Dan Barber: The Culinary Art of Real Food

Chef Dan Barber’s culinary acumen is legendary. Co-owner and executive chef of the famed Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan as well as Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, Barber has been featured in the New Yorker, House and Garden and Martha Stewart Living magazines and on CBS Sunday Morning. His book, The Third Plate (Penguin Books, 2014), is a New York Times bestseller. Most recently Blue Hill at Stone Barns won the prestigious 2015 James Beard Restaurant of the Year Award. Calmful Living offers this exclusive interview with the famous chef.

A Matter of Taste

Barber’s philosophy as a chef is singularly unique—and at the same time (as he is quick to point out) very much in common with other culinary masters. “I don’t think I’m different from other chefs in the fact that we are always looking for the best flavor,” Barber tells Calmful Living. “In almost every way, I think good, thoughtful chefs that care about what they are doing have an imperative for good ingredients and good flavor.”

But it’s a personal matter for Barber, who has always had a hand in the growing of the food he is presenting. He began by farming and cooking for friends at Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In 2000, he opened the Blue Hill restaurant in New York City along with family members David and Laureen Barber, and by 2002 Food and Wine magazine had named him one of the country’s “best new chefs.” In the spring of 2004, Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant opened its doors alongside the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York; and as executive chef and co-owner of the restaurant, as well as a board member of the Stone Barns Center, Barber smoothly blends the principles of good farming with the dining experience.

Where Barber leaves the mainstream is with that connection to the source of great taste. “If you have an imperative for good ingredients and good flavor, I argue that you’re also an environmentalist by definition,” says Barber. “You’re also a nutritionist by definition. Thus, great cooking—which we tend to forget—needs great agriculture. You can’t have a delicious carrot or the most perfect kind of lamb without good ecological decisions behind those flavors, and good ethical decisions, for that matter—ethical decisions on how the soil is used, on how animals are treated. Therefore ethics, environmental stewardship and flavor are one and the same.

“So I’m just doing what all chefs are doing. It’s not like I’m breaking any molds by saying, ‘Oh, I’m a chef who wants tasty food.’ Every chef wants tasty food and will go to great lengths to achieve it. It just so happens that in doing that, I think I’m also treating the world in the right way.”

Nutrient Density: It’s in the Taste

All of the food served at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is grown within a 250-mile radius of the restaurant, from providers that meet Barber’s strict standards. Two of these providers are, of course, Barber’s own Blue Hill Farm and the Stone Barns Center. Barber’s methods—and those of his growers—focus on the “nutrient density” of the food. He has found that crops dense with nutrients have the best flavor—which, after all, is the goal. “I’m not a scientist, so on a biological level I wouldn’t know where to start,” he says. “I can’t explain beyond what I know intuitively, which is that the more a vegetable or fruit or animal is raised in the right environment and given what it needs to thrive—not just survive, but thrive—the more we end up with ingredients that produce the best flavor. A potato grown in a conventional manner is literally a dead potato. It has the genetic makeup of potato, but it’s missing many of the micronutrients and invisible enzymes and reactions that result in the things we find delicious. Again, I think this link between great flavor and great ecology is a very fortuitous reality that we often forget. The more dense the nutrients of what we are eating, the better it’s going to taste. And I would imagine that’s probably an evolutionary response of ours, seeking the best-flavored food.”

Nutrient density holds a keen fascination for Barber—in fact, he has his very own Brix meter (otherwise known as a refractometer) right in his kitchen. A refractometer measures the amount of bend or refraction in rays of light as they pass through plant juices, indicating the quantity of carbohydrates, dissolved minerals and complex sugars contained in the crop.

“We actually have a few Brix meters in the kitchen,” Barber continues. “We’re just testing to get more familiar with Brix levels and to try and understand what we are shooting for, and to discover if it is a really reliable indicator of what we’re going to like. We know it’s a reliable indicator of sugars, but what does that mean in terms of cooking and how does that change our cooking? I don’t know enough about it at all and I’m really fascinated by it. But I’m more interested in how Jack Algiere, who runs our vegetable operation, is using it when he’s picking vegetables. Is he using that as a determinant for when things should be picked? I think the more he does, the better the farming.”

One important factor—if not the most important factor—in growing nutrient-dense food is the treatment of the soil. Barber and his growers are all firm believers in remineralization of the soil—that is, the restoration of the broad spectrum of nutrients to soil so that it provides proper nutrition to crops. “We are very big on remineralization,” Barber states. “Jack is a strong believer in remineralizing the soil and so am I. He does it through tons of different ways—through soft rock phosphates, crab meal and a lot of other different things, depending on the time of year, the crop and the location.”

