, that’s co-opting all these terms, and how do you get away from corn and soy rotations and the what. Look at what happened to barley over the last couple years just the last 10 years. The fact that barley is now…sorry that craft beer is now 46% or 47% of the beer market where 10 years ago was 5%.
So what’s happened? What’s happened is craft breweries are demanding malts from America, not imported European malt. That’s where craft brew started because they have no choice there’s no barley. Barley is Canada. Barley is in Europe. No actually not even Canada. Barley for malting low protein percentage is all Europe.
That’s where nutrition is that’s where the breeds are. And what’s happened you talk to breeders of barley and you say it’s like the last 10 years have been a revolution. They are breeding now for the American the climate and they are breeding lower protein barleys. And there’s been a renaissance of barley planting on what was once just corn and soy rotations, there’s been someone to pick it up.
There’s been an elevator to separate it and a processor, who’s a malting house, to process it. That came out of nowhere and to me, that’s the uplifting story here and maybe is analogous to what could happen with CAFO and everything else. Out of nowhere Americans decided that they are going to change their beer drinking habits because they don’t want a…they refuse a flavorless Budweiser.
And that happened in a tsunami. And they’re willing to pay more for craft brew. And the craft breweries are sticking to why they started the craft breweries to begin with, they want good malt. And that’s launched the barley revolution and launched the rotation of barley into a miserable system to make a little less miserable I’ll take it, I think you will too.
And if you continue to grow, it’s a great parable for what’s possible in the American food culture.
Dave Chapman: So I’m one of those farmers who’s a little bit bigger than…I couldn’t sell my crop in farmer’s markets, I sell to wholesale to stores. So I’m very aware of the forces of the supermarkets I’ve sold to now. There’s this amazing consolidation, and they’re all being bought by multinationals.
So one Dutch multinational owns three major chains, two of which I used to sell to a lot. And I don’t sell to them anymore. I’m selling my crop it’s all good. But I see that there’s this silo effect and it’s happening, and it’s very powerful. And one of the things happened recently is that the supermarkets are moving away from buying local not moving towards it.
There was this real energy and now it’s going the other way. At the same time, there’s all this great growth of CSAs and farmers markets, great growth of restaurants connecting to farms. So there’s these almost two economies, they’re almost disconnected. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Dan Barber: Neither do I.
Dave Chapman: Do you think that the one from the ground up can continue to swell, or do you think we can…do we want to gain the attention of the huge multinationals and get them to include us?
Dan Barber: I don’t know. What is the future of the supermarket is the question is. Look at what’s happened during COVID it’s really called that kind of real estate into question. I don’t know. I think there’s a real opportunity for a small community regional U.S. super markets, not a supermarket.
But a market that’s pretty super with selections that people are willing to pay a little bit more. In New York that really is happening it’s not a phenomenon that’s spreading as quickly as it should, but it’s there. And I would like to say that it’s firmly there for restaurants of a certain caliber that’s all we’re doing.
And changing our barometer of what’s acceptable for food cost to meet that desire. So it’s actually a very exciting time, but you articulated beautifully there. There’s two opposites happening at the same time and it’s very confusing.
Dave Chapman: I can look at either reality and it looks inexorable I’m not sure [crosstalk].
Dan Barber: But you can look at the corn-soy thing and say it’s an extra bowl, and then look at what happened with barley, overnight nobody was looking. A whole industry, a whole breeding, to processing, to storage and marketplace which kick-started it happened overnight. And that’s not nothing you know, that 46% of the beer market is not nothing.
And if I had said that to you in, you know, 2000 you would have said that’s crazy. Bud, and [inaudible], Coors, I mean, it was 96% of the market. You know, that’s the positive of lack of American food culture is that when we cling on to something that we like and we’re willing to pay a little bit more for, again, the hedonism, it changes with dizzying speed.
I mean dizzying. Look at kale, look at Greek yogurt. I mean look at a lot of trends that have happened that…I’m not saying they’re all positive. I’m only saying that we have an opportunity in America that Europeans, Japanese, Cantonese, Indians I mean most cultures don’t change habits very easily, it happens slowly.
And with us, it actually could happen quite fast. And I believe that for the possibility of better food, I mean, what else are you going to hope for if not that? I think the work that you’re doing is so important with the Real Organic…I really do. You know, I don’t want to come across as saying this is easy and it’s about taste.
Because I am only articulating one area of the correspondence between good agriculture and good eating that I think is less explored than it should. This is one area. Again, I say it because I’m wearing the white coat. The kind of work that you’re doing and health professionals and environmentalist it’s all so important. It’s not one lever to pull.
