From the kitchens of his New York restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber helped propel the farm-to-table food movement over the past decade. In his first book, “The Third Plate,” the 45-year-old chef steps out of the kitchen to focus primarily on farming, which he sees as key to a better food system. “There are so many cookbooks out there that I didn’t think I could add anything particularly new,” says Barber. “I felt like there was a lot to be talked about with the recipe behind the recipe — the one that starts in the field.”
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located a half-hour north of Manhattan on an 80-acre working farm formerly owned by the Rockefellers, diners eat tasting menus prepared from what the land produces. The chef is also co-owner of a dairy farm in Great Barrington with his brother and sister. “I’m a card-carrying member of the farm-to-table movement. I have skin in the game,” he says.
Barber, who graduated from Tufts with a degree in English and political science, spent 10 years researching and writing “The Third Plate.” He examines how a focus on locally grown produce has fallen short in making significant changes to the food system. His “third plate” approach promotes the integrated farming of grains, vegetables, and livestock to create a more sustainable food system.
Q. Explain what the “third plate” is.
A. On the first plate, you see a big piece of protein, a bit of vegetable, and maybe a smattering of grains. You go to the second plate and the steak is now grass-fed and the vegetables are local or organic and the grain is maybe whole grain. For the third plate, I think about the parsnip steak I serve at the restaurant right now. The parsnip takes the prominent architecture of the plate with a little marmalade of beef shank. This takes the conception of a steak dinner and turns it on its head. That’s where we need to go and we have a lot of work to do.
Q. How did the idea evolve?
A. Starting out, I found certain vegetables, grains, or fish that were so jaw droppingly delicious that I went on this search to find out how they were grown. I kept getting pointed to a bunch of larger conversations about the whole system of agriculture that produces a lot of things, not just the things you’re eating.
Q. What are the shortcomings of the farm-to-table movement?
A. What we’re supporting as farmers’ market devotees — and I am one of them — is a kind of cherry picking of ingredients, essentially the cream of the farmers’ crop.
Q. You use the example of your search for locally grown wheat to illustrate this point.
A. Standing in the middle of Klaas Martens’s 2,000 acres in Penn Yan, N.Y., near the Finger Lakes, I didn’t see any wheat. I realized that this whole suite of crops — buckwheat, barley, oats, millet, leguminous crops such as cowpeas, kidney beans, seed crops, and then cover crops — all supported the wheat. Was I buying any of those other crops? Not one. The farmer was dumping them to animals and we were realizing those gains by eating meat. It was an ecologically and economically very inefficient system.
Q. Can the food system adapt to make the “third plate” system work?
A. One of the crops that Klaas grows for soil structure and carbon is barley. We don’t eat it a lot in our diets. But interestingly, the explosion of microbreweries in the Hudson Valley and Massachusetts need barley malt for beers and they couldn’t get any local product. A small malting company opened about four years ago. Now it buys 30 percent of the barley Klaas grows. The beer is making him a very fine return and he is planting more barley. So are other farmers.
Q. How has what you learned affected what you cook?
A. I have an item on the menu today called “rotation risotto.” Tonight it will be like 14 different uncoveted grains, leguminous crops, seeds, and mustard greens that we’re making into a puree. Diners ask, “What is this?” There’s a real opportunity for restaurants not just to be places of escape as they are today, but places of connection to the natural world.
Q. Do you see other chefs adopting the same approach?
A. We need to change our conception of what a gourmet meal is. It’s not lobster, caviar, and foie gras. If you look at the best chefs working today, those things don’t even appear on their menus. It’s a new phenomenon that is catching fire and will be as viral as the farm-to-table movement has been.