The grasses animals are raised on are treated very similarly. “The attention to soil and diversity and to the caring of the grass that animals feed on is fundamentally the same idea,” says Barber.

Compost is also a highly important factor in the growing of crops at Stone Barns Center. Their compost is so effective that Stone Barns’ compost is now sold as a product to the public. “I don’t have numbers to back this up, but the effects on the crops from the compost have been dramatic,” Barber says. “We’ve always added compost, but the quality of the compost we’ve added recently has been extraordinary. And that’s because it’s gotten better every year. We hired a nutrient management person who is fabulous and has been improving the biological activity available in the compost. It has influenced the flavor of everything in the greenhouse. The difference between each gallon of compost we’re using now and that gallon four years ago is of a magnitude I would never have believed. That’s both in vitality and, of course, in flavor.”

From the Farm to the Table

Visitors to Blue Hill at Stone Barns will find they are never very far from the field—in more ways than one. The obvious way is that the growing crops and grazing animals can be seen right from the table. But Barber is there to ensure that visitors fully understand their tasting experience—and as such sees that every patron is educated on each item they taste.

“I think it’s so important because it gives a context to what people are eating,” Barber explains. “That sounds a little bit fancy, but I mean it no more than just, very simply, when you know something about where your food came from, when you know how that lamb was grown or you know what variety of carrot you’re eating and you have some type of narrative that’s associated with them, the food ends up tasting better. It’s not really education in a formulized way; it’s more like storytelling—a narrative that allows people to see connections between what they’re eating and the way the world was treated in the process.”

This kind of education also leads Barber to another unorthodox approach in his restaurant: there is no menu; instead a list of ingredients is available for that particular month of the year, and the meal is designed so that patrons sample these items, served at the discretion of the chef.

It wasn’t always that way. “We did have a type of very traditional à la carte menu, and also a “Farmer’s Feast” option, which was sort of a tasting menu,” Barber relates. “I felt like we were running two separate restaurants, as if the people who were ordering à la carte were considered sort of conservative and uninterested in our themes. And we weren’t really giving them attention; we were focusing on the people who we knew were putting themselves in our hands and were really excited about the agriculture of the food and all that. My brother and I got to the point where we just didn’t want to have that kind of place. What we went for was an experience.”

Educating people on intelligent food choices, even beyond the restaurant dining experience, is something else Barber takes seriously. “I think most people are not making good food choices because they are not educated about good food choices,” Barber says. “The more we know about how what we choose to eat affects ourselves and the world, the more intelligent our decisions will be. If we continue to know nothing about the food we consume, we’ll continue to see the health and environmental effects that we have been seeing over the last thirty to forty years and the true high cost of our cheap food. And that’s a function of lack of knowledge. That’s exactly what the conventional big food chains want; they want you to be uninformed and they want you to be unsophisticated.

“It’s interesting that being informed and sophisticated about food is sometimes viewed to be elitist, to be snobbish, which strikes me as very odd, because in our culture one does not say that about somebody buying a car, for example. The guy buying the car knows all the information about that car—the dealership, the mileage, the bells and whistles; he is an informed shopper and a smart guy who’s not going to get suckered. But the guy who knows all about food is considered kind of a softie, and that’s a perception that we need to overcome, it seems to me. If we don’t, this knowledge is going to stay separate and not ever become a part of the mainstream.”

As part of Barber’s educational efforts, he has been involved in projects with the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, the Kellogg Foundation and New York City’s Greenmarkets. “Harvard is a very good example of seeing the connection of properly raised food to global climate change, and properly raised food to nutrition. I like that kind of thinking because it ends up showing how food and food issues affect energy and health issues. All of those are big-ticket items; and to begin to try and solve them, and to begin trying to think about them without considering food, is crazy. That’s what people who study it and understand it start to realize. It’s exciting to work with people at Harvard because that’s the way they’re thinking, and it seems that is more of the way we should be thinking for the future.”

Barber concludes with perhaps a lesson for us all. “At some point not that long ago, we were hunter-gatherers. We were searching around, trying to figure out what was good for us, what was poisonous, what was good for our children, and all the rest. I don’t think we’re so very far removed from that. In today’s world we’re really disassociated from who’s growing our food, where it’s coming from and how it’s getting to us. The fact that we’re so disassociated makes us even hungrier for some information.

“Restaurants should be places of escape from the everyday world, but they’re also places of connection. And when we do it right, those kinds of connections lead to an involvement that supersedes the everyday mundane eating experience that is our food culture. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Find out more at Blue Hill Farm