Farms of all kinds (garlic, organic, poultry, grass-fed cattle and dairy) share hillsides with orchards and vineyards. On a summer day, leafy trees line the road, which rambles past red barns proffering fresh eggs on handwritten signs, then tunnels under stone overpasses that seem borrowed from Europe. The only thing missing is a herd of sheep blocking the road.
On a Sunday morning in Rhinebeck, these farmers sell their harvest under white tents at market. Rhinebeck, about 10 miles north of Hyde Park on the banks of the Hudson, is small-town U.S.A., but the Barefoot Contessa could throw a sophisticated dinner party here with ease. Exotic yellow oyster mushrooms, venison, homemade sausage, free-range chicken, artisanal cheeses, wines, vegetables with dirt still clinging to their roots, and giant blooms of fuchsia peonies are among the bounty on display.
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the food goes directly from garden to table.
One local restaurant taking full advantage of the farm-to-table concept is Calico, a seven-table bistro in Rhinebeck, where I enjoyed a terrine of roasted garlic, pesto and local Coach Farms goat cheese, followed by farm-raised chicken topped with a black bean corn salsa.
But Stone Barns takes the concept of "local" one step further by incorporating every step of the food-production process into one operation, from planting to harvesting to cooking to serving, all the way back to composting. More than just a farm and restaurant, Stone Barns is a sanctuary for sustainable agriculture, an experiment designed to reconnect people to the food we eat at a time when factory farming is all too common.
The center, which opened last May on the former Pocantico Hills estate of John D. Rockefeller, was founded by philanthropist David Rockefeller as a tribute to his late wife, Peggy, a farm-protection advocate who ran a cattle operation on the family's farm. After his wife's death in 1996, Rockefeller began exploring ways to preserve his wife's memory and the family's Norman-style, 1930s stone barns.
Stone Barns' network of restored buildings enclose an open courtyard and sprawls across a hilltop on 80 acres of land adjacent to the 1,100-acre Rockefeller State Park Preserve. A former hay barn is now a spacious educational facility for classes and programs that are open to the public -- everything from cooking classes to wine tasting to organic agriculture studies. A silo once used for storage has been converted into a cozy reading room, and the dairy barn has been reincarnated as the Blue Hill kitchen and dining room.
Barber, a 2001 James Beard Award nominee, oversees the kitchen with executive chef Michael Anthony, a duo that has been featured among the country's "best new chefs" by Food & Wine Magazine and as "the next generation of great chefs" by Bon Appetit. The four acres of gardens and the greenhouse -- which will be open year-round -- are maintained by four-season grower Jack Algiere and his wife, Shannon, who produce all of the food without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.
The farm, restaurant and educational facility are connected, but all three operate independently -- so, for example, the restaurant is not required to use all of the food grown on the farm, and the surplus is distributed commercially or sold at a weekly market at the center. Likewise, the restaurant supplements its pantry with ingredients grown outside the farm, with an emphasis on local foods.
Visitors to Stone Barns are encouraged to reap from the farm what they wish. Some might opt for the complete dining experience (it is hard to pass on the seasonal menu, featuring dishes like chicken roulade with asparagus and creamed spinach, or baked Atlantic halibut with spinach, grapefruit, preserved Meyer lemons and vodka sauce). Others might prefer a simple lunch in the cafe -- duck with raisin chutney or cranberry almond paninis -- after a morning hike in Rockefeller park. There is a subdued, low-lit bar for those who want to sip a glass of wine in the country setting.
Group tours of the gardens and greenhouse are available, but people are just as welcome to meander about the property on their own. No area at Stone Barns is off-limits, according to Barber, and guests who wander into the kitchen are welcome. The educational programs are far-reaching, from cooking classes to a tasting of local artisanal cheeses to a full series on organic gardening hosted in association with the New York Botanical Garden.