Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Dan Barber

Chef Dan Barber shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.September 2007

As chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in nearby Westchester County, Dan Barber has become one of the most visible advocates for sustainable cooking and eating in the US — as well as one of the country's most admired chefs, thanks to the unforgettable dishes he creates with locally grown foods. He is also the Stone Barns Center's creative director, a frequent participant on panels and at conferences around the country, and the author of numerous national newspaper and magazine articles that address our need to care more about what we eat. Barber won the James Beard Foundation 2006 award for Best Chef, New York City, and Food & Wine named him one of the country's Best New Chefs in 2002. Both restaurants have been nominated for Beard awards. The Main Course met him at Stone Barns in July.

What is your day like?
My day starts early, when I go to the farmers' market at Union Square on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. This morning I was there at 7, but I'm usually there a little bit later than that. And then I drive up here. I usually have a quick meeting with the farmers about what's coming in, then work, then do service and then pack up the stuff from the farm here to go to Blue Hill in New York. I drive that down, and I finish my day usually in Blue Hill in New York.

Every day?
Nearly every night. Very late at night. Often after everyone has left.

Are there differences between the two Blue Hill restaurants?
I don't know. They feel very individual to me. Right hand, left hand.

In what way? Do you cook the same things in both or not really?
Not really. They're the same products; they're just interpreted a little bit differently. People have time here in a way that they don't in New York. The time has become this sort of big epiphany, or awakening. When people have time to sit and enjoy the meal, they taste a lot more and you can do a lot more. You can be more subtle with things, you can be you know more drawn out with the number of courses, with the different ideas because people come here as a destination. It's their night. Whereas in Blue Hill, New York there's a pace to it. There's a frenzy to it. It's in the West Village. It's small, cramped, and energizing. And so it's a different experience.

How did you become so committed to sustainable foods and agriculture?
Blue Hill Farm is a real farm in Berkshires that my grandmother started. I used to work at the farm growing up. My grandmother was a big believer in preserving open space. Blue Hill Farm is strikingly beautiful and in part that's because of my grandmother's desire to keep the open space, to keep that a farm. With that beauty comes kind a responsibility. I think she gave me that sense of responsibility because I was put to work. And so that must have translated into my feelings about food, which is to some extent the responsibility attached to the way we eat, or in the place that we eat. Or for myself, in the way that we cook.

Is that farm still an active farm?
Very, and it's become even more active in the last few years. We've bulked it up. Right now, it's a dairy operation that is supplying us with milk, and eventually cheese.

You're setting up to make cheese?
Yes, doing our cheese. That's the next thing that's coming.

Who is taking care of the farm?
We have a guy named Sean Stanton. He's a farmer and it's a similar economic relationship as this [Stone Barns] farm: everything that's produced on this farm is sold to us at a fair market value. And everything that even on our own farm is produced is sold to us at a fair market value. So it allows him to make a living.

So you buy all the produce that you use here from the farm that surrounds you?
Everything. And a fair market value for Westchester is very expensive. But that's the best economic model for the farm and for the center. It allows the center to exist, in part.

You're the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture's creative director. What does that mean?
Initially I had a big involvement in how this was set up, with my brother and my sister-in-law. The creative director role is in part to facilitate some of the ideas for the future, which means the program in terms of the farming, just where are we headed in the future. And to some extent, helping with programs that happen here. My interest is to share what we do here and have opportunities to do seminars and conferences and panels about the issues that we deal with here. It is important for why we're here.

That's something you do a lot. You participate on a lot of panels, you write editorials for the New York Times. How did you start doing that? You always seem very comfortable in public. Is that true?
[laughing] I don't know about that. That's not true. I mean, it's less a compliment for me than it is good timing of all this stuff. When we opened Blue Hill in New York, there weren't a lot of people talking about these issues. The consciousness on the part of the community, of the diners, wasn't quite there. Today it's a very different situation. So, I think I was just at the right place at the right time, believing strongly in things that ended up being important to a lot of people. Our food system, our food chain, has been so disassociated from our understanding and our knowledge that I think it was inevitable that there was a time when people were to start asking a lot of questions. And that's happened. And so, because of this place, because of Blue Hill Farm, I'm pretty well versed in some of this stuff. I guess that makes me more of an insider.

