Interview with Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill – New York, NY
Tejal Rao: You came across Eliot Coleman’s writing as an undergrad at Tufts and he allowed you to look at cooking and farming in a different way. Was there a moment when it all came together?
Dan Barber: Yes, but the reason his writing really spoke to me is because I grew up spending time on Blue Hill Farm, my grandmother’s farm. I worked there – that’s how I spent my time growing up. My grandmother wasn’t a farmer, so to speak, but we’re talking about 200 acres of pasture land – she was a land activist, really keen on preserving open spaces and keeping a country feel. Her agricultural philosophy was about pleasure – pleasure in terms of sight and by way of responsibility.
When I got into college, I read Coleman. Here was a guy saying, not directly, but indirectly, the same thing. I thought about pleasure in terms of taste by way of responsibility. It spoke to me because my grandmother spoke to me first. Food meant more than cooking, more than pleasure. It’s so much attached to how we buy and grow, and who’s growing it and how it’s getting to you. This is a big part of the experience of being a chef.
TR: Your writing is fantastic; how did you get into it?
DB: Thank you. I don’t know, I was an English major – English and Political Science. I saw how food issues could be at once poetic and political. In food, issues that surround purchasing and that whole realm have a very political component and they branch into stories that can be really compelling. Just being on the farm, interacting with all these people in the industry, leads to personal narratives that can be used to make a larger point.
TR: Tell me about Stone Barns Center’s greenhouse; it’s really cool.
DB: Oh yeah, the greenhouse is really the heart and soul of the project. It’s hard to be as passionate about it as I normally would be, say in the winter, because Jack Algiere and his crew have 6½ acres of outdoor production going on right now…
TR: Because it is only used for cold weather growing?
DB: Yes, mostly, but what’s really great about it is that we can use it for, say, arugula this time of year. The arugula doesn’t bolt or get bitter because certain UV rays can’t get in. But yes, the real reason for building it, initially, was to allow the farm to have revenue 12 months of the year. Farming in the Northeast is very difficult, and Westchester County is particularly hard.
DB: Well, the weather. We have a great 5 month growing season but then the rest of the year the land is dormant. If you run something through the greenhouse at least you can break even in January/February/March and, partly, provide food for the restaurant. Jack doesn’t grow, for example, tomatoes, in the middle of winter just because I want them on the menu. He picks winter vegetables that require the least amount of fossil fuel possible – like salad greens and cold winter vegetables – that thrive in cold weather. Also, they’ve got to grow quickly – 6-8 weeks – because fast turnover means fast revenue and it’s truly driven by economics and flavor.
TR: So it's all about economics and flavor.
DB: Actually, no, the greenhouse is driven by three things:
Where ecology is what’s being grown in this micro-ecology that can simultaneously thrive and better the soil/rotation, not just the flavor. If you just think exclusively about what would be the best tasting or the most profitable, you’re just not seeing the big picture. In the greenhouse, all three work in tandem. It took me a while to understand this, but when I think about it today, I think you can’t have great flavor and bad ecology. They’re inextricably connected.
TR: How did you learn about this – did you have a farming mentor of some sort or was it trial and error?
DB: Eliot Coleman, actually! He was the Four Season Farm’s master planner. I called him because I really wanted to meet him – I’d been to his lectures and read his books, and I’ve even written to him but he never wrote me back… Finally, we reached out to him and said, here’s a real opportunity. He got into it really quickly; he’s a large part of why my family is so involved now.
TR: Pastoral photography is the new pastoral poetry. The pictures of you on the farm are very pretty, very romantic – but you spent a lot of time on your farm; you knew what was involved.
DB: Yes, for me there was very little romance. The pay-off was simply open space. I can’t stress it enough: the farm is all open pasture. The reality of caring for it isn’t a drudgery but I always keep in mind that land degrades when it’s not cared for. It takes time and energy and passion to maintain it, and it becomes a way – the way – to connect back to the food.
