Organic Broadcaster

New York chef encourages whole-farm eating for sustainable food culture

By Jake Olzen

Crisis and chaos is the norm in a professional kitchen. But the kind of existential crisis that struck chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan when he sold out of his grass-fed lamb chops in less than 30 minutes transformed his entire understanding of food. So much so that he radically change his restaurant’s menu to reflect it—and he wrote a book about his new approach to food.

In Barber’s book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin, 2014), readers glimpse the inner workings and history of a farm-to-table kitchen that has influenced modern expectations toward cooking and eating. At the Blue Hill restaurants (there’s a second one at Stone Barns Agricultural Center), the line between cook and farmer is blurred as rare heirloom varieties from the restaurant’s farm and its network of farmers—harvested at peak freshness—are transformed into culinary delights for high-end dining.

Yet for all the positive shifts in attitude that chefs, through artisinal foods and cuisine, have contributed to the local foods movement, it’s not the whole picture. “For all the movement’s successes and the accompanying shift in popular consciousness, the gains haven’t changed, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping how most of the food in this country is grown or raised,” Barber concedes. “Nor, for that matter, have they changed the culture of American cooking.”

“By privileging only the ingredients I wanted to cook instead of championing a whole class of integral yet uncelebrated crops and cuts of meat, I had ignored what was really required to produce the most delicious food,” Barber admits. He wanted the rest of the farm on his menus!
Arguing that “farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow,” Barber decides that his menus need to support the land that supports the farmer. Exploring what those foods might look like as cuisine and as a sustainable food system, he finds a complex web of relationships that support the health of the land – between farmers, chefs, breeders, eaters, etc; but that won’t “last without a permanent food culture to sustain them.”

“The future of cuisine,” writes Barber, “represent[s] a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about cooking and eating that defies Americans’ ingrained expectations.” It’s a paradigm that moves, in his words, “towards a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and—like all great cuisines—begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.” This new direction of farm-to-table is what could be called “whole-farm cooking.”

It can be easy to miss the most fundamental aspect about agriculture – that it’s primarily social; its foundations are rooted in culture. Wendell Berry’s poignant prose made that connection decades ago in his reverential book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture when he declared that “eating is an agricultural act.” Food—or, more importantly, cuisine—is one of the fundamental building blocks of a cultural identity; it is, according to Barber, an “organizing principle that reflects a whole system of agriculture.” Furthermore, how that food is produced is directly linked to the sustainability, diversity, and social complexity of that culture. Without cuisine, The Third Plate argues, farming systems do not last. Is it really that surprising that a chef would suggest that the “culture of food is as important, if not more important, than the production of food?”

The book is, in a rather profound simplicity, divided into four parts: “Soil;” “Land;” “Sea;” and “Seed.”

One of the more unique chapters, “Sea,” takes a critical look at the state of the world’s oceans while highlighting the important role aquaculture may have as a response to the many overwhelmed fisheries threatened with extinction. Visits to Veta la Palma, a one of kind aquaculture farm, highlight some of the many innovative ways growers are marrying food production with ecological regeneration. The farm is ingratiated into its natural environment and produces both an extraordinary amount of high-quality fish while serving an indispensable ecosystem function as migratory habitat for over 200 species of birds.

But the heart of the book is terrestrially-focused. It’s a remarkable introduction for urban eaters to the complex necessities of soil science, animal husbandry, plant breeding, and agricultural history that shape modern tastes and diets. He looks at the attitudes toward the ecosystems that the farms are intimately connected to and the plant varieties that reflect, in his words, the “crops ingrained into the mores and traditions of our culture.” Perhaps most enlightening are his visits to the Spanish dehesa where deep food traditions are enjoined with complex and regenerative agricultural systems. The oak-covered Iberian peninsula is home to acorn-fed pigs and generations of farmers who have sustainably managed intensively grazed silvopasture and harvested perennial landscapes—such as cork from the same oaks that the livestock forage.

While learning from people like perennial-wheat breeder Wes Jackson, heirloom grain farmers Klaas and Mary Howell Martens, and the indefatigable organic vegetable grower Eliot Coleman, Barber traverses the ins and outs of food production with an eye towards a whole farm cuisine that might be possible in his home country. In the epilogue, Barber imaginatively proposes a menu that reflects the spirit agricultural journey, including milky oat tea and cattail snacks, a “rotation risotto” made from lesser-known but ecologically important grains like rye, buckwheat, and barley instead of rice, bone broths and blood sausages, a “parsnip steak” poached with marrow and braised with grass-fed beef shank. Call it whatever you want—nose-to-tail, farm-to-table, whole farm cuisine—Barber, through his work at Stones Barn and Blue Hill, is putting into practice the kinds of ingredients, skills, and processes that can change the culture of food—and, for that matter, agriculture—for the better.

Buy the book here.

Yet for all of Barber’s bold proclamations and inspiring vision of a permanent food culture in the future that is determined, first and foremost, by the capacity of the landscape, his project neglects major parts of a complex food system. An overwhelming majority of Americans will never have the privilege to sample the delicacies Barber highlights, like the famed jamón ibérico pork, because of poverty and systemic societal inequalities. The poor experience a very different kind of food system than that documented in The Third Plate. While incredible steps have been taken to improve food access—such as SNAP and EBT being accepted at farmers’ markets—nearly 23.5 million people, according to USDA research, live in a food desert without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.

As farmers continue to struggle with questions about how to produce healthy, affordable food sustainably, chefs like Dan Barber, with his intimate knowledge of agriculture and his political connections to the White House (Barber is appointed to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition), can be a voice for greater food access and sustainable diets for the millions of people who will never dine at a Michelin-rated restaurant. One thing, though, about the future of food is certain: it will continue to take a movement of both eaters and farmers to dramatically grow a more sustainable food culture.

Jake Olzen is a writer and farmer at the Lake City Catholic Worker Farm in Southeast Minnesota. He participated in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program in 2012.

From the March | April 2015 Issue

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