On the quest for a more flavorful, sustainable future

30 Aug 2016

WHITE GUIDE: Dan Barber, Global Gastronomy Award winner, 2016

“Food for thought” takes on a whole new meaning after a few days in the company of Dan Barber. He is revolutionizing the way we look at food. Sourcing locally and organically is a good thing, but far from enough if we want to achieve a truly sustainable food system. We have to reverse, reinvent and reboot our whole approach to food, including controversial bits such as use, waste and natural genetic engineering.

By Lars Peder Hedberg

“We will serve the next dish in the manure shed,” instructs the maître d’ with a smile playing on his lips as he accompanies me past the bakery’s glass walls up to a simple timber construction, almost a little cottage, built into the restaurant complex. He opens the door to a room where candles flicker in the darkness around a table set for one. It looks like a place of worship, where an odd ritual is about to take place - which proves to be the case.
“Please wait here,” he says with a slightly ominous tone and closes the door behind him. Once my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a five-foot-tall pot-like vat against one wall, and on the other, some sort of metal shelves with a gently humming, faint pink light emitting from the gaps between them.

I’m in what was once the Rockefeller family’s dairy, at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, New York. I'm in the middle of a dinner just before New Year’s and have just eaten my way through half of the meal, a cavalcade of greens and root vegetables, and an awful lot of pumpkin, which is still in season. A tartar is scooped tableside out of a sculptural golden pumpkin and prepared with various condiments, as if it were tenderloin, and finally topped with a quail egg yolk. The result fundamentally changes my view of this Halloween symbol - this is trick and treat! Now the door opens and Barber enters the room. 
“Well, Lars,” he says, “now I want you to try something very special.”

Dan Barber. Portrait by Mark Ostow.

Even if Dan Barber’s famous book from 2014 is titled “The Third Plate,” few can meet the criteria for “gastronomy beyond” like he does, having an impact far outside of the plate. In the book, he argues that we need to radically rearrange our existing food chain along with our diets, not only to restore planetary health but also to win back lost flavors and discover new ones.
“This is an experiment,” he says, opening a small casserole. He brings the candles forward so I can see. Inside rest three lukewarm potatoes in their skins. “We’ve baked them for several days using the natural heat of the compost in the vats behind you. The microbiological degradation processes in the compost generates a lot of heat and the temperature rises to close to 60 ˚C (140 ˚F) and that is enough to bake the potatoes. See how the the earth gives us not only these great raw ingredients, but also makes it possible to cook the food?”

“I put a few grains of Barber wheat in my mouth: it tastes of apricot. When the bread is brought in after having just been milled and baked, the flavors reemerge and become more complex – ranging from coffee to sun-dried hay. Wheat does indeed have flavor.”

The soil has an almost religious status in Barber’s ideology. Half of his book, perhaps more, is about the earth as the mother of all things. Soil is life, an endless cycle of life. For you are soil, and to soil you shall return. In a single spoonful of soil live over a billion organisms. Life without soil is not life “as we know it”, to paraphrase the astrobiologists.
“This particular potato variety has the unique ability to develop different characteristics depending on the soil it is grown in,” says Barber. To support this connection we serve it with condiments made of soil-amending cover crops. I realize it may well be a bite of biblical revelation in front of me - as I cut into the rather tough shell of a NY-150, as the potato variety is called. There are delicate, nutty flavors that meld with a timid sweetness in a wonderfully creamy potato: “The texture and its smoothness is extraordinary!” “Yes, it has been developed by a researcher at Cornell University for its creaminess, so it could be served without butter” says Barber, turning to the other wall. “And back here we are test-growing mushrooms.” In the pink light, different varieties of fungi are growing out of giant, de-kernelled corncobs - mushrooms that will also be cooked in the compost, inside a sous vide bag, before they show up on a small pizza at the end of the meal. To reuse naked cobs as nature’s own hotbeds may be of more symbolic significance than practical use. But it is fully in line with Barber’s philosophy of recycling and aiming for a circular husbandry system. “I realize it may well be a bite of biblical revelation in front of me.”

Right now, he wants to draw our attention to the unacceptable fact that more than a third of our food goes into the garbage - and that it is possible to cook good food with what we regard as waste, all through the food chain and before and after cooking. For two weeks he converted his Manhattan outpost into a pop-up called WastED to prove that eatables normally thrown away in the food industry or household are actually possible to use or reuse – even at a high gastronomic level. WastED served things like skate cartilage with tartar sauce made of herring heads; salad of stems and outer, bruised leaves; a faux-hamburger made of fruit pulp remnants from a juicer, served on last week’s “reawakened” bread; a “dog food” meatloaf made of typically discarded offal (in America that is – in Europe it’s highly valued); even the dessert was composed of a mango shell with a reduction of “last night’s champagne.” The New York Times’ mighty restaurant critic Pete Wells, who recently excoriated Thomas Keller’s Per Se so badly it was bleeding all the way to Central Park, thought it was the most enjoyable and most thought-provoking meal he had eaten all year. Although a worn-out idiom, “food for thought” aptly describes Barber’s philosophy and cooking. His approach to food and gastronomy overturns a lot of conventions, not least in the United States with its conservative food industry and consumer majority.

