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Dan Barber is greedy for good flavour
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Pass it on
I'm reading
Dan Barber is greedy for good flavour
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Dan Barber is greedy for good flavour
Pass it on
Pass it on
"I think we all have it in our DNA somewhere to seek out good-tasting, nutrient-rich food."
Conversations
13 May 2015

Dan Barber is greedy for good flavour

Interview by Nathan Scolaro
Photography by Irene Hamburger

Dan Barber is in a bit of a bad way when we meet during his whirlwind visit for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. He’s jetlagged, and he’s been hard-at-it back home in New York converting his popular West Village restaurant into a pop-up waste experiment where everything on the menu is reused food. Add to that a new daughter and a new book, and it’s a wonder he hasn’t slumped headfirst into his espresso.

Dan is used to having a lot on his plate, though. He’s championed some of the Western world’s biggest food and agricultural movements, including farm-to-table and now The Third Plate, which is also the title of the latest book, and he’s done it while operating his two widely-acclaimed Blue Hill restaurants. Despite a heavy head, the chef is articulate and at times vitalised as he talks about his vision for The Third Plate movement, which sees our everyday diets shaped by our local environments and not the other way around.

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DAN BARBER: You have to forgive me—I just got in yesterday and didn’t sleep last night.

NATHAN SCOLARO: Ah that’s rough! Ok, I’ll go easy on you.

Please.

Well, I want to start with this beautiful message that comes through your work—that the most sustainable way of growing food is actually the most nutrient- and flavour-giving. It seems quite obvious being immersed in the organic food movement now, but I want to know how this came to you—was there a lightning bolt moment that set you on this journey?

Not at all, it’s been very slow going. In fact, the correspondence between great flavour and great ecological stewardship is a discovery that’s been 10 years in the making. You’re right, it’s the most obvious thing, especially for a chef or anyone who cares about food, but if someone had said to me 10 years ago, “A truly delicious carrot can’t come from denuded soil, it has to come from well-fertilised soil and it has to be the right seed and it probably has to be local and come from the farmer who is practising good stewardship,” I would have said, “Oh I never thought of that!”

Really?

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think I would have put it in those terms. But that’s a very nice way to be in the profession that I’m in—to say the pursuit of the most pleasurable, hedonistic experience is actually doing some good things for the world. I find it to be important because Americans are very good at hedonism. And greed. And we tend to chase after those things that we’re greedy for. So if we frame it from that perspective, appeal to our hedonistic selves, we can we really do something good for the world.

It seems at odds with our ethics.

Right. Greed seems at odds with anything that has a moral fold. The environmental movement asks you to give up a lot for a clearer conscience. “Be selfless for the right things.”

This movement, the good food movement, is the opposite. It says, “Be greedy for the right things.” Be greedy for good flavour.

So if we look at a tomato—how would your greed, your pursuit of a good-tasting tomato, affect the way you grow it?

Ok, if I we’re growing a tomato sustainably, the question I have is not so much about the tomato seed (although the seed’s incredibly important) or when it’s harvested (although that too is important), but what I’m really fascinated by is the whole system that produces the great-tasting tomato—all the other crops that were planted alongside and before and after the tomato to ensure the best soil health.

We tend to look at single ingredients, I used to anyway, and ask, “How do I grow the best tomato?” instead of saying, “How do I grow the best soil to create the best system that will give me a whole diversity of life, including a great-tasting tomato?”

I’ve heard you saluting soil a bit in your work. This seems to be central to this movement you’re advocating.

Yeah, it’s a nice way to say it: “saluting soil.” That’s because every time I dug in, so to speak, it all traced back to soil. I realised that if you concentrate on growing truly healthy, vibrant soil—if you’re utilising your farmscape in the right way—you’re going to get an outcome that’s good for taste, your health and the environment. And I do think that’s what this movement comes down to.

And how do the rest of us get on board, those of us who aren’t chefs, who aren’t farmers, how are we the eaters part of this?

If I were to say there’s one prescription you need in the everyday diet, it’s: “eat with a lot of diversity.” ‘Cause diversity is the key. The landscape requires diversity—that’s where you get the soil fertility in part, and it’s how the landscape can sustain itself. But we need to figure out the right proportions. So that’s why I put a lot of the heavy lifting of this on chefs. Because we curate this stuff. We need to create a menu that draws on that diversity in such a way that nothing is wasted—nothing is compromised. And then that menu can become a kind of template for what we eat in our everyday lives, and those eating habits come full circle and start to support the landscape.

 

So interesting.

If you look at all the world’s food traditions, they emerged from negotiations with the land. They didn’t do what Americans, and I think Australians, do, which is put their wet finger up to the wind and say, “What do I want for my diet? Maybe I’ll go paleo for the next two years.”

[Laughs].

They listened to the land. Beans became essential to Italian cuisine because they are a good nitrogen-fixing crop that allows certain grains and vegetables to thrive. Look at Japanese cuisine. We think immediately of rice, but it was also founded on crops like buckwheat—crops that broke up disease cycles and were important sources of fertility. And what did they do with the buckwheat? They made soba noodles. So the tradition of soba noodles is an agricultural one, not a gastronomic one. We didn’t have to make these negotiations with the land in America because we had plentiful soil fertility.

