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Dan Barber on Why the Farm-to-Table Movement Doesn't Go Far Enough

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New York chef Dan Barber's new book The Third Plate is a 450-page manifesto on American cuisine, agriculture, and diet, and how they can be improved. He argues that the nose-to-tail philosophy that's a central tenet of the farm-to-table movement needs to be applied to agriculture: how can we support farms by creating a cuisine that uses more of what they grow, and not just the literal cream of the crop? Barber tells Eater, "I'm not talking about going backwards. I'm not talking about old food, like a Shaker village kind of deal." Rather, Barber urges chefs to build modern menus led by what farms produce as they rotate through crops over the years.

Below, Barber spoke with Eater about the ways in which the farm-to-table movement doesn't go far enough. He also shared an excerpt from the book which focuses on the late French born, Washington DC chef Jean-Louis Palladin, who believed the goal of American cuisine was not to celebrate individual ingredients but rather "learn how to integrate them into your cuisine." Or, as Barber puts it, "celebrating how they all fit together. Which is fucking brilliant." The Third Plate is available from Penguin now (buy on Amazon).

Tell me about the book. What questions are you trying to answer?
How do we put together a cuisine that digs a bit deeper than farm-to-table? First of all, I don't think farm-to-table covers the basics of what we need for the future. It's a self-selecting system.

I guess another way of saying it is that farm-to-table sounds nice. It sounds direct and connected to shake the hand of the farmer that grew your food and you make a direct transaction. It's true, it's very true. And it's certainly a hell of a lot better than a lot of the other options out there. But what I am raising as a question mark are people like me, who not only advocate farm-to-table but say okay, this is how we're going to fight the industrial food chain. This is how we're going to change the American diet in the future.

And you don't think the farm-to-table movement goes far enough?

The farm-to-table movement's doing great. It's gone viral.

From my understanding and my research for this book, that's just crazy. That's just never going to happen. And the last ten years have proven that. I've said this before, what you're seeing out there is that the farm-to-table movement's doing great. It's gone viral. And every chef that I know, every good chef, is doing it in one way or another. It depends on where you are, the shortness of the seasons and the access to farmers' markets. But from what I see it's penetrated the chef culture. And of course it has, because it's where the best food is.

But while it is direct and connected, the problem with it is that the farmer ends up bringing to market what he or she knows you will buy. It's not a true representation of the entire farm, it's not a true representation of all the crops that are needed to grow in rotation that enable a farm to be healthy. Soil health, for one thing. It enables the farmers to give you the tomatoes and the asparagus and the peas and the wheat, all those crops that we tend to covet. So that you can be a farm-to-table place and just buy those products and claim that this is some answer to the future? That seems to me to make less and less sense. I was that guy, so I feel comfortable telling you about it.

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Blue Hill Farm. [Photo: Blue Hill Farm / FB]

What does a better model look like?
One of the credos of the farm-to-table movement is nose-to-tail eating, so I think of this as nose-to-tail eating of the whole farm. So what is that? For certain farms, it means crops that become for the farmer a sunk cost. They don't get sold, buckwheat or barley or rye or millet in some cases. Austrian winter peas are a crop that a lot of grain farmers will grow. They don't have a market. They don't come to the farmers market, there's not really a distribution chain for them, so they end up going into animal feed and they end up making very little money off of them. And where they make their money is on the crops like wheat.

So for chefs like me to say, I'm going to support and buy and celebrate the wheat, what I'm really supporting and buying and celebrating is the cream of that farmer's very diversified system. I'm not talking about all those other crops. And The Third Plate is an attempt, anyway, to look at those in-between crops. An attempt to look at the whole farm. And the whole animal too, but I think we know that already from nose-to-tail. So we've got to expand that and look at it in a more holistic way.

What role do chefs and restaurants play in this?
This is shouldered, I think, in many ways by chefs. Chefs can orchestrate a menu that's diversified and comes from what the land truly wants produced, and what the farmer can make a very good economy off of, a true diversity. That, I think, is the challenge for the future. How do we figure out a pattern of eating?

