Blue Hill’s Dan Barber on The Perils of The Farm-to-Table Cooking.

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Here’s the first of what will be an ongoing series of Price Hike interviews about how chefs at some of the world’s most expensive restaurants are reducing their reliance on (large portions of) animal proteins and instead finding luxury in vegetables and grains.

This phenomenon, which I’d argue is a magnificent one, (we’re all tired of eating giant slabs of pork belly), was the subject of my feature story in this autumn’s edition of Bloomberg Pursuits. It’s a story that’s been brewing inside me since my last meal at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2011. That dinner, priced at $208pp before wine, tax, or tip, was the first time I had a long, expensive tasting menu that was bereft of significant portions of meat. Briefly: I liked it, a lot. Even though I was a hint confused at first. 

"Did I really pay that much for vegetables?," I remember thinking.  

This is why Barber was one of the first chefs I turned to when researching my Pursuits piece. You’ll find him quoted throughout the story, but since he had so much to say (and since I only had 1,600 words), I thought I’d use The Price Hike to publish the first half of my July telephone interview with the nationally-renowned chef. Barber speaks about the perils of the so-called farm-to-table model, about the impact of vegetable-heavy menus on the “bank account” of the soil, and about why he serves a ton of beef in the fall. 

I began my conversation with Barber by asking him to respond to this quote from David Kinch, the chef at the vegetable-heavy Manresa:

"I get asked all the time, ‘you grow your own vegetables, you must be saving money.’ We are spending three times more money than if we were shopping at farmers markets and picking up the phone and calling a produce company…What I also found out is that it’s not cheaper cooking vegetables. There is a tremendous amount of work from cleaning, cutting and prepping, just as much as with meat or fish." (Source: Find. Eat. Drink.)

Here’s how Barber responded: I would agree. It depends on where your farm is, to a certain extent. Stone Barns is located 25 miles from New York City and therefore the vegetables reflect the labor associated with that area, so the vegetables are going to be more expensive than they would be from farms tucked away in the Berkshires, like Blue Hill Farm. The labor is higher; the insurance is higher. And that really adds a lot. The kind of agriculture we’re talking about now is a lot of labor; it’s a lot of hands on work, weeding and picking and planting. So when you’re involved with literal human labor, then your costs rise very very quickly. So yes, if you’re growing your own, I think generally your investment is quite a bit more than even the farmers.

We don’t grow our own vegetables; the Stone Barns Farm grows for us and we buy from the Stone Barns Farm…I don’t even have an exclusive partnership. They’re selling to us at a fair market value. They can sell retail. They can sell to other chefs. So the price that they set, either we want to pay for it or we don’t. I think generally across the board we’re going to pay about 20% more than the farmer’s market. And I think generally across the board at the farmer’s market, depending on the season, depending on the vegetables, depending on where you are, you’re going to pay 10-20% more at the farmer’s market than from a big distributor. In some cases you can pay a lot more than that…And that’s not including transportation. Who’s picking up the vegetables from the market? Who’s delivering the vegetables from a taxi cab to your restaurant? That’s a big, big labor expense too. So when you calculate that cost into the vegetables, you’re really doubling the costs.

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I would add a third element to Kinch’s quote, which is that, it’s harder to conceive dishes, because when you’re dealing with proteins, whether it’s a filet of salmon or a lamb chop, it’s easy to meet the Western conception of a 7oz portion of a protein with a little vegetable and a little sauce. That’s the western conception of an entree plate of food. Even on a tasting menu, proteins take center stage, and grains and vegetables are sideshows to the star. And when you reverse that, when vegetables become the leading player, it’s a bit more challenging, because you don’t have a central character that everything clings to or revolves around, in which case you end up having to work a bit harder to conceive a dish that works.

So there are three levels of that. There’s the cost of the market, the cost of production and the cost of the time of production, but then there’s the conceptual nature of it that I think it more expensive or time consuming than working with meat.

I loved my last meal at Stone Barns in 2011, but I found it interesting that it was about 60 percent vegetables. Am I incorrect in remembering that? That’s right…I think generally speaking you’re looking at 70%-80% vegetables or grains now, while when you were here 2.5 years ago, it was 60%. But now it’s probably 70-80%, but not just vegetables, grains too…From an ecological perspective, not so much purely gastronomic, if you look at the whole geshtalt of it, if you’re going to balance the landscape, using vegetables is a good way to do it, because the energy it takes to raise animals obviously is quite expensive, so balancing out with vegetables is smart and more ecological, and probably more sustainable in most ecologies. But if you leave the grains out of there, you have other problems too. So you can’t just grow vegetables, they’re very expensive in the soil bank account; they’re hugely extractive. You can’t just keep growing vegetables in the same place. So you gotta have some manure from the animals, you gotta have rotations of different crops — grains especially — and cover crops that end up replenishing the soil.

