Four years ago for my birthday, my boyfriend and I drove a rental car half an hour north of New York City to eat at a restaurant on a farm, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Dan Barber, the chef, had just earned an award from the James Beard Foundation for outstanding chef, the equivalent of an Oscar for best actor. President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama had recently visited the Manhattan branch of Barber’s restaurant on a date night. As dusk fell, we were excited to eat at a table overlooking the farm that had presumably produced some of our dinner.
Disappointingly, it was tomato season — I’ve always had mixed feelings about tomatoes — but I was seduced by the first amuse-bouche, a glass of tomato juice brimming with vegetal flavor, leaving me craving one more sip. Then tiny tomatoes and other vegetables appeared solo and raw on separate skewers, each distinctly flavored, some tangy, some meaty, some candy sweet. There was a little tomato burger, whose patty had an incredibly rich, deep umami flavor, as though Barber had revealed essence-of-tomato, presenting tomato in Technicolor and rendering all previous tomato dishes black and white. It might have been the most delicious and surprising meal I had ever eaten. How did he conjure this kind of flavor?
After reading Barber’s new book, “The Third Plate,” I think his answer might be that he is devoted to food grown on carefully tended soil on land that supports a variety of complementary livestock and crops and relies on seeds selected for taste. This book is the story of Barber’s pursuit of exquisite flavor — and of a satisfaction deeper than pleasure in food — which leads him out of the kitchen to the farm. Not since Michael Pollan has such a powerful storyteller emerged to reform American food.
The farm-to-table eating that Barber’s restaurant helped popularize celebrates what he calls “a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” The chef’s task, he says, is to produce deliciousness from what the land can reasonably provide. That means fostering agriculture in harmony with nature and using even its less-desirable byproducts for cooking.
Barber describes three plates, representing the historic trajectory of the American dinner. The first plate is a seven-ounce, corn-fed steak with a small side of baby carrots — the prototypical American meal for the past century. The second plate is the current cultural ideal: The steak is grass-fed, and the carrots are local, organic and heirloom. On the third plate, which he envisions as the norm 35 years from now, a main carrot dish dominates with a sauce of braised beef.
Barber provides a trickle-down theory for how celebrity chefs influence eating habits. He writes that “chefs are known for their ability to create fashions and shape markets.” What appears on the menu of a white-tablecloth restaurant soon ends up in a bistro, he says, and eventually influences supermarkets. Take chef Jean-Louis Palladin of Washington, who in the 1980s helped create markets for high-end purveyors, converting mushroom hobbyists into full-time foragers, small milk producers into cheese artisans and a recreational diver into one of the most important seafood distributors in the country. Other chefs have inadvertently led the way to the rapid depletion of once-plentiful and underused fish, such as monkfish and skate. Chefs, Barber writes, “have an opportunity — and perhaps the responsibility — to use their cooking to shape culture, to manifest what’s possible, and, in doing so, to inspire a new ethic of eating.”
In his quest to do just that, Barber travels to Spain to meet Eduardo Sousa, who is producing extraordinary foie gras, the fatty goose liver, without the customary force-feeding. Sousa allows the geese to forage freely on a rich landscape including acorns and wild grasses. He ensures that the birds have access to specific saline and peppery plants, making salt and pepper superfluous for his foie gras. “You season your livers in the field?” Barber asks. “I just make sure what they want is available to them,” Sousa answers.
Sousa is unperturbed when hawks steal half the goose eggs or the geese eat half his olives, whose oil he could sell for greater profit than their livers. This approach reveals what Barber sees as a universal truth about nature: “When we allow nature to work, which means when we farm in a way that promotes all of its frustrating inefficiencies — when we grow nature — we end up producing more than we could with whatever system we might replace it with.”
Barber also visits with Spanish chef Ángel León, who is known as the “Chef of the Sea.” Instead of butter, León uses “a puree of fish eyeballs (detritus for most chefs) to thicken fish sauces, giving his dishes an added boost of ocean flavor,” Barber writes. “And then there was his preparation for ‘stone soup,’ made with algae and weeds from stones he’d plucked from the ocean floor.” León is from a fishing community well aware that, all over the world, fish have been disappearing since sonar detection, developed in World War II, was employed to hunt schools of fish and trawlers began to drag enormous nets that pick up everything on the ocean floor. León tells Barber that he has “every intention of creating a market for what the fishermen would otherwise treat as a loss.” This, he and Barber seem to agree, is a mission. “Isn’t this what it means to be a chef?” León asks. “To use what is merely half-usable and make it delicious?”
Barber does not argue for a return to the past, but he admires the food cultures that once thrived among the world’s small-scale farmers — whether in Sicily, Szechuan or South Carolina’s Lowcountry — who built cuisines that relied on grains and vegetables, flavored sometimes with less-desirable cuts of meat. That kind of farming and eating began to disappear in the 1940s, Barber writes, when the Rockefeller Foundation sent an American agricultural scientist and chemical developer to Mexico to introduce high-yield wheat and fertilizers to help impoverished farmers. The “Green Revolution” spread to India and elsewhere, transforming small-scale agriculture and, by some estimates, saving 1 billion lives.
Barber suggests that crops carefully planted in rotation could have produced as much food. Furthermore, he charges that the Green Revolution wiped out ancient food cultures, leaving monocultures of genetically uniform plants that deplete the soil as they greedily consume water and fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. The human consequences, he writes, include elevated rates of diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer — and a disconnection from sustainable ways of farming and eating.
Ironically, Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, sits on land donated by David Rockefeller as a nonprofit educational center many decades after the launch of the Green Revolution. From that vantage point, Barber is helping write a recipe for the sustainable production of gratifying food.
THE THIRD PLATE
Field Notes on the Future of Food
By Dan Barber
Penguin Press. 486 pp. $29.95