On the obsessive quest for deep, rich, nuanced, and new flavors in the kitchen, where do you go when everything has already been cooked, composed, and talked about? Where do chef-explorers turn when there's nothing left to discover? They go back to the beginning. And in the beginning there were seeds.
In modern times, seeds have been divorced from the world of kitchens. Instead, they've been married off to big agribusiness, whose interests lie in high-yield, pest-resistant, shelf-stable, and homogenous seed varieties. Diversity, nutrition, and taste have been sacrificed. Farmers and chefs are left with few varietal options across the board because multinational food corporations end up determining what will be grown.
In September 2013, the Basque Culinary Center organized Seeds: Cultivating the Future of Flavor. At the summit hosted by Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the culinary community came together to discuss how the role and importance of seeds can be reinforced in to the larger psyche. Food activists across the globe have been taking issue and raising concerns and public awareness about the reckless disregard of seeds and the monocultures that they've been restricted to. They've been advocating for the stewardship of seeds for nearly a decade (just ask Italian Carlo Petrini of SlowFood or Indian Vandana Shiva of Navdanya). The summit at Blue Hill was pioneering because it brought American and international seed breeders together with policy makers and chefs to talk about the preservation of seed diversity, how to do it, and how chefs can contribute to the process.
Blue Hill's Dan Barber talks about seeds and the future of flavor
Gaston Acurio speaks about the traditional seed varieties of indigenous Peruvians.
Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien, left, and food scientist Harold McGee at the Seeds summit at Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Whole wheat bread from wheat varieties developed by plant breeders and bakers working together on display at Blue Hill
In 1946, when scientists discovered that DNA could be transferred between organisms, it set off a frenzy that almost 40 years later, in 1983, led to the first genetically modified plant—an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant. In 1994, the transgenic Flavr Savr tomato was approved by the FDA for marketing in America. A modification allowed the tomato to delay ripening until after picking. In 2013, that initial frenzy crested. Eighty-five percent of corn, 91 percent of soybeans, and 88 percent of cotton produced in the United States are genetically modified. Concerns about GMO crops are not only health related. There are also deeply related issues of economy and access.
The aggressive push for uniformity within specific seed families, apples for example, not only reduces the number of different types of apples on the market, but in practice as an multinational, big agribusiness standard reduces the total number of different types of seeds propagated around the world, for all produce. For chefs, this means limited flavors, textures, and ingredients.
As it turns out, variety is not only the spice of life—it's the foundation of food cultures everywhere, and America is no exception. From Carolina gold rice (instead of Basmati or Texmati), and black-eyed peas to wheat, there are entire crops that are now being rediscovered, which could change the way communities not only farm, but also how they eat.
Presenters at the summit emphasized the importance of collaboration between seed breeders and chefs as a solution to replenishing seed reserves worldwide. These seed-savers, who included seed banker Sean Brock of Husk; Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills; Frank Morton, a lettuce breeder from Oregon; and Steve Jones, wheat breeder extraordinaire of Washington State University pointed out that chefs are leaders their communities. As Gaston Acurio explained, "Farmers trust chefs. Customers trust chefs. We are a very good weapon to change the food system."
Chefs make important and valuable purchasing decisions, daily. If they work directly with breeders, giving constant feedback on what works and what doesn't, ultimately the benefits will be more than mutual, creating a synergy that may echo through markets and the larger economy. For example, Jones' Bread Lab at Washington State University is a think tank and laboratory for craft baking. Breeders work side by side with bakers, who use the laboratory to test flours and techniques with locally, regionally, and nationally available commercial and experimental flours and wheats. "If you don't know where your wheat is coming from, then you're endorsing the system," said Jones. Jones spent close to 30 years as a wheat breeder for commodity markets before switching sides. In his lab, he has one goal and that is to combine science, art, and innovation to explore ways of using local and heirloom grains to move the craft of bread baking forward.
The Bread Lab is one of the most compelling examples of how communication within the ranks works. The farm-to-table movement skipped over seed breeders like Jones who are now advocating for a seed-to-farm-to-table approach. Seed breeders across the country are coming into their own and finding a collective voice. Public seed libraries, such as Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library are lending out seeds to laymen and farmers alike. Following examples from Africa and Asia, American farmers are collaborating more closely with seed breeders, stepping away from the cash-crop approach to farming. In Iowa, a young generation of industrial corn farmers are diversifying their seed portfolio and are planting varieties that have been lost for years.
The Seeds summit at Blue Hill has started a conversation and brought together communities within the food production system who would not normally collaborate. Aligning day-to-day realities and expectations is a step toward change and a more diverse, flavorful world to rediscover.