TR: Was it ever so hard you wanted to do something else?
DB: I’m not sure what you mean…
TR: I mean, working in kitchens. I quit after 2 years – I think it’s another thing that’s romanticized to no end and turns out to be really hard. Did you ever think you’d do something else instead?
DB: Oh yes, I think that everyday. Everyday something goes awry. I mean, look, you know how much can go wrong in a kitchen so you can imagine when that restaurant is so closely linked to a farm how much more can actually go wrong. You take those disappointments and times them by 2 and you become even more sensitive to them. Some days, I feel that way. But at the same time I don’t know if this has any kind of legitimacy. I’m very close to it, too close to it even, to give an unbiased opinion. Let’s be honest; it’s a dream.
TR: It is. What’s going on in those 6½ acres right now?
DB: September: tomatoes galore. Jack and his crew are harvesting about 1000 pounds a week. We’ve got about 30 varieties this summer between Blue Hill Farm and Stone Barns. We’ve got broccoli and cauliflower going and we’re doing experiments with older varieties – there’s this pura cassava broccoli right now that was basically the grandfather of modern broccoli. It’s incredibly misshapen - standard broccoli is so bulked up and uniform and much lighter in color. This is more broccoli rabe-esque and it has a more interesting flavor. It’s more complex, not necessarily sweeter, and when you bite into it it’s like you’re getting 10 times the amount of broccoli flavor.
TR: Where do the farmers get the seeds?
DB: Jack got these seeds from a friend who’s a farmer but we generally get them from all over – catalog companies sometimes. With garlic and shallots though, we create our own. We’re letting them go to seed and then planting them ourselves.
TR: What about Stone Barns’ animals?
DB: We can control the future generations of the pig by having a boar and sow mate, picking and choosing the parents based on the specific characteristics we want to continue. I think what Craig Haney, the Center's Livestock Manager, is doing is stunning, I mean, they do have hiccups – consistency issues – but they can start to work these out when there’s genetic control. It’s amazing.
TR: So what sort of characteristics are you trying to carry on?
DB: There aren’t a lot of people who buy and raise pigs these days. Generally, the way it happens, is farmers will get a large number of stock of feeder pigs, young piglets, from Iowa and then bring them back to their farm to raise them. Later, they’ll sell them at farmers markets. There aren’t a lot of farmers that breed their own – or at least, there are fewer and fewer of them.
DB: Because people use frozen boar sperm to artificially inseminate the sows – “boars in a bottle,” that’s what they call them.
TR: That’s…so gross.
DB: Seriously, the websites for these things are like pig porn – the whole industry is just pathetic. And the thing is, you don’t really know what you’re getting. You can go on the site and pick out the boar you want but in the end you still don’t really know what you’re getting. You have very little control. But, to answer the question, there are only a few factors to making great pork. One is diet, another one is location (is it moving around and creating flavor), and the last is genetics. In many ways genetics is the most important one for a chef. Of course, so is the diet and the pigs’ general sense of happiness but genetics is number one. You can practice old style genetic manipulation with a natural process. If you take a sow that looks like it’s doing really well and find a boar that’s got good characteristics then, naturally, the next generation will have them too. That generally leads to better flavor and better marbling.
TR: Is that what you’re really looking for, marbling?
DB: At the end of the day, yes. It’s all about the marbling and maybe a few other things along the way. But intramuscular fat, that’s where you get a lot of flavor. Fat carries the flavor but in the last 50 years it’s been bred out of pigs. When American chicken exploded in the 70’s and became such a huge commodity, it took away pork sales. The pork industry suffered and had to change – get leaner, reinvent itself -
TR: - as the other white meat.
DB: Right. The national taste veered towards lean beef and chicken and we developed an entirely new breed of pig. And the thing is, once you start breeding a pig for less fat, you can’t keep it outside anymore. This new pig can’t regulate its body fat so it can’t survive the cold. Then the pig has to live inside because there’s a physical imperative for it.