“Although Barber serves quadrupeds only sparingly, it is the cow that adorns the Blue Hill logo. Rather than its flesh however, it’s the cow’s dung he’s after, and what that dung gives to the soil.”

“The Third Plate” has its origins in a challenge posed by an American food magazine. What will our food look like in 2050? A number of artists and influential people in the food world, including Dan Barber, were invited to give their answers in the form of a sketch on a plate. He responded with three plates and an entire book. 
His reasoning goes like this: The first plate is a large steak from a corn-fed cow with some carrots on the side. That is how Americans have eaten for the last two hundred years, and largely still do. The second plate looks basically the same, but the piece of meat now comes from cows that grazed on grass and the carrots are of an heirloom variety that is organically grown. Increasingly, this is how we now eat. But nothing has fundamentally changed. And it is not sustainable, says Barber.
The third plate, Barber’s vision of how we will eat in the future, contains a flavor-fueled carrot in the middle, surrounded by a sauce made of the quadruped’s braised offal and less desirable cuts. This implies a radical transformation of gastronomy and a completely new approach to our entire food system. Some 400+ pages later, he has made his case crystal clear. 

Barber’s book begins with a story about corn. One day he received a Fed Ex package with a shriveled corncob and a thousand dollars in planting money. The letter was from an unknown collector of rare seeds, who claimed that this corncob was a descendant of the corn that the Indians grew along the Hudson River in the 16- and 1700's, both for its plentiful harvest and its good flavor: Eight Row Flint Corn. The hardy, flavorful corn carried eight rows of kernels and was a success not only in New England but also took off in countries like Italy, which saw it as the perfect maize for polenta. But the corn died out in America during a great famine in the early 1800s, when even the seed was eaten so that people and animals could survive. The collector had rediscovered the corn in Italy, where it was known as Otto File (eight rows). Could it be restored to its original habitat?
Of course it could.
Barber and his colleagues used the Iroquois Indian’s method of cultivating the corn along with pumpkins and beans in order to secure a favorable interaction in the nutrient flow between the plants, thus not depleting the soil. That’s about as far as you can get from the huge American cornfields that are cultivated according to monoculture principles with large harvests and little flavor. Now New England was reunited with a heritage flavor that originated in its very soil.

“At Blue Hill at Stone Barns there is no menu. They serve what they have. Different tables get different food. When they occasionally butcher a lamb the whole animal is cooked and served. One table gets chops, another a leg, a third the tongue and sweetbreads. Nothing goes to waste.”

Dan Barber could be described as the Indiana Jones of chefs, a professorial researcher at home, who from time to time embarks on adventurous gastro-archeological expeditions around the world in search of lost flavor treasures. Along the way he makes time to save the world, if I may complete the analogy – and I do that without any irony. Barber is perhaps most famous for his obstinate quest for aromatic wheat.
The story about wheat’s development over the past sixty years is completely fascinating - and, oddly enough, rather unknown. In 1970, the American agronomist and geneticist Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for “having saved a billion people from starvation.” He did so by creating a hybrid super wheat that yielded harvests twice as large as the existing wheat and was also resistant to common wheat diseases. By cultivating Borlaug wheat on a large, industrialized scale – in what became known as “the green revolution” of the 1960s - famine-stricken countries such as Pakistan, India and Mexico began feeding their populations; Mexico even became a net exporter. In the short term, this was worthy of a Nobel Prize indeed. But in the long-term, the cracks in the logic began to show... and they just keep getting bigger. At record pace Borlaug’s high-yielding wheat out-competed almost all other wheat from commercial cultivation – along with any other crops that did not give the farmers equally good harvests and revenues. It gave us the second largest monoculture of our time - only corn is larger - and it not only depletes soils, it requires artificial fertilization, it empties the water supplies and works against biological diversity - the declining bee population is just one example, it also leads to human illness. Wheat has now become the world’s second largest crop, which contributes largely to the increase in gluten intolerance.
In the U.S. today there are scientists who emphatically assert that “wheat kills,” among them the neurologist David Perlmutter and cardiologist William Davis, both of whom assert that we have to “wheat-sanitize” our diet. The energy-rich Borlaug-wheat may save the malnourished, but today’s well-fed populations do not need this super-charged boost of energy which in its refined white form has a GI value of 85 (regular sugar has 64-65). Over-consumption of wheat bread creates obesity problems and all the diseases that follow in their wake. In addition, wheat has lost most of its flavor. Again, large crops: little flavor.

