Dan Barber – owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns – is king when it comes to all things farm-to-table. That’s why we sought him out this summer for some tips and advice, as we’ve become somewhat obsessed with farm fresh ingredients. What did we learn? Barber sees farm to table as a way of storytelling, obsessively writes in black moleskine notebooks and starts every day with blueberries…
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner with my wife and daughter.
Could you tell us a bit about your new book, The Third Plate, and how it came about?
I didn’t approach the writing process with any kind of ethical or journalistic agenda. I approached it with the selfishness of a chef in pursuit of the best possible flavor. That was the starting point for many of the stories in The Third Plate: Seeking out some of the most delicious ingredients in the world with the hope of understanding their secrets and bringing them back to my kitchen. But as I started asking more questions, I began to see more connections. Single ingredients came to matter less than the systems that made them run. In a way The Third Plate is about these ecological relationships—but you could also say it’s about my education as a chef.
What’s one consistent thing one can see in all your spaces that screams ‘Dan’?
Black Moleskine notebooks—I use them fanatically to write, draft ideas for new dishes, take notes in the field, and scribble daily to-dos. Unfortunately, the system is in semi-disarray, so you often see three or four notebooks scattered around my office.
Why is it so important for the dining experience and education to go hand in hand?
The real recipe for flavor begins long before the kitchen. A great-tasting tomato, for instance, says less about the chef than it does about the soil it was raised in. That’s not something we often think about in restaurants, but it should be. Through a plate of food, chefs can tell a story about the people and place that produced it.
A common misconception about farm-to-table… (It’s become the thing, but are there people doing it wrong? How so?)
I have respect for any chef or eater (or farmer, for that matter) who is even dipping his or her toe into the farm-to-table movement. But we need to challenge ourselves—especially as cooks and eaters—to start asking what kind of diet our landscape can reasonably support. That, inevitably, will require rethinking the protein-centric dinner plate. And it will require supporting more local grains and legumes.
What’s one piece of advice you would you give to young chefs?
People often overlook the physical demands of life in a restaurant kitchen. You have to be disciplined (and maybe a little masochistic?) to succeed.
What are some of your passions outside food?
Before I started cooking professionally, I thought I wanted to be a writer. Eventually, the realities of running a kitchen meant that writing was pushed to the margins of my life…which may be why it took me ten years to finish The Third Plate.
What were your favorite foods as a kid? How does that play into what you do now?
I grew up in New York, so my favorite food memories are very predictable: Eating noodles in Chinatown or composing the perfect bagel and lox sandwich.
What are your favorite cities for food? What restaurants do you go to in each?
After culinary school, I spent a year staging in Paris, and, outside of New York, that’s where my culinary loyalties still lie. The list of must-eats is simple: Pierre Hermé pastries, and an all-vegetable meal at L’Arpege.
How do you always start your day on a good note?
At this time of year, with a handful of blueberries.
What ingredients do you consider overrated? Which make everything better?
The traditional “gourmet” ingredients—foie gras, lobster, caviar—interest me less and less. Of course, they’re delicious. But I see more challenge, and more opportunity, in working with a suite of ingredients that’s very specific to the Hudson Valley.
As for an ingredient that makes everything better, how about freshly ground whole wheat flour? Grinding your own grains is one of the most impactful decisions you can make in your kitchen.
In the same vein as ‘what is the new black,’ in fashion, what is ‘the new potato’ in food right now?
We are living in an era of foodie faddism. The irony, of course, is that it stems from a lack of food culture—with no real cuisine to fall back on, we choose our dietary preferences by sticking a wet finger up to the prevailing wind. What we forget is that, in order to eat deliciously, we need to eat diversely.
*Dan Barber, photographed at Blue Hill in New York, NY by Danielle Kosann.