This is shouldered in many ways by chefs. Chefs can orchestrate a menu that's diversified.

Because the best cooking, the best cuisines in the world — and you know this, we all know this, I just didn't get it until I looked at it up close — are the peasant cuisines. They all were peasant cuisines to begin with: French cuisine, Italian, the hundreds of southern Chinese cuisines, the thousands of Indian cuisines. All of them were just negotiating, eking out what the land could provide, and then figured out a way to make it nutritious and delicious. And then that develops into a cuisine and a pattern of eating that infuses itself into a culture and into the social mores and religious occasions and everything else. And that is why they are still cuisines today: because they're sustainable. They stuck around because they were delicious, but also because they created a pattern of eating that supported what the land could provide. In many cases it did that because there was no other option.

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J&A Farm. [Photo: Blue Hill Farm / FB]

And how does this apply in the US?
That's the funny thing about American agriculture: we are so flush, we are so rich in land, we can afford to demand a certain kind of diet, and grow it. But that's an anomaly. That's a historical anomaly, it's an agricultural anomaly, and it's a gastronomic anomaly. And unfortunately, we're exporting that idea to the rest of the world. The idea would be to create a cuisine that comes off of what is the full, whole farm.

Chefs like René Redzepi or Massimo Bottura or Alex Atala or even Sean Brock to a certain extent — Southern cuisine is probably the one cuisine you can point to in the US — all these chefs are reinterpreting what is essentially peasant cuisine. They're interpreting it into something, in some cases very loosely. In René's case, it's a very loose tethering to: What is Viking cuisine? But there is something there, and it's very identifiable to what it means to be in Denmark. And what he's done through his cooking is ignited a social movement. And the response has been amazing, but it's too early to give a standing ovation or critique of his work because we will see the effect of that work over the next few decades as chefs graduate from that kitchen and end up introducing more of his ideas into their own restaurants.

I just want to make clear: I'm not talking about going backwards.

I just want to make clear: I'm not talking about going backwards. I'm not talking about old food, like a Shaker village kind of deal. I have no interest in that. I think what these chefs — and many, many more, I only brought to mind a couple — they end up having a tether to a cultural history they can build a menu off of and modernize it very freely. You need scaffolding, they would recognize it very freely. And we don't. I don't anyway. I don't know what Hudson Valley cuisine is, so I'm here trying to figure this out. How do you create a cultural pattern of eating a cuisine when the American diet has never really been very good?

Tell me about the excerpt you shared. Who was Jean-Louis Palladin? How did he influence today's chefs?
Well, that's why I feel so energized about this guy Palladin, is because he came over and he didn't cook his French food, although he was obviously based in French technique. He was into supporting farms, that's the critical thing from a cuisine perspective. He was putting all the pieces together.

I'm going to quote from the book: "The challenge of cooking in America is to discover the newest and best products from different states…and then learn how to integrate them into your cuisine." And what he's talking about here is he was not celebrating individual products but celebrating how they all fit together. Which is fucking brilliant. And that's the goal, I think, of a great chef. What you get with him is where the farm-to-table philosophy meets the most superior cooking. What you get is the brilliance of Jean-Louis Palladin. He influenced a whole generation of chefs, and that has not been fully recognized.

From The Third Plate by Dan Barber

I first tasted foie gras out of a can.

It was the mid-​1970s. My father, a businessman, was approached by two Frenchmen who had an idea for a new children's board game. Their meeting took place in our living room, and as a house gift they presented a small black can of foie gras. My father brought out the melba toast. He insisted my brother and I stop watching television and acquaint ourselves with the delicacy. One of the Frenchmen removed the gray, wet slab of liver from the can with great fanfare, while the other spoke in near religious terms about the rich culinary tradition of foie gras, and the superiority of French life. I remember taking a bite. It was awful — the smell, the texture, the whole idea of it—but while the displeasure was short-​lived, the perplexing reverence for such a disagreeable food stayed with me.

