isn’t a free

It’s time to stop cherry-picking, Michelin Chef Dan Barber argues.

Words & Photos by Ingrid Hofstra

“The history of every nation is eventually written in the way in which it cares for its soil.”

  Words, spoken little over eighty years ago by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that still ring true today. America was at that time facing what is still considered its worst environmental disaster in modern history. Years of drought and careless ploughing of the prairies had greatly damaged the ecology of the Great Plains. It had turned a diverse vegetation into a mere dust bowl, a man-made disaster as is now widely acknowledged. “As we felled and burned the forests, so we burned, ploughed, and overgrazed the prairies”, writes poet Wendell Berry in 1980.

  On a sunny afternoon in August, we talk about the future of the farm-to-table movement and the American cuisine, or lack thereof. “I came to the realization that farm-to-table doesn’t really work. Not in the way it is promised.” Dan Barber isn’t afraid to speak his mind. He tells me about an embarrassing experience, some ten years ago. “I visited a farmer, Klaas Martens, in upstate New York, to write a book about the farm-to-table movement. He was growing wheat for the bread that we serve at Blue Hill. It was delicious bread because the wheat was of such high quality. I wanted to write about the connection between the farmer and me, the chef, who was supporting the local grain economy as an expanding definition of farm-to-table.

    I was standing in the middle of his field, surrounded by hundreds of acres of different grains, but I didn’t see any wheat. I saw millet, barley, buckwheat, rye, cover crops, bean crops, nitrogen-fixing crops, but no wheat.” Barber says that Klaas had been planting all these different crops in a meticulously-timed rotation, in order to prep the soil for his wheat. “I was only supporting the wheat. I was celebrated for it, even wanted to write a book about it, while it’s actually one piece of a very complicated pie.” The chef learned that the other plants were either fed to animals or being ploughed under to regenerate the soil. Hence, Klaas was losing money on almost every crop in his field, except for the wheat, which he had to sell at a higher price to cover the costs. “This experience ultimately led to my book The Third Plate. I write about how we have to start rethinking. Going to a supermarket, cherry-picking our produce, be it tomatoes, wheat or whatever, even if it’s local or organic, isn’t going to save this world.”

    “I also started cooking differently”, admits Barber. The Michelin chef got interested in what he calls lonely and uncelebrated, but soil-regenerating crops. “I came up with a dish called rotation risotto, which includes all those plants that were growing in Klaas’ field, but for the wheat.” Barber is convinced that together, we can take farm-to-table to the next level. Especially chefs play a huge role in what he calls a “deepening” of the movement. “We are the biggest advocates, without knowing it. We always look for the uncelebrated crop. We don’t hang on to tomatoes, zucchinis, or eggplants. We used to, but the world of fine dining has changed a lot. There’s an excitement for the other crops nowadays. Take a tomato from our garden. I add some salt, but what more do I need to do?”

“What they eat isn’t a free choice. Be open-minded, change your expectations and give yourself up to a chef. Allow him or her to create a tasting menu that contains diversity. It’s key to the game. Nature is forcing diversity, it’s what it wants.”
    Barber’s hope is that chefs will educate these open-minded diners, who will then leave the restaurant with renewed inspiration. In his book The Third Plate, the chef and activist writes that while we have changed the way we think about food in the past few years, we haven’t changed the way we eat. To Barber, it’s evident how this problem should be tackled. “My advice is: consider where you get your produce from, have a conversation with your farmer at the local farmer’s market, stop cherry picking, look up the ingredients you had in a restaurant, find out how it’s prepared, and try it. It’s part of the pleasure of living.” He explains that this way, consumers create a revenue stream for the farmer, where he or she otherwise would have had sunk costs. It’s beneficial for consumers too, according to Barber. “Part of the problem that organic wheat is so expensive, is that Klaas was paying for all the other crops too. So he charged me for the wheat, but really he charged me for the whole use of the field. What if we paid the true costs of growing crops, meat, or vegetables? I think it would democratize the field, and lower the prices in the end. It’s about eating the whole farm. Look at the connecting crops, the crops that farmers need to grow to get a fertile soil and a healthy farm landscape. It’s the job of the eaters, to reflect this idea onto their plate of food. It’s a pattern of eating, a cuisine. This is what’s been worked out over thousands of years, in different cultures and climates.”  