But the belief that we can create a sustainable diet for ourselves by cherry-picking great ingredients is wrong. We need to think about the whole.

It’s reminding me of this quote that you have in the book from John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it’s stitched to everything else in the universe.”

Another late-inning discovery. I love that quote. It really speaks to that tomato example actually. You know, we could sit here with a beautiful plate of local heirloom tomatoes but we are picking out one thread from the whole system. We really need to think about the system and not the particular ingredient.

So in your restaurant, are you conscious of connecting diners to the land through this eating experience?

Yeah. I’d like to think the menu is giving our diners a connection to the land and the food system it supports. Increasingly in the last 50 years we’ve moved away from an agrarian culture to a largely urban culture. And so the nuts and bolts of farming have been lost. We don’t understand what’s required to make that tomato taste so good. It seems to me that one way is through a plate of food—so showing what’s going on in the landscape through all the ingredients that are on the plate or on the menu. I mean, imagine if you had places where you could train your palate to the health of your environment, becoming attuned to the landscape around you by eating the diversity of foods from within it. It’d be kind of like citizen science. Unfortunately that sounds so pretentious and fascist.

[Laughs].

But I think there’s a lot of value in thinking about how taste can connect us to what’s happening in the world around us. It’s not hard to do. It’s about becoming more and more tuned in to those connections in the land.

What about animals, where do animals factor in this?

So there was a guy who stood up at one of the talks I gave about this and said, “I don’t understand why you’re not talking about vegetarianism and veganism.” And I said, “Well, where I come from, the Hudson Valley, it’s animal agriculture—leaves and grass.” Our landscapes are actually built by animals, by dairy cows. So I argue if the ecology is supporting livestock, we should do the same through our diets. Of course, that doesn’t mean eating a 16-ounce steak seven nights a week. It’s about being more sensitive to what our environment is telling us.

Did you grow up on the land?

I grew up in New York City but I also spent my childhood growing up on my grandmother’s farm, a beef cattle operation. So I didn’t necessarily have that experience with the land, you know, hands in the dirt, learning how to grow plant foods. But I was with animals a lot.

So what’s the personal connection to this research you’ve been doing, to the Third Plate movement?

To be honest, I’m interested in this stuff because my food, not so much by design, or at least conscious design, is super simple. It’s like crazy simple. And I say that not as a compliment to myself, but as an insecurity. I cannot complicate it—I don’t know how to. And so I feel a little bit naked on the plate—that’s another way to say it. And it’s forced me to be really vigilant about flavour in a way that I don’t think I would had I been had I been able to cover it up. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying other chefs who do complicated things are hiding flavours. They are true alchemists. But for me, I know that this isn’t where my strengths are.

What is good flavour in your opinion?

For me, it’s when you breathe out and the taste has a kind of permanence to it. It’s very much like drinking a fine wine, where the flavour lingers on the palate. Do you experience the same situation with a carrot as you would with a fine wine? No. Because it has a different profile. But the effect is the same, so you’re still tasting it after you’ve swallowed.

Good flavour allows for food to be fully experienced.

That’s why I see taste as being such a driving force for this whole food movement. I think we all have it in our DNA somewhere to seek out good-tasting, nutrient-rich food. I don’t think many of these people grew up on farms. But they’re excited about the movement because they have connected with ingredients through taste, and then learned how they’ve been grown and felt more alive because of it.

That’s true. I wonder what that is?

I think it’s part of who we are. You know, we were hunter-gatherers at one point. So we were moving around looking for what was our next meal, what would taste good and what wouldn’t kill us—what was of nutritional value essentially. That was our existence for a long time. We’re not actually that far removed from that. So what we’re seeing now is this happening in an urban setting. It’s sort of tapping into our DNA, I think. I don’t mean to sound so froufrou about it. I really mean it. You know? There’s an exploratory excitement that comes from this engagement with food’s origins that makes it taste better.

I’m also conscious of the fact that I can engage with this movement because I have a certain amount of privilege—economically, socially. How does this become successful for everyone?

Well, this is where the next step of this good food movement comes in. The Third Plate is really a call for a much less “privileged” way of eating—because I’m talking about eating from the entirety of the landscape, not just the costly specialty crops and prime cuts of meat. In the US, nose-to-tail eating is all the rage, so eating offcuts of meat that you don’t necessarily covet. What I’m talking about is the nose-to-tail of the whole farm, which is this question we’ve been discussing: “What are those other crops that fed the soil to give you that great-tasting tomato? Let’s put them on the menu too.” And that means putting the buckwheat and the beans that helped nourish the soil for that tomato on the menu. And then the farmer says, “Wait a minute. He’s interested in my buckwheat as well? Wow, I was losing money on it.” And the farmer suddenly has an economy for buckwheat. And ultimately, maybe not now but down the road, if all of our diets end up reflecting the kind of diversity that restores the landscape, it makes our way of a eating a lot more economical. It’s actually democratising the good food movement.