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But 80% vegetables, I don’t know if that should be the goal, or if the goal should be that the cuisine is being reflective of what the land can provide in a truly sustainable way, and that does not just mean 80% vegetables because that’s draining the bank account of the soil, so you need to have meat in there, which is why most of our vegetable dishes have some sort of meat component. It’s usually bones or sauce, or smatterings of meat that create a marmalade of meat because we’re using whole animals, so we’re always fighting to use these lesser scrap cuts of meat, and that ends up adding I think great flavor obviously to vegetables.

It’s very reflective of what a landscape can provide, as opposed to a “farm-to-table-model” which says, “OKAY, I’m a chef, I want to support local food, I’m going to make this dish, and now I’m going to go shopping for the ingredients. I’m going to get ‘this’ from ‘this’ farmer. And ‘this’ I’m going to try to get from farmers who grow especially for me. And the rest of the stuff I can’t get to complete dish, I’ll go elsewhere. But mainly I’m sourcing locally.” Well that’s nice and it has the chance to be a very delicious meal, but I don’t think that should be the goal. I don’t think that’s a sustainable model for the future. Really, it’s got to be very reflective of using the meats, the grains and the vegetables in a way that the land around you can support.

And that’s what I think we need to move into…How do you balance this stuff in the right way? Some times of the year you come here, it’s going to be very very meat centric. Ironically, in September and October, I know we’re going to have a lot of beef, because I’m looking out at the other window in the kitchen and the beef cattle are almost done, so we’re going to start processing them, and so all of a sudden we’re going to have HUGE amounts of beef, HUGE, and I can’t f__k around. Now I have to make a tasting menu where you might have BEEF BEEF BEEF on 2 or 3 courses and hopefully it be very different. The ducks are going to be ready. The chickens are going to be bombing. I’m not professing to be fluent in any of this I’m just trying to figure it out.

Quite the contrary you’re quite fluent. But listen, let me ask you this, since we’re talking about beef, I think if most Americans looked a cut of USDA Select, and then at a cut of Japanese Kobe, and saw the spiderlike marbling in the latter, the consumer would understand the Kobe is the more luxurious cut. So how do you define luxury in terms of vegetables? That’s a good question. You know I’m trying to figure that out myself, [laughs resignedly], because we get a lot of people who don’t share your enthusiasm, and feel quite ripped off by not having the traditional tasting menu, with a protein taking center stage, with the vegetables taking center stage.

Is that true? Based on your reservation books, I would argue the contrary, you seem to be doing the right thing and people seem to be enjoying your product. Yeah, we’re doing quite well, but I worry when that happens. Just this morning we sold out in three minutes for two months from now. And like I’m looking where the area codes, where the calls are coming from, like 50% are from way out of town, a bunch of them are from overseas. Some of them are from areas that, I don’t know if they understand what the hell we’re doing…And they come here and they’re expecting lobster and steak, even though we’re on a farm, they’re expecting that stuff for the prices.

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So, the job’s getting easier, for sure, because people like you are writing about it, and that’s a big thing and the culture is changing, so when the culture changes the expectation level changes with it. And people around the world are doing this in ways that are really interesting and evoled and provocative and delicious. 

But even this past week, we got a letter complaining about the gross amount of vegetables in our tasting. What are you going to do about that? Apologize I guess. Or I just say it’s not the right restaurant for you. But they did wait the two months to get here. And they traveled all the way. They’re usually celebrating a special occasion. And they’re paying a godforsaken amount of money, even I admit that.

So I can be kind a cowboy with you on the phone, but when you get up close to that person, you feel a little bit shy. Especially when the captains, the waiters, are out there, having to deal with them. So we do a lot of adjustments during the course of the meal. And hopefully we catch it. I will serve a 7oz steak with the marbled fat; you know it will be a grass fed cow, it won’t be as marbled as Kobe beef, but we will make adjustments according to the sensibility of the table because I don’t want to be here preaching. And I don’t know if that’s such a great thing, I’m just kind of a wuss, you know? I like chefs who really stand their ground and say “okay, you don’t like it? Tough. Don’t come here again.” But I’m not quite there yet. (Dan Barber)

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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