Know thy farmer. It's a piece of advice that has driven the success of award-winning chef Dan Barber and his two New York restaurants.
"I want there to be a story attached to the food that I'm serving my diners or my family because if there's a story, if there's some type of narrative about the farmer or the food, about how it's grown, where it's coming from, how it got to you," Barber said, "you end up tasting things that you otherwise wouldn't taste."
Barber, 39, runs two restaurants along with his brother David and sister-in-law Laureen. He has a passion for knowing where his food comes from and he wants his customers to share that with him. On the Web site for his Blue Hill properties, Barber points visitors to his food sources via a "Know Thy Farmer" link, which maps out his own farm properties in Tarrytown, N.Y., and Great Barrington, Mass., as well as other locally owned farms in the area.
Barber, who in 2002 was named one of Food & Wine Magazine's "Best New Chefs" and "Best Chef: New York" in 2006 by the James Beard Foundation, said there's a disconnect with the food served at big chain restaurants -- it tends to be conventional with price as a determining factor in what is served.
"That's been, it seems to me, the problem with the food that we eat, especially over my lifetime, which is to say that we're so disassociated from who's growing our food and where it's coming from and how it's getting to us and all the rest of issues that are attached to that," he said. "The act of eating becomes so nonessential and so disconnected from those things that we're probably hard-wired to need to experience."
Even urbanites in Midtown Manhattan have something to learn from agriculture, he said, through the restaurants that rely on these farms for their food.
"Restaurants are about restorative times and restorative opportunities and that's why they began: They were social and they were restorative. And I think in the modern context they serve that same purpose: They are places of escape, but they are also places of connection -- to connect to your family and your friends and as well, increasingly, to connect to the larger world around you," he said. "And that's an exciting position to be in as a chef."
While the idea of eating farm-fresh food is now the trend du jour, Barber and his family have been doing so since their days growing up on and tending to Blue Hill, his grandmother's farm, in Great Barrington for which his restaurants are named.
"I think there was probably some sort of quiet associative experience between farming the land, taking care of this open space, preserving it and having a conscience about where food comes from," Barber said.
His grandmother loved food and was a great taster, but not a cook, he said. But she wanted Barber to work in the garden and the fields to appreciate the beauty that surrounded the farm.
"I sort of got that experience begrudgingly and I think now I've translated that into food as a kind of responsibility, without being too didactic about it," he said. "I've been doing it only because it's been a part of me all of my life."
But there's also a second reason to use farm food, a more egotistical one, he said.
"If you've got something to say about where that food is coming from, you end up giving the impression that you're a much better chef than you are, which I think is happening in my case," he said.