How do you deal with that specifically as a chef?
As chefs the power rests with us in terms of our buying decisions. So the more informed you are as a chef, the better chef you're going to be in the future. To create a recipe today or into the future is going to require a lot more than just weighing your ingredients. I think that a recipe in the future is going to be about what your ingredients mean in terms of how they're being grown, who's growing them, where are they coming from, how far did they travel. These are all questions that we don't ask. One way to look at cooking in the future is to look at a recipe in a different light, with the chef encompassing not just sort of the end product but looking at him or herself as part of a long chain. At the end of this chain, we, as chefs have quite a bit of power, to affect the beginning of the chain, to see the farmer, the transportation, whatever it is. Being at the end of the chain carries with it some responsibility. I keep repeating that; it's not really the right word: pleasure by way of responsibility. I don't know to say it. Knowing more about what you're working with not only makes you a better chef but a more informed person.

Do other chefs ever come to spend time here and see what you do?
A lot. It's funny, because when you come here and there's 50 different kinds of tomatoes growing outside the kitchen window, what I'm saying is obvious. Of course you've got to know how your food is raised. You're a chef, and you care about how things taste. You've got to know what the food you're using is eating itself, whether it's a lamb or a tomato. When you're surrounded by four walls and you've got the pressures of the day, which are immense and intense, it's hard to appreciate those things that are very important. I know that feeling. It's very easy to just call like a purveyor and get food in. The distribution chain is very, very efficient these days. I can ironically call for a case of organic carrots from Oaxaca at midnight and get them to my door at 6:30 a.m., for about 30 percent cheaper than I can get just walking outside to get some carrots that are there, and much easier because I have to get a couple of cooks to do it with me, we have to clean them, we have to organize them, we have to weigh them. Making that phone call is quite easy. There's an efficiency to not knowing this stuff, but it's an economic efficiency. It's not an ecological efficiency, because ecological efficiency is a lot more complicated. And if you're concerned about these issues that are more important than the food you're putting on the plate, there's the answer. I don't know. That sounds a little too preachy, but it's not meant to be.

The people who work for you, are they all people who are seeking exactly what you're doing? They really believe and they want to apply these principles?
That's a great question. The cooks that end up doing the best and the ones who end up staying the longest and having the most effect and get the most out of it are the ones who are coming here for more than just the latest technological applications, of which we have many, or the latest food preparation or what not. I think they're here for more. Because it's hard work. It's a lot of hours, and this kitchen is very, very demanding. You've got to want to be here for reasons beyond just your resume. They perform certain formal farm chores, and then there are very informal things that are going on all the time. Formal stuff happens for some people once a week for two hours, and for other people it happens sort of every day but little things like bringing compost to the pigs, or collecting eggs, washing eggs. That's the kind of stuff that's happening every day.

Obviously when you have people come here to work for you, you're not just showing them how to do your dishes. You have a much larger responsibility in terms of training them and showing what they need to do outside of the kitchen and all that. How do you do it?
I think I fall a little bit short on that one. I think I could do more. I just got through saying the ones who do the best here and are the most successful are the ones who want more. And so, how do you do that in the course of a day? In a busy day, it's very hard. It's time management that's very difficult. It's some discipline. I'm trying to get better. We do some things that I think are great, like bringing the farmers for talks with the cooks. Whenever there's a new thing that comes off the farm, we talk about it. Thursday night is pasta night for the whole community, so everybody comes together: cooks, waiters, farmers, and we talk about the week. The farmers talk about what's in the field, the educators talk about what they're doing, I talk about the restaurant, that kind of thing. So, we do a lot of little things, but sometimes I think it falls a little short. That's all.

Tell me about the technologies you use, either objects or products.
There's a lot of technology on the farm. I personally am really fascinated and a big advocate of this idea that one can be a sustainable farm but also adopt the latest and up-to-date technological applications. Innovation and technology are crucial to sustainability. I think you can be conscious of your food and promote a sustainable food culture and restaurant, but also prepare food with the most technologically advanced equipment available. And you can farm that food with the most technologically advanced machinery and applications out there, whether it be seeds, whether it be machines, whether it be innovative designs. All of these things add to sustainability in the modern context. It's forgetting nothing from the past, but it's interpreting it in a modern context. I think that's an important way to look at it. Because if you, or your students, or the general public looks at food agriculture as something that's a throw back, that's nice. It adds a museum quality to it. But you forget about it the moment you leave here; it does nothing because it feels like the past when in fact the stuff that we're talking about needs to be a part of the future. Which is partly why the design of this restaurant keeps the old feeling of the barn, but there's upscale china, and beautiful linens, and there are things in the room that represent modernity. I like that symbolism of old and new, old world and new world. What we're talking about is that same idea in the field and in the kitchen.

