Maverick Chef: Dan Barber

By | March 25, 2015
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The Third Plate by Dan Barber

A tall, lanky blue-jeaned chef strides onstage at the 2015 Wallace Stegner lectures. In a friendly, commanding voice Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, begins painting his vision for the evolving future of the farm-to-table movement for an assorted audience of farmers, chefs and the food interested public gathered at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. 

“It started at Blue Hill with a loaf of bread we started to make 12 years ago,” Barber declares. It turns out that the secret ingredient in this bread is emmer wheat (also known as farro) sourced from farmer Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain. “It’s wheat from biblical times,” Barber reveals, “with this flavor that just makes your eyes drop.” To prep the soil for emmer wheat, his biggest cash crop, Martens sows an entire lineup of cover crops and legumes: triticale, cow peas, corn, clover, mustard, millet, kidney beans. It was during a visit to Lakeview Organic Grain that Barber realized fully the myopically short-sighted nature of the current farm-to table culture. Martens, it turns out, is forced to sell all these crops at financial loss for “bag feed” (farmer colloquial for food for livestock). Barber quickly grasped the economic impossibility facing farmers like Martens: The bottom line for farmers is hurting due to a consumer public that has not been educated to eat seasonally according to what their local foodsheds can provide.

This pivotal moment led Barber to reconsider his role as a chef. He realized the imperative for the farm-to-table movement to mature into the farm-to-table-to-farm movement, a virtuous cycle of chefs and eater, farmers and markets. As Barber put it, “we as chefs are increasingly makers and creators of culture,” with a moral imperative to propel the public towards what a Blue Hill waiter indelibly described as “nose to tail of the whole farm” eating. “Instead of an ingredients perspective, we need to start looking at it from a systems perspective.” And thus rotation risotto was born.

With his rotation risotto, a humble creation of grains and legumes simmered in the style of traditional risotto, Barber tackles what he sees as the key questions for chefs choosing to support sustainable farming operations. He asks, “how do we take advantage of regions...hundreds, thousands of regions that show off a particular ecological niche?” “What is it about your ecological niche that you can advertise on your menu?” Barber extols consumers to ”eat with diversity-to have a diversified diet,” with meat occupying a smaller portion of the plate than is the norm in the traditionally animal heavy American diet.

Barber’s latest book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food delves further into questions of food sustainability. Available now in bookstores and online retailers nationwide.

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