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Why Farm-to-Table King Dan Barber Believes Meat Is Hyper-Seasonal

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[Photos: Blue Hill Farm/Facebook, Blue Hill Farm/Facebook]

When it comes to local and sustainable cuisine, it's hard to find a chef more passionate and knowledgeable than Dan Barber. He is the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, where he and his team focus on bringing "good farming directly to the table" through highly seasonal dishes. Barber has received numerous accolades for his work — include multiple James Beard Awards — and was named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world in 2009. This past May, he released The Third Plate, a 450-page look at American cuisine, diet, and agriculture and how it can be improved.

Barber turns to Blue Hill Farm, the farm that he owns with his brother, for many of his ingredients, including meat. When he spoke with Eater he explained, "We raise a lot of animals there…in the highest standards of humaneness and sustainability." But Barber notes that raising your own animals doesn't always guarantee flavorful protein ("there's so many variables to raising quality meat"). He also revealed why he prefers not to serve chicken in the Winter, refutes the notion that meat should be the center of every meal, and predicts that the future of meat-eating in America is going to be "hyper-seasonal."

What is your criteria for selecting the meat that goes on the menu at your restaurants? What standard does it need to meet?
The standard is fantastic flavor. That's the first and the primary. Everything leads with that. If it's meat that's really delicious, it has to have been raised in the right way. I have yet to come across meat that is truly flavorful, but has been raised on bad pasture, raised in bad conditions, or raised in the wrong way, or slaughtered in the wrong way, or chilled in the wrong way. Maybe there's such a thing but I've never come across it.

Have you ever come across an instance where an animal has been raised humanely and it doesn't result in good meat?
I've come across many examples, including animals that are raised at Blue Hill Farm which is the family farm that I own with my brother. We raise a lot of animals there. We also raise a lot of animals at Stone Barns Center for Food Agriculture. In both cases, at both farms, we use a tremendous amount of meat that I think is raised in the highest standards of humaneness and even sustainability.

There are so many variables to raising quality meat.

We get examples from both farms where the meat is not up to the highest standards. It's not on a consistent basis, but it happens. That's because there are so many variables to raising quality meat. From the breed to the grass to, the weather, to the time of year, to the ecology, to the particular fields the animals are spending most of their time. There's also the finishing of the animals: Transport to the slaughterhouse, the slaughtering, and the chill time [of the meat, post-slaughter] are all enormous factors.

[Photo: Blue Hill Farm/Facebook]

Of those, what are the most important factors?
The post-slaughter chill is maybe, in many ways, the most important moment in the whole continuum. Then it's the transportation back to us. Along that continuum there's just an enormous number of possibilities for problems to arise.

How it's been raised is obviously important, but the stress on an animal before slaughter and then the stress that you put on the carcass and how it's handled post-slaughter is as damaging or as beneficial to the flavor of meat, depending on how it's treated.

This is especially true when you're talking about an animal raised on grass. Most of our meat at both of these farms, and farms that we tend to support, are grass-based, pasture-based. It makes a big, big difference. If you're pasture-based, you're in a whole ecology and economy that is very complicated and leaves open the possibility for huge variations on the meat. Because you're making the animals work for their diet, they're moving constantly to different grasses with different kinds of diversity, at different times of year. The variation is enormous.

If you are keeping an animal in one spot and bringing grain to it, you are, by definition, creating a more consistent product. It's how most of meat in this country is raised. It's like you bring the feed to them and you cut out the variables. The more variables you cut out, the more consistent [the meat is]. The problem is that when you feed animals a consistent diet of grain without an abundance of exercise, and you don't include pasture in that recipe, you end up having a flavor that — in my opinion —is not as interesting as animals raised on grass.

How much of your menu at Blue Hill contains meat? How, and when and why do you choose to use meat when you do?
I look at a menu like we're taking shape tonight. We have a menu in New York [at Blue Hill], but we have no official menu at Stone Barns. I would say between the two restaurants, we have meat or some kind of meat happening in most of the dishes. Very few of them are protein-centric plates of food, however.