Dave Chapman: No, I get that. In The Third Plate, you really described the complexity of the systems very well.
Dan Barber: Oh, thank thank you.
Dave Chapman: It’s complicated. And flavor, taste is a critical part, but is one of this enormous system of moving parts that are all connected and together they create a balance.
Dan Barber: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I don’t want to make simple what you said because what you said is the truth it’s very complex. But I will say that going back to that carrot example a truly delicious carrot, truly delicious, okay, jaw-droppingly delicious. If we go back to the seed that truly had to come from a seed that was bred for those flavonoids. It had to be selected for flavor in some way.
It’s not an accident, okay. So it’s not a modern carrot seed that’s meant to grow in Texas, Michigan, Southern California, Oregon, Canada, Mexico, and China, the one seed fit all. No, that cannot be that carrot because those generics would be too dumbed-down to have the flav– So seed had to be right. And it probably was…not probably it was definitely grown in soil.
Because if you’re getting jaw-dropping delicious flavor, you don’t get it hydroponically, or you don’t get it you know, in not real sand, you get in soil, okay. So wow so that jaw-dropping delicious had both the right seed and probably seed that didn’t come from multinational so it’s probably an ethical seed. It was an ethical seed and was grown in soil that was not just soil but also had to be teeming with life, had to be.
Because without the microorganisms there to grow the soil microbial community never get that flavor, okay, so now we have healthy soil. And by the way, that delicious absolutely jaw-dropping delicious carrot was probably picked at the right moment. They pick the carrot too young, you’re not going to get that flavor. Probably was kept in the soil in this area after a freeze or two, because that’s going to boost up the sugars, the Brix, and you’re going to get a flavorful carrot and a sweet carrot that’s just going to drop your jaw.
Okay, so it was somebody who knew what they were doing. And that somebody, that farm, was probably local, because if it was coming…you know, if it was from California, Monaco, you never get that…that decision would never be made in time it was picked, the seed wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be soil, okay. So it’s probably local. And it’s probably a farmer that is paying the person who’s picking the carrot whether it’s himself or herself or someone they’re paying some kind of fair wage.
Again, that’s a very messy business. But overall, it’s probably more equitable than the carrot that’s grown in the sand in California, for sure. So all of a sudden, your delicious jaw-dropping carrot doesn’t just have the ethics of the right kind of seed and the right kind of soil, it has inclusion and equity issues. It’s a very political carrot all of a sudden.
And that carrot that tasted like that was probably grown and picked pretty soon after you tasted it, which means the nutrition was sky high. And that’s true because the flavor was there, and the Brix was there and that can all… So there is that complicated, you know, calculus that you pointed to all tied up in one thing, taste of the carrot.
That is in part why I’m so driven and hopeful about exposing the pleasure of that because you tie everything else up with it.
Dave Chapman: I love what you just said. So that was really important. Let me just say one thing that Bill McKibben said and I thought it was really interesting. He said, “You know, when I started with 350.org I thought we were having a debate. And then I realized after a while, we had won that debate and we’re in a fight. And we’re fighting against money and power just like always.”
And I feel that you know, what you just said if somebody could see that, they would see this whole thing. You know, one of my friends from Europe said it’s not about an organic input or an organic standard it’s about an organic landscape where all the pieces are fitting together.
Dan Barber: Well, look, you know, with somebody that you know…I’ve forgotten who. I’m sure it’s somebody you know because it’s very smart thing to remind me of… that organic comes from organism as the whole, you cannot separate any part of me from itself because you’re not dealing with the whole and that is what’s lost in organic. So I’m saying the ethics of that they’re so important.
But if you separate the whole you don’t get the pleasure of the taste you definitely don’t. And I’m here I’m sitting here about to go cook in my kitchen to prove that.
Dave Chapman: All right, thank you. Two questions, I’ll let you go cook. Did you want to mention your seed company Row 7 Seeds just because people don’t necessarily know about it?
Dan Barber: Yeah, I started a company called Row 7 Seeds because…actually as an epilogue to the book in many ways. Because the book was this journey, for me, of learning from a lot of your peers that taught me what it takes to be an organic farmer.
And what it takes me to be organic farmer requires just a ton of support from a chef like me and the food culture. But if you start with the wrong seed… What I discovered throughout the course of the book is that all roads led to seed. In some ways, I started with all roads lead to soil, I believe that too. But if you go backward a little bit more, it’s the seed because the seed has the operating instructions for all of this.