Why did you become a chef?
Oh, I don't know. I graduated from school and I was earning extra money by cooking and I was just trying to figure out what I was going to do. I went out to the West Coast to bake bread, and I did terribly at baking bread. I wasn't made for that. That just sort of drove me back to the kitchen and I was still trying to figure out what to do and here I am.

What did you study in college?
Political science and English.

Is that why you are so interested in food policy?
I think so. I just put that together [laughing]. Really, I hadn't thought of that. Food is very political so it's natural that I would be interested in this. I need to call my dad on that one.

Who do you feel has influenced where you are now?
I think my grandmother influenced me, but not for actual cooking. Michel Rostang in Paris was a big one. I spent a year in his restaurant and I felt like he really took me under his wing. He was very kind to me and he set up 10 different places for me to go staging around France. I just took the next part of the year just traveling around. He loved America. It's funny, because nobody in Paris loved America [laughing]. It was really inspiring to be around him. He is an amazing chef, and just a really neat guy. The way he walked around was very intimidating, because he's so knowledgeable and he's so good.

Is it still important to go work in France, or are other places becoming more important?
Well, there's Spain. So France seems a little bit dead. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss it but I'm sort of a Francophile. I'm also a Hispanophile. I just now have gone to Spain in the last couple of years for the first time. The food is so incredibly thoughtfully done, in the places where I've been, and inspired. So there's nothing wrong with going to Spain. But there's a food culture in France that's unlike anyplace in the world. And there's a discipline in the French kitchens that you won't find in other places. So if I were a culinary teacher instructing students on what to do with their selves after school, I would go to France. I'd try to go a lot of places, but I would start with France because of the discipline in that environment, of the quality of what you get out of the experience. That would be my take.

One thing that you do quite a bit is that you offer to cook for people, instead of having them order off the menu. How did you decide to do that?
That came out of my excitement about what was growing either at Blue Hill Farm or what was coming out of the farmers' market, or what was coming out of here. And often it was coming from the farm. I had very little of it; not a lot. And that was the kind of stuff that you can't put on the menu. So it grew into people coming in, whom I knew and whom I would cook special meals for. That's how it came to be. And now, 50 to 60 percent, and sometimes much higher, 70 to 80 percent, of the customers here order a Farmer's Feast. They sit down and they close the menu. We do a slightly different menu for every table. Tonight, I have a couple of handfuls of beautiful watercress, and so I've got to use that, and I'll put them on a couple of menus and then they won't be back until next week. So that's where the offer to cook comes from. It's really the farm that's cooking for you. It's what the farm has produced. So it's basically saying this is what is at its height right now. It's a great way to experience the best we have.

What are some of your future projects? Are you working on a book, on more Blue Hills?
No more Blue Hills. We're working on Blue Hill Farm milk and Blue Hill Farm cheese. I'm really excited about that. And we're building out this hay barn here, which never got built out, across the way. It's going to be a conference center and a catering hall.

Do you ever think you'll become even more of an activist?
No, I don't think I would. I think rather that I'd like to tell stories about what happens on the farm and how food is grown. These kind of stories that come out of everything that's going on here are very interesting, and I'm lucky to be right at the gate of this stuff. I'm right there. So I'd like to record some of that stuff. In that way, that's activism, because it creates consciousness about where our food is coming from. It's making people more conscious about their food, so they might then go into the supermarket and think twice about buying pig there versus at the farmers' market. I like this idea of telling stories about what's happening around the farm. That would then create more of this consciousness. So yes, quiet activism.

How do you create a dish? How do you construct whatever ends up on the table?
There's just so many ways about it – like any chef. You get a new piece of machinery, something comes in from your purveyor, or whatever it is. The best stuff we do comes out of these farm feasts, when your back is up against the wall a little bit, when you're creating dishes all over the place for people. It's a crazy kitchen. David Bouley used to have this expression, ‘kick the ball around.' You're kicking the ball around and you're not sticking to a script. You're kicking the ball around, and things are coming out and things are happening around you and that's when things are created. There are other people who can create with a pen and a piece of paper and draw a plate. I'm just not that kind of person. You're kicking the ball around and things are happening and connections are being made. And sometimes they're awful and sometimes they're too bland. And sometimes they hit it right, so I'm learning that, too as I go on. It's a process.