    Barber believes this perception is instilled in civilisations around the world, yet in the US this notion is generally absent. “We’re still so young. When people arrived here, they discovered an abundant, healthy and fertile country. It was virgin soil, which produced a tremendous amount of food. We had the geographical space and plenty of rainfall. No wonder we are the breadbasket of the world, we had everything”, he describes. But it can also quickly fall apart, as history shows. Barber writes in his book that Americans have depleted the once rich soil within a span of just two centuries.

The chef argues that the colonists had no understanding of the land. They were conquering, rather than adapting or nurturing. “What makes it difficult is that we have nothing to look back to, to tether to, no history that speaks to a culinary tradition that reflects what the landscape wants to grow”, he says.

While Barber’s restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns are cornerstones of America’s gastronomy and have created a model for fine dining around the country, the chef-activist doesn’t believe that there’s such a thing as American cuisine. “It’s a silly idea which ignores our geography. I believe in regional-based cuisines. We live in such a big country with more than fifty cuisines. It’s important to look at these local cuisines, which reflect what the landscape provides.

    The US boasts a vast variety of landscapes, and because of this, we need various patterns of eating which reflect that”, Barber explains. He continues: “If you want to be a vegetarian or vegan in Southern California, go and be one. But if you’re living in the Hudson Valley, I don’t know how you would support that. Look around and see what the landscape is telling you what it needs to grow. It’s animals. We think of agriculture as a disruption of nature, but if we do it right, it could also be an improvement. Then we have to change the way we eat, though.” 

    When I ask whether that’s realistic, Barber says he’s hopeful for the future. “The culture is shifting. If we allow excitement and pleasure to take hold around some of those lonely grains, start cooking and create delicious meals out of it, we can change the culture. One of the great things about the American food culture, is that it shifts at a dizzying pace. That doesn’t happen as much in Europe or Asia. Here it’s possible because we don’t really have a culinary heritage. Our ideas are adopted easily whereas in other countries, they’re not. That’s one of the benefits of being such a young country. Once an idea gets hold, it goes quickly. Look at kale, or quinoa.” It doesn’t mean that change is easy though. The chef is aware that easily adopted ideas can also be forgotten quickly when something new passes by. “It’s a double-edged sword of course. But that’s not the only problem. Products such as Greek yoghurt and Skyr have become very popular in recent years, but what happens with the whey that’s strained off? 
    In Scandinavia, it’s turned into an elixir. In Greece, they use it to marinate meat. In America, it’s dumped. That’s cuisine”, Barber adds. The chef fears that many Americans still perceive food as a form of fuel. “It’s a dangerous notion and difficult to change. The bar is so low. If people can’t see that, then I can’t help them. The Japanese are a rice culture, but they recognize that buckwheat as a rotation crop into rice, is the best way to break up disease cycles. To get a better rice yield, Klaas here in the US, ploughs the buckwheat under. The Japanese make soba noodles out of it. It becomes inculcated into their culture. What I mean is, you can have all the rice you want, but you need to eat your soba noodles. It’s the same with whey. It’s what’s missing here in America.”

    Barber knows it’s a problem that can’t be solved within a lifetime. “We work on it.  We establish new patterns and traditions.” But the cherry picking has got to stop, he says. “The current definition of farm-to-table feels a bit passive. We have to start working towards an understanding of what a region really expresses. And how do we not only take advantage of that, but also how do we promote the strength of a region by creating a diet around that.  Barber knows it’s a problem that can’t be solved within a lifetime.

“We work on it. We establish new patterns and traditions.” But the cherry picking has got to stop, he says. “The current definition of farm-to-table feels a bit passive. We have to start working towards an understanding of what a region really expresses. And how do we not only take advantage of that, but also how do we promote the strength of a region by creating a diet around that.

    Dan Barber believes he and other chefs play a pivotal role in this culinary revolution. “It’s not a coordinated effort. It’s not dictated by rules but through pleasure. Restaurants have the power now, the ability to influence and change the culture for the long term. We’re forced into it and have embraced it. Look at what’s happened in twenty years in the farm-to-table movement. It has become mainstream. The next generation will tighten the bonds, and make farm-to-table meaningful.”

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