TR: But you’re bringing it back out.
DB: We’re achieving better marbling and better flavor with old world wisdom that’s been passed down for generations but we’re still using technology. In the case of the pigs, we keep a sonogram machine on the farm and run it over the sow’s backside to get a reading of its distribution of fat and marbling.
TR: That’s amazing!
DB: I try to talk about a farm/chef/restaurant that utilizes old world heritage wisdom and expertise (which these farmers have in abundance) and marrying it with technology to bring it into a modern context. If you’re a purist, might look at it as techno glitz ridiculousness, but you can have better tasting meat through technology so why not? Sustainability doesn’t mean ignoring innovation and modern applications.
TR: I read this review of The Fat Badger by Giles Coren where he goes on about mineral water and calls it a “preposterous vanity.” And he’s actually made it a category that he grades just as he would cooking and service, insisting that if it’s served at all it better be local. What are your thoughts?
DB: That’s great, I’d love to read it. We use Keepers Spring which bottles local water. It’s completely non-profit; it was started by Kennedy JR to profit local water sources. And it’s delicious.
TR: Plastic bottles that never decompose? Glass bottles too heavy to freight?
DB: Sure, there’s a compromise. But on the other hand, all profit goes to maintaining clean water in our region, so it’s great.
TR: Almond carrots and almond fennel. In your story the carrots you and Jack grew in almond powder don’t taste like almonds but somehow, that doesn’t come across as a failure. What about the fennel – how’s that working out?
DB: You tell me when you come in; we’re getting better and better at it. Within a couple of weeks we should have it figured out. Recently, we did it and it looks like it will actually work for the first time – but you need tons and tons of the dust.
TR: Your grandmother’s old farm in Massachusetts, is it a dairy operation now for your cheese-making? I read about it once but can’t seem to find anything more about it.
DB: Not yet, we’re making milk though and the milk is unbelievable. It was a dairy farm for 120 years, then it became a cattle grazing farm with my grandmother, and now we’ve returned it to dairy. We have about 22 dairy cows and we’ve hired a farmer, Sean Stanton.
TR: Are you selling it?
DB: Right now we’re making a lot of butter and ricotta cheese, just for the restaurant. But ultimately, within the next year, we want to make the cheese.
TR: What kinds of cheeses do you want to make?
DB: We’re testing out the breeds to see what works best; we’ve got about 5 or 6 breeds right now and it’s going to take a while to figure out. But that’s the future of Blue Hill Farm. My brother and I want it to be more than Stone Barns – we want to start raising cattle.
TR: So, Stone Barns is a not-for-profit founded by David Rockefeller (who provided the initial 30 million dollar investment into the project); I know you have to start turning a profit after three years, hasn’t it been three years?
DB: Yeah, it’s been just about 3 years. The farm and the restaurant are doing really well. In fact, we were really lucky and started turning a profit in the restaurant within our first year. But when you look at the gestalt of the thing, the focus is non-profit educational work and we’re working to build it up, supported by community. Rockefeller’s basic premise was, I’m building the place but it needs to work on its own in the future. And for us to do all of the stuff we do, it requires money – we’re trying to balance it with income from the restaurant and farm, but also through memberships, grants, and donations.
TR: If you could go anywhere in the world for dinner tonight, where would it be?
DB: I need to think about it for a second… I think it would be Michel Bras – I’ve read so much about it.
TR: So what else is going on?
DB: Because so many chefs are doing innovative things in their kitchens, I feel like there’s an opportunity to translate that kind of creativity to agriculture. With respect to our heritage and old world wisdom, we can push things in directions they haven’t been before. You look at a recipe and look at a dish, and traditionally you can break it down into ingredients, but what I would like do is dial back one step farther and break the ingredients into their components. What they ate before they became mise en place. That kind of thinking is provocative for me – it’s an exciting future if that’s where we’re going.
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