Some people do find the food to be too bland.
The food definitely does not jump off the plate here. And I don't want it to — and I'm not defending this at all; I agree: a lot of times the food is a little bland and a little too straight forward or a lacks a sense of boldness. But often that boldness comes from ego. That's what I find. It's like if something jumps out at me, it says to me that the chef is trying to say, ‘How ya doin'? Here I am.' [laughing] That's what I think about all the time in the kitchen. Is someone perceiving this [dish] to be a manipulation? Because if they are, it's probably a bad dish. If it's got your signature on it, it's a bad dish.

Is that so?
I think so. And that's not just because I want the farm to say everything. I mean, that gets a little pretentious. But if the eating experience is about people recognizing the artistry in it up front in your face, it's not art and it's not good food. That's my feeling.

But what you're doing here has your signature on it also. With restraint, perhaps, but it has your signature.
True, but right, with restraint. There's nothing wrong with putting your signature on things, but it's under the radar. I'd like to think it's under the radar. That's an important distinction and sometimes it gets lost. But it's finding that balance… I think every chef struggles with that to a certain degree. If my ego gets in the way, I always know it's going to be a bad dish. I always know it. That's been my experience.

Are there times when that happened?
Oh, yeah. Because I'm a guy. I have my ego issues [laughing]. I have things that get me excited and I feel show-offy. It's an honesty about that that I feel maybe has been part of my maturation. But an honesty that that's not the kind of food that I'm preparing. Some people can get away with it and do it well. But at any rate, I know that's not the chef that I want to be.

Are you the chef you want to be?
Am I the chef I want to be? In some ways, yes, of course. I have done great things, but as I get more involved in the agriculture part element, more and more, I feel like what I'm doing is pretentious. It's to spend time with the lambs: they're born and you spend all this time feeding them and moving them, and then they're slaughtered, and the fact that you would trim the loin excessively so that you can wrap it, just seems so fucking crazy as I get older. That idea that trimming what you've worked with a long time and sort of wasting it and manipulating it just feels so silly, at this point. My food is becoming much less complex and much less manipulated than even before. And I don't think that I manipulate food that much, but I think even less is probably where my future is. So am I the chef that I want to be? No. Sometimes I feel okay about myself but other, most times, it's like what the hell am I doing? I think that's a function of being closer and closer to the farm and not wanting to screw it up. And one way to not screw it up is to just let it be itself. I'm not talking about simplicity either, because I hate people who say that. You're coming here and you're paying good money; you want me to do something. I'm fine with that. It's just a question of how much and to what extent. And there are just so many issues that one deals with as a chef to try and create good food, but there's a lot to think about. So the short answer to the question is no, I'm not the chef that I would like to be but come back to me in 10 years and I'll feel like I have a shot at it.

You'll still be here in 10 years?
You have to ask Mr. Rockefeller that [laughing]. Will I still be here in ten years? Yeah. What I've seen about the farm is what I'd like to see about ourselves: that the farm is getting much, much better. I'll tell you specifically how. The varieties that we're choosing for this ecology make more sense as we become smarter. They're tastier. They're more abundant so that we can do more with them. On the animal side, the breeds that we're choosing for this ecology are smarter. The grass — because it's a grass-based system — is much better, much improved because of our ecological methods. Because the grass is improving, the animals that are eating the grass are improving, so this whole circle is getting stronger. And it's making me look like a better chef. Just seeing it over four years: I'm looking out at that field out in the back here. That's a field that was in serious trouble when we got here. And just because of the rotation that we've been involved with, it's enabled the number of animals on that grass go up by like 160 percent. On this area, which is about eight or nine acres, we had 400 egg laying hens when we first got here. Today, we have 1,190. That's 700 new birds on the same number of acres with the same number of employees. So how did that happen? It happened because of grass management, because the ecology of the place improved, and with it came better economy and better flavor because the eggs they're laying are better, because the grass they're eating is better, because the insects that are in the manure and that they're picking apart are more of them and they're larger and they're better. So all of a sudden, all of the diets improved, the grass improved, and we serve a better egg. So what does it look like in ten years? I think the farm is going to look even better, and because of that I'm going to look better.

— Anne E. McBride