Dan Barber — Farm-to-table. Chef’s Table, V.1 E.2
This episode of Chef’s Table features American chef Dan Barber, who sits at the head of the farm-to-table movement. Check out the last episode, which featured Italian chef Massimo Bottura and his revolution of traditional Modenese cuisine. If you want to learn about one of Dan Barber’s cooking influences, also read the guide to the episode on Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery.
At a young age, Dan and his brother lost their mother. Dan feels that this loss has impacted every facet of his life, including his cooking. He sees the work he’s done through the combined lenses of the cause he’s fighting for and the loss he’s experienced.
FAILURE TO SUCCESS
After college, Dan decided he wanted to become a baker. He headed off to California to join the force of Nancy Silverton. But not long after he landed a job at her La Brea Bakery, she fired him after a disastrous bread incident.
From there, Dan spent time in Europe and ran a catering operation that failed. After returning to the United States, he and his brother joined forces to start Blue Hill, a restaurant in New York City named after the family farm where they’d spent summers. Though this seems an obvious choice for a farm-to-table setup, their vision wasn’t clear at first.
Only when Dan decided to showcase a seasonal product — asparagus — by featuring it in every single dish on an evening menu did the message of Blue Hill become clear.
Serendipitously, it was that night when the number one food critic in New York walked through the door. A star review — proclaiming Blue Hill at the forefront of farm-to-table dining — sealed the restaurant’s future and Dan’s status at the head of the movement towards local, sustainable food.
Dan Barber has a deep belief that in order to make great food, you have to seek out great ingredients.
Sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s nowhere near as simple as it sounds. In order to find the best quality ingredients, you need to find the farmers who are producing those ingredients. And that’s not simple, especially in a day and age when most farms are industrialized and producing en masse, and when we ship food across the globe. Dan decided he’d cook only with seasonal ingredients, which means that his menu constantly rotates to reflect his vision. In the weeks when asparagus is in season, his guests eat asparagus. The rest of the year, they don’t.
The most fascinating part of this episode, for me, was the part in which Dan goes through the workings of Blue Hill Farm. They needed the grass to grow well, so they needed cattle to fertilize the grass. They needed to spread the fertilizer, so they got chickens. The forest constantly encroached, so they got goats to hold it back. With a neatly forested edge of the field, they could raise pigs. And the grass became rich and made good hay. The cattle began having male calves, and they needed to raise them for veal. But instead of raising the veal calves the way veal calves are usually raised, they kept them by their mothers’ sides. They didn’t feed them crap.
The farm has flourished, and with it Dan’s grandmother’s vision of preserving open space and his restaurant operation, which now spans two restaurants. The original Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in the heart of the farmland that bears the food for his meals.
It’s a beautiful vision. If you want to learn more about it, check out the Blue Hill Farm website.
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