Twelve years later, I came to see foie gras in a different light. Less than a week into my first apprenticeship at a high-​end restaurant in Los Angeles, I discovered that a guest chef, Jean-​Louis Palladin, would be preparing a special menu for the evening.

"Who's Palladin?" I asked Matt, the saucier.

"Chef Palladin," he said, with an expression of disbelief. "Chef Palladin is the greatest chef in America."

He wasn't overstating it. Palladin was just twenty-eight years old when he became the youngest French chef to win two Michelin stars for his restaurant La Table des Cordeliers in Gascony, an area of southwest France renowned for its Pyrenees lamb, its high-quality sheep's‐milk cheeses, and, most especially, its foie gras. At an age when most chefs are still struggling to define themselves, Palladin had within his grasp the coveted third star, which at the time meant becoming one of the greatest chefs in the world. Instead, he abruptly left France and opened Jean-Louis at the Watergate, in Washington, D. C.

He arrived in 1979, at a remarkably bleak moment for American cooking. The great advances of modern life that large food corporations successfully sold to the American public — frozen, processed, and fast foods, out‐of‐season produce—had gone from novelty items in the 1930s to established fixtures on our plates by the '70s. Supermarkets, by this time well established, began competing heavily on price. The pressure to increase slimming profit margins affected not only how food was sold but how it was grown, too—pressure that would mitigate diversity, compromise quality, and forsake flavor for volume. In this new, consolidated era of agricultural efficiency, small farmers were left with few outlets—organized farmers' markets were just beginning, for example—and without direct access to consumers, many sold their farms to developers and cashed out.

Palladin didn't arrive at the bleak American culinary scene and call it a wasteland, which was the conventional attitude of most French chefs. "You'd hear it every day back then," New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent once told me, about his time spent working through the ranks of classic French restaurants. " 'The butter is better in France, the beans are better in France' — it was the tyranny of the superior French product. And it was myth."

Palladin was one of the first to debunk the myth. He celebrated iconic American products such as Virginia ham and sweet corn, and distilled them through the rigors of French technique, elevating a mere baked potato or crab cake to culinary art. And he showcased more lowly (and often ignored) ingredients, such as barnacles, blood sausages, and pig's ears.

But the ingredient he most prized, foie gras, was at the time unavailable in America, and illegal to import (unless it came in a can, which it didn't take an epicurean to reject). Palladin was not deterred. He flew to France and shoved goose livers into the gullets of monkfish, predicting — correctly — that customs agents would avoid inspecting fish for contraband on his return.

At the height of the illegal importation, Palladin was smuggling approximately twenty livers per week and serving them as off-​the-​menu specials to diners eager to taste the real thing.

His fearlessness made him a chef's chef, as well as a culinary star. Chefs and food lovers from around the country began making pilgrimages to taste the new American cuisine of Jean-​Louis Palladin.

••

I didn't know any of this at the time. But when Palladin strode into the Los Angeles restaurant that day, in the manner of someone well accustomed to his own importance, it was hard not to be impressed. Tall and thin, with an impossible mop of curly hair crowning his large head, he barreled through the small kitchen with manic masculinity, thundering directives in a voice so low it sounded as though it came from his kneecaps. Behind oversize glasses, there were fierce, appraising eyes. He never stopped moving, especially in the throes of preparing a chicken sauce — a rich reduction of chicken necks, feet, and red wine — searing, stirring, whisking, smelling, and, every few seconds, it seemed, tasting.

By 6 p. m., with everything in place and the guests just starting to arrive, Jean-​Louis paced up and down the long line of stoves, banging his hand and begging for action. "The orders!" he demanded. The orders came quickly, and suddenly I was introduced to pure high-​octane kitchen action.

In the whir of it all, two memories of what he prepared stay with me. One of them I tasted, and one I did not. The one I did not taste was a chicken dish with only its lowliest parts—gizzards, cockscombs, and a cut from the thigh called the "oyster"—all bound together with that sauce. The one I did taste was foie gras and chestnut soup. I thought it was magic.

Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Dan Barber, 2014

· The Third Plate [Amazon]
· All Dan Barber Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Book Club Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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