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."
With Food Comes Responsibility
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.
Barber said some of his fondest food memories involve eggs. After Barber's mother died when he was very young, his father would scramble eggs on rare weekend occasions. But his father's eggs were not the foundation for the renowned chef, even if the breakfasts came from love.
"I think it's fair to say he's not skilled behind the stove and the eggs were completely butchered," he said. "They weren't really scrambled and they were cooked in this really hot, cast-iron pan, with a fork scrapping the pan and they were just overcooked, they were as dry and as tough as a piece of cardboard, yellow cardboard. That's what I remember!"
But when he was sick with tonsillitis and his aunt offered to make him eggs, his first reaction was to stay far away from the yellow cardboard he'd come to know.
"I said no and she pleaded with me and finally she just went ahead and did it. And she is an incredible cook and she whisked the eggs over a double broiler and made these soft, unctuous, they were just clouds," he said. "And still in my taste memory, you know, I remember it going down my throat -- and it was the first thing I'd eaten in a few days. So that's probably the best recipe for a delicious meal. But I do remember them sliding down my throat and thinking, 'This is the greatest thing I've ever had!'"
A Barber Thanksgiving
The lesson Barber took away, however, was the importance of the effort put into the meal -- even if the results were less than edible. And that line of thinking comes in handy during Thanksgiving.
"I don't think the food, ultimately, is the most important. And as a chef, I probably shouldn't be saying that, but it isn't the most important," he said. "The reason for that is 'cause again it's about this context -- you know, to what extent are you creating a taste memory, and memories just in general of being with your family, and memories that stay with you for the rest of your life."
Barber said that the Thanksgiving tradition in his family was borne at the Great Barrington farm that his grandmother built and later generations went on to preserve and improve. It's now up to them, he said, to continue that work, creating memories for the next generation.
"Thanksgiving -- from the American point of view -- is this one holiday where food is central and food gets that context that feels very powerful," he said. "Historically, it's about our country. Agriculturally, it's about the harvest, about the plentifulness of the earth. Thanksgiving for me wraps in all of the things that I think a good restaurant tries to provide every day of the year -- celebration and continuity and tradition and delicious experience."
When asked what he would give thanks for this year, Barber chose the increased consciousness of food, saying that -- at the risk of sounding like his grandfather -- the way Americans look at food has changed so much in his lifetime.
"It's blessed, not just because chefs are taking more of a role in the way America eats, in the healthy and delicious way that America eats," he said. "But for all the other connections that are associated to food and agriculture -- global, environmental consequences, all of it ? health consequences, community consequences, political ramifications."
Of course it can't always be about good wholesome food. For Barber, sometimes it's all about the peanut butter. And the sugar.
"I'm a junk food junkie," Barber said.
"I love peanut butter ice cream that has been frozen a little too long. I love standing over the counter with 2-month-old, frozen, junky-junk ice cream," he said.
Even Acclaimed Chefs Have Doubts
But despite his devotion to food and his talent in the kitchen, Barber said he still isn't sure if this is what he wants to do with his life.
"It's exhausting work, it's a difficult lifestyle, and I come at it with some doubts, with a capital D," he said. "But what I do find fulfilling about cooking is this way of looking at it from the larger issues that surround cooking, which is where food is coming from. To the extent that one can sort of make this leap -- how we buy food affects very clearly how the world is used."
And while that may seem pretentious, Barber said there is validity to the chefs and patrons who believe food affects the world. And that is exciting for him to be able to work in an industry that effects that kind of change, even if it's on a scale as small as the 50 to 80 seats in his restaurants.
"It feels quite fulfilling to see the connections between how we buy food and what happens to open space, which my grandmother felt so clearly about? or what happens to? you know, how it affects people's health and happiness," he said. "All these things are largely connected around the dining table. And to me it feels quite rewarding and fulfilling to be a part of that."
But those doubts he spoke of? He says they vary by day. Barber doesn't have menus at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, but rather a list of ingredients from local farms that dictate what will be served that day.
"To some people those restrictions are delicious, exciting, provocative and, ultimately, really satisfying," Barber said. "But there are a large number of people who don't drink the Kool-Aid that way and my immediate reaction to that is, 'You just don't get it!'"
"But that's ridiculous because they're no less interested in food a lot of the time," he said. "It depends on how it's presented, it depends on what we're serving that evening, you know. I shouldn't be so quick to blame the people who are supporting this restaurant. So my doubts are dependent on my mood, right, like anybody else."