And we need to concentrate on selecting for the flavors that I’m talking about. Otherwise, you can have perfect soil, perfect farm, or perfect conditions, and if you have wrong seed, you’re not going to get it right. So I started a seed company with that spirit and specific to the spirit of breeding for place. We have to breed for these different conditions.
And as you know, better than anyone you know, all seed for organic farmers is…if you can even get organic seed is not bred for specificity to place and so it’s a weak seed. So as a farmer, you’re going into it with one hand tied behind your back. Why aren’t we breeding? Why aren’t we selecting for seeds that are super strong, super resilient, and by the way, have very good you know, yield, not just disease resistance, good yield?
So my friend, Michael Mazourek, who is a co-founder of Row 7 Seeds and a breeder from Cornell said, you know, we don’t have a yield gap with organic we have an R&D gap. And the R&D gap starts with the seed and we have to breed for organic systems, we have to breed seed that yields equivalent, and we can do it.
I was sitting in an interview not that long ago with a Monsanto executive, not an interview a panel, God this guy was so…you know what scared me about him? He was so articulate and that’s what scared me. It wasn’t that stuff he was saying although it was pretty gross. He was so adorable to the crowd, to the people that were there. That’s what scared me.
It’s like this guy could really communicate. Anyway, what he said boastfully is “We spend a million dollars a day on corn research.” A million dollars a day, a day, took my breath away. I didn’t know what to say. What do you say to that? I’ve been trying to answer him for the last year and a half since that thing. I’m like, why don’t you spend $1,000 a day on some organic breeding and give the organic farmer, not at lead.
We don’t need a prop up we just need to stay competitive. Goddamn, it’s so crazy. And then people walk in supermarkets and say, “Why is organic, so much more expensive?” Go to farmer’s market, “Why is organic so much more expensive?” It’s like really, really? That’s why I started the seed company. Give them a leg up, give these farmers a leg up.
Because if they start out with the wrong seed, it’s always going to be an elitist endeavor. And organic farmers are already struggling with the realities, without the interventions, the realities of what’s handed to him or her in the field. Boy, I’d like to have them start with something that gives them a fighting chance. That’s why I started the seed company.
Dave Chapman: Thank you, Dan. So last question. I read that you are planning to hand off executive chef at both restaurants after COVID. Would you talk about that, please?
Dan Barber: I am at a point…I’m 50 years old. And I’m at a point where I’ve been blessed by what’s around me right now. I’m sorry, you’re not looking at what I’m staring at which is 10 acres of beautiful diverse vegetables and grains. But I have been blessed you know, Mr. Rockefeller waved a wand at me so here I am talking to a great farmer and an activist like yourself.
I’ve been blessed and my brother who’s my co-owner, and my sister-in-law is co-owner of Blue Hill, we want to use this bully pulpit to have others express themselves. And you know, it sounds very holier than thou. The truth of it too is that I want to learn. I’m always talking, talking, talking, talking, talking.
What I appreciated from The Third Plate that I never appreciated in my life is the value of historical cuisine, historical cultures that figured out the stuff that we’re talking about beautifully. They didn’t have the same words didn’t have the science, but they’ve had the same issues. How do you get a crop that you really love but bring fertility back into the bank? That’s an elemental question for the work that you do.
And different cuisines have figured this out so brilliantly. And I don’t know anything about them. You know, my head’s been stuck in a wok for 30 years. I’m very French-trained and I know this environment, I know what I need to do in this environment, but there are other ways to look at it. And I want to invite other people to give their perspective. We could teach a little bit for sure, but much more is how do you use ingredients, and how do you use a pattern of eating within a cuisine that ignites that ecological functioning that improves the landscape?
There are so many ways to do it, I don’t know anything. And that’s why we want to invite other people to teach as well as teach a little bit.
Dave Chapman: Beautiful. Dan Barber, I won’t keep you from dinner.
Dan Barber: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for this.
Dave Chapman: Thank you so much.
Dan Barber: For the work you’re doing man, you know, you’re doing the hard work because you’re trying to say something that, you know, is very hard to talk about. And what I admire so much about you, Dave, and the Real Organic Project is that for so many years, so many years, so many people, including myself have bemoaned the direction organic has gone: the co-opting, the buying out, the dumbing down, but what did we do about it?
We talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. But what you’re doing is really exposing the truth. And I hope you feel the value of your work that you’re doing not just for yourself, but for the whole…you know, for humanity and for organic farmers. It’s a real blessing.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, thank you, that’s very generous.