It reminds me of something you say in the book where we should stop thinking about food as a chain, but rather as a series of interconnected rings.

Yeah. Because the food chain assumes that it starts here with a seed and ends here on the plate, instead of thinking about this as concentric circles, which is really what they are. There’s really no beginning and end. And especially if we’re composting and utilising waste in the right way and in our restaurants, we can return them to produce more food for the future.

I read that you’ve started a proper waste restaurant.

Yeah. So we’re closing Blue Hill and opening it as a waste restaurant for a month.

Tell us about that.

Well, every dish is a waste derivative. An example is skate fish. We discovered if you clean the cartilage left over after the fillet is removed, cut it into thin strips and deep fry it, they come out looking like French fries. They’re delicious. And fish suppliers discard thousands of pounds of this stuff.

Then there’s a big craze in New York for cold-pressed juices, so we contacted this company Liquiteria and said, “What are you doing with the pulp that’s left over from the juice?” And they said, “Oh it’s shit. We throw it out every day.” So we went to the main processor for their juice, which goes through one ton of pulp every day. They had trucks going to Virginia, which is 300 miles south of us, to get rid of it. So we’re making a hamburger out of the pulp.

[Laughs]. Wow! How?

It’s not that hard. The pulp is usually composed of about five different vegetables. And we mix all of it with fermented beans.

What about the psychology of eating waste? How do you think people will respond to this?

Well, you’ve probably hit on the reason for doing it—change the psychology. That’s what great cooking does to become permanent. It becomes a cuisine.

All the great cuisines of the world are about cooking waste. They had no choice.

It’s what we were talking about before with the Japanese making soba noodles from the buckwheat crop. When the Italians made Parmesan cheese, what did they do with the whey? They fed it to the pigs and made Prosciutto di Parma. In most cultures, many of the items that we throw away are considered integral to the cuisine, because people have found a way to make them delicious through good cooking.

Wow. It’s really fascinating. What’s one of your greatest food memories?

It’s kind of a dual memory. My mother died when I was very young, so my father used to cook me scrambled eggs. They were god-awful. Really overcooked. But I just thought that was scrambled eggs, and I rather enjoyed them. But then one day I got sick when I was a young teenager and my aunt, who was a gourmet cook, was with me because my father was away. And she cooked me these eggs over a double-boiler. Very, very gently. I think I had tonsillitis. And I remember waking up so hungry, and then eating those eggs and feeling them slide down my throat. And I just thought, This is the greatest thing I’ve ever had in my life. And I say it’s a dual memory in part because I wouldn’t have appreciated my aunt’s eggs if I hadn’t had my Dad’s.

Hah! It’s true of all of our experiences though isn’t it?

It’s true of life. Everything is relative.

I want to know how you do everything you do—you know, two restaurants, food activism, public speaking, writing the book. What’s been the driver?

Fear of failure’s a big part of it.

Really?

Yeah. I failed once. A restaurant that I ran closed. It’s been seared in my memory. Everything I do now I put everything, every bit of me, into, for fear of failure. And separate from that, I always wanted to write a book.

Oh?

Originally I was cooking to support my writing. I wanted to write a novel a long time ago. It was about a bus driver in Chicago I think. It was a while ago now, right after college. I just wanted to write but I wasn’t earning money. So I cooked to support myself. But I could never strike a balance between the two. The time it takes to cook was preventative of writing.

So cooking became full time. But the book was always there I guess. And then I finally came back to it in these past 10 years. It was hard.

You know, that’s the greatest lesson for me: to pursue a passion takes a lot of sacrifice.

I’m proud of the book; my gut reaction is of course it was worth the time. But then also when I look back on these 10 years I struggle with it internally. Because I gave up a lot.

Like what?

I didn’t see friends at all. I’m blessed with a lovely family life—I’m grateful for that—but I missed out on so much because I was either cooking or writing.

So you have a family of your own?

Yeah. My wife, and we have a daughter. And that happened after the book. She’s two.

Congratulations!

Thanks! I managed to get married in the middle of working on the book. So there you go!

She must be pretty supportive.

She’s amazing. She’s a writer herself, and a wonderful editor of everything that I write, and cook­.

What do you teach your daughter about food?

It’s more what she’s teaching me. She’s teaching me about acidity and sweetness. She just doesn’t like sweetness. And I really struggle with acidity. I’m drawn to acidity, but when I taste really strong vinegar or lemon, I find it quite offensive. And my daughter, she loves it. But sweetness she doesn’t have much of a thing for at all. And I’m fascinated by that. How can her natural palate be for acidity?

[Laughs]. What are you most proud of? You say you’re driven by fear of failure. Is what you’re experiencing now, the book, the restaurants, is that feeling like success?

I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever really feel like I’ve “arrived.” But I have a lot to be thankful for. I really think if you could rank this, I would be very high on the list of “luckiest chefs around.” And what am I most proud of? My daughter.

Watch Dan’s Ted Talk below.

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

Photography by Irene Hamburger

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