In the U.S., Dan Barber is hailed as the father of the “farm-to-table” movement, which now more or less dominates the country’s gourmet restaurant scene. The concept was coined by American food magazine Gourmet in 2000, when Dan Barber first opened Blue Hill in New York’s Greenwich Village. The close link between soil and table was a more radical approach in the United States than it was in Europe, where leading chefs had long been cultivators themselves or worked closely with their farmers. When I first seriously took note of Dan Barber, it was in a mini-story in Time magazine, reporting on his excursion to Aragon in northeastern Spain. Here, in the highlands just outside Zaragoza, grew a native wheat called Aragon 03, a local low-yielding wheat with rich flavor and a few other remarkable qualities - it fertilizes itself and needs almost no water but “drinks the morning dew” - yes, there is such a thing.
Barber’s experiment with indigenous corn, which proved to contain unexpectedly rich flavors, had made him wonder if the same thing could apply to wheat. Was there anything other than the chlorine-bleached and tasteless “dead white powder” that 4.5 billion people stuff themselves with every day, if not in the form of bread then in sauces, processed food and ready-made meals of various types?
In those remote Spanish backwaters, there turned out to be several strains of ancient wheats that survived “the green revolution,” mostly because nobody had heard about it there. These native wheats had long adapted to their odd and sometimes harsh habitats - like the desert highlands of Aragon - where they developed a wide range of flavors, the way a grapevine gives away its most flavorsome grapes after having struggled in a rough terrain. Small harvests: a lot of flavor. Aragon 03 wheat proved, among other things, to have clear chocolate notes. Barber brought some seeds home to Stone Barns, but no, the seeds did not like the soil there; it was too rich. In collaboration with Dr. Stephen Jones and Washington State University, which conducts extensive research on wheat, he created a hybrid wheat which retained much of Aragon 03’s flavor characteristics but could survive in the soils of upstate New York. The wheat has – of course – been named Barber wheat.

“'Flavor resides half in the soil and half in the genes,' says Barber. 'So far, plant and animal breeding has focused on more volume and better resistance, not better flavor quality. We’re doing that now, on our own and in collaboration with various universities.'”

Back in the bread cottage at Stone Barns, I put my hand into two glass jars of wheat: first the original Aragon 03. Yes, I detect the slight note of cocoa, but also hazelnut and a mild, tangy fruitiness that is not as easily identifiable. But when I put a few grains of Barber wheat in my mouth: it tastes of apricot. When the bread is then brought in and set on the table, after having just been milled in the bakery, the flavors reemerge and become more complex – ranging from coffee to sun-dried hay. Wheat does indeed have flavor.

Dan Barber’s philosophy of the Third Plate means that vegetables, in this case, parsnips, get to take over the former role of meat on the plate. Photo by Andre Baranowski.

Anyone who thinks that Barber is a romantic suffering from food nostalgia is wrong. At the Noma gang’s MAD-gathering in Copenhagen in 2012, Barber shocked the elite of the gastronomic forefront by saying that the farm-to-table movement was a dead end. It was still the cook who ruled, while the farm simply became an important service to the restaurant. We must reverse the logic, he said. 
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns there is no menu. They serve what they have. Different tables get different food. Sometimes they butcher a lamb, and a whole lamb is cooked and served. One table gets chops, another a leg, a third the tongue and sweetbreads.

Stone Barns is also a research and training center in collaboration with, among others, Cornell University, which conducts extensive research on seed breeding and genetics. This is not to be confused with GMOs. At Cornell, the focus is on developing new species without tampering with the genome in unnatural ways. In nature new species are constantly evolving and in agriculture, too, farmers have always been crossbreeding to develop new and better varieties. With new knowledge it might be possible to create genetic varieties with both higher nutritional value and better flavor.

“Flavor is half in the soil and half in the genes,” says Barber. “So far, plant and animal breeding has focused on more volume and better resistance, not better flavor quality. We’re doing that now, on our own and in collaboration with various universities. Flavor resides in the genes - and to release it we have to understand how genetics work, just as we have to understand the soil to get the best out of it.”

Although Barber serves quadrupeds only sparingly - in my 20-course meal I was served only the small, odd cold cut and the candle that burned in the glass bell used melted tallow – it is the cow that adorns the Blue Hill logo. But rather than flesh, it’s the cow’s dung he’s after, and what that dung gives to the soil. At Stone Barns they apply crop rotation both between and within different fields, and the animals play an integral part as pastures that are alternately cultivated eventually return to pasture. This keeps the soil alive and healthy. Just like the plants and animals that live on and off of it.

This is the essence of Barber’s message. If we understand and respect how nature works, she will give generously and sustainably in return, unveiling a realm of flavors that we are just beginning to explore.

This is why Dan Barber receives the 2016 White Guide Global Gastronomy Award.

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Dan Barber is awarded the Global Gastronomy Award 2016

For the tenth year running, White Guide proudly presents the Global Gastronomy Award. The distinction is awarded to a chef or another gastronomical dignitary of international stature at the apex of his or her orbit, serving as a role model and inspiration within contemporary gastronomy, taking it forward – and beyond.

Global Gastronomy Award 2016 – in collaboration with Electrolux:
Dan Barber, Blue Hill, New York, USA

“For sharing his deep insights into the challenges we face regarding food sustainability and for his many initiatives to retrieve lost flavor treasures and conceive of new ones. Long celebrated as the father of the farm-to-table movement, he has realized that the current approach to local ecological sourcing is not enough to secure health and wellbeing – for us or our habitats. We need to rethink our entire approach to food, based on nature’s own laws and cycles. It is not about nostalgia – but strict science.”

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