Dan Barber On Future Food

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‘Restaurants can become these cathedrals of ideas.’ … Dan Barber chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and upstate New York. Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

Thanks to Emma Brockes for this article, another in this important Guardian series:

Dan Barber: ’20 years from now you’ll be eating fast food crickets’

In the latest from our series on biodiversity, the Blue Hill chef says we’ve got sustainable agriculture wrong. It’s not a question of sacrifice, but deliciousness

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Barber holds a staff meeting. Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

How does it taste?” says Dan Barber, regarding me expectantly in the garden of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, his restaurant in the Hudson Valley just north of New York. I am gnawing the crust of a large piece of bread that has been grown from Barber Wheat, a hybrid seed developed by Barber and his partners to be nutrient dense, high in yield and – a radical thought in seed breeding, apparently – full of flavour. (Whereas clapped out old seeds might yield 30 bushels an acre, Barber Wheat will stretch to 95). The bread is simultaneously light, and dense, and intricate in flavour in such a way that I can’t think of a single word to do it justice. Barber, who at 49 has the manic energy of someone for whom no plate of food will ever live up to the ideal in his head, looks at me gloomily. “That’s the whole problem with food writing,” he says.

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‘At a restaurant you’re like a conductor in an orchestra.’ Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

There are bigger problems in the food world. With the possible exception of “financial regulation”, there can be few more deadly phrases to the casual reader than “sustainable agriculture”, a heavy-weather issue most of us recognise as increasingly important but nonetheless killingly dull. This is where Barber, who set up his restaurant in 2004, is hugely persuasive, a charismatic leader who, if you talk to him for an hour while walking around the kitchen and bucolic surroundings of Stone Barns, will have you genuinely excited about crop rotation, and soil conditions, and the fact that the food industry is a dying behemoth reliant on low-yield, agronomically risky seeds that produce ever more tasteless and nutrition-less food.

“There’s never been a time where there’s been such a wholesale decline in frozen processed food,” he says. “Ever. The only units of those companies that are actually increasing market share are prepared vegetables that are not processed.” Which isn’t to say we are all rushing into the open arms of the nearest farmer’s market, although it is Barber’s mission, through his restaurants, to change this.

Blue Hill, often cited as Obama’s “favourite restaurant” and with a branch in Manhattan, serves audaciously un-gussied up food that relies almost entirely for its flavour on its extraordinary provenance, from seeds bred by Barber’s seed company, Row 7, or from nearby farms committed to the best soil practices. The phrase “farm-to-table” has become something of a target in the last few years, “dismissed as pretentious and idiotic” as Barber says, and redolent of smug city dwellers fawning over a tomato. The chef prefers the terms “local” – “you can’t co-opt ‘local’; I mean, someone will figure out how, but it’s pretty hard” – or “seed-to-table”, since if the seed is no good, he says, everything that follows will be compromised.

The problem for Barber is not one of product, but perception; many of us expect healthy eating to entail a large dose of sacrifice. This is wrong, says Barber; food grown in nutrient-dense soil simply tastes better. “The change agent is deliciousness and hedonism. In many ways I think that’s why the good food movement, or farm-to-table, has had such legs: it’s rooted in hedonism. What movement can you speak about where it asks you to be greedy? Look at the environmental movement: give up everything. Or religion. The food movement is about something that Americans are really good at.”

Eating? “Well, pleasure. We’re actually really not good at eating. But to the extent to which we can change culture through hedonism, I think there’s a real art to that. It’s just hard for Americans who come from the puritan idea that everything that’s virtuous requires sacrifice. It’s hard to talk about these serious issues in the context of pleasure and delight.”

The flip side of this is that when Americans find something they do like or believe to be good for them, they can have trouble organising a proportionate response. I tell Barber I went through a brief phase of believing that chia seeds would save me.

“Me too,” he says. “I went through the chia phase.”

I am currently in the sheets-of-seaweed phase, although I’ve read that in high volumes it might be carcinogenic. He rolls his eyes.

“That’s why in all these [older food] cultures, you couldn’t eat too much of anything. That luxury was never afforded to anybody, ever.” The problem in America is one of abundance, and it directly inhibits diversity. “In all of my research about healthfulness, everything points to diversity. Because the amazing thing is that we actually don’t know what makes us healthy. It’s probably because there’s a million different things – there is no magic bullet. That’s the great lesson of different cultures that look to their region to develop this correspondence between what the land is telling you it wants to grow according to soil conditions, climate, and your diet. To me, that’s the ticket. You can never really understand these things by single bullet solutions – the omega 3s and seaweed – because we don’t know how it soaks into our system based on the other things we’re eating. That’s cuisine. But it’s hard to plan an economy on eating lots of diverse stuff.”…

Read the whole article here.

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