Currently, I'm serving a stew of fava beans, peas, spring onions, and gooseberries. The broth for the stew is an onion broth that's been infused with smoked pork. That's not a vegetarian dish by any means. The stew has a bit of Lardo in it too — cured Lardo — so it's pieces of diced fat for flavor. So there's meat in there, which gives the dish the flavor and umami of meat, but it's not protein-centric. We're also doing a roasted zucchini with a marmalade of beef.

We have some dishes that are protein-centric, but they aren't the majority of the dishes. On the menu in New York, we have pork as a last course. That's four or five different cuts of a pig that's on the plate. We do a chicken dish with breast, and thigh and liver and wings.

In that vein are you inclined to use certain types of meat like chicken and beef and pork over other kinds? Why do you choose to use the kinds of meat you use?
I'll tell you the meats I'm particularly excited about at this time of the year. I'm really excited about chicken and ducks because they are on pasture and they're getting a varied diet. I'd much rather eat a chicken at this time of year than I would in the Winter because in the Winter there's no grass.

When you're feeding just grain you end up dumbing down flavor.

When you're feeding just grain you end up dumbing down flavor. An egg on pasture is demonstratively different, better, better for you but much, much better tasting than an egg that's fed only grain. That's my most exciting thing right now. I go for pastured chicken. If it's raised really on good pasture and especially if it's rotated behind some type of herbivore that's laying down its manure and the chickens are getting at I think that's a wonderful way to experience great food, great nutrition and great land stewardship, environmental stewardship. You're improving the soil and improving the grass while eating delicious nutritious food. What is better than that?

Chickens at Blue Hill Farm. [Photo: wengs/Flickr]

How do you choose like when you're going to make meat the center of a dish or when you're going to use it more as a flavoring?
It depends on the time of year and it depends on the cuts which affects the amount of meat we have coming into the kitchen. Like in the Fall, the amount of meat is huge because Fall is the time when we slaughter the grass-fed beef cattle. We also have the geese to slaughter, and we end up just getting hit with a tremendous amount of meat. This causes the proportions change a bit.

Generally speaking, because we're working with whole animals, we tend to divide the meat all throughout the menu into different parts. For the most part, we only buy whole animals. When you're dealing with whole animals, you're forced into utilizing cuts of meat in a different way. A lot of that is using parts of the animal for flavoring dishes.

There is no ecology in the world that allows you to eat that much steak every day of the week.

I think that raises the biggest point: We're not doing anything different than any great cuisine does naturally. Every cuisine I have ever looked into and studied doesn't have protein-centric plate of food because protein-centric means eight-ounce steaks every day of the week for lunch and dinner, seven days a week. That's just something that no landscape could ever have provided.

There is no ecology in the world that allows you to eat that much steak every day of the week. That's not possible. It's an American expectation and an American phenomenon, really. It's an anomaly that, unfortunately, we're exporting to the rest of the world. That doesn't work. The world can't support that kind of protein-centric diet.

Looking at these cuisines around the world, you can really learn quite a bit about how to take an animal and stretch it in a way that feeds a lot of people, provides a lot of nutrition, and most importantly for us, for chefs anyway, provide great flavor.

How do you think Americans can change their mentality towards meat?
Well, I think that a lot of it comes down to chefs. Chefs are the ones who can curate the architecture of a plate that reflects what the land can provide. They can design a plate of food that responds to what the land wants to provide, and not impose on what the land wants to provide.

The best kind of cuisines and the best kinds of diets are ones in which the pattern of eating, the cuisine, the diet, are reflections of what the land can most adequately supply. Not the other way around.

As every chef knows, steak is not the most delicious cut of meat and it's pretty easy to cook.

Currently the American diet is where we choose our diet and then force that diet on the landscape. That's been our history of cooking, but it's never been sustainable. It's actually never been even particularly delicious. As every chef knows steak isn't difficult to cook. I mean look, I love steak. I'm not maligning steak. I love steak. I eat it. I just don't eat it twice a day, seven days a week. That's my point. As every chef knows, steak is not the most delicious cut of meat and it's pretty easy to cook.

I think the chefs shoulder a lot of that potential and the possibilities in chefs to change the culture. Change the culture, change the protein-centric Western expectation for a plate of food. Now, if we're able to do that, it means that we're going to have to cook with different parts of the animal, for sure, and that's the nose-to-tail idea. Chefs are in a good position to do that in part because we have the bully pulpit now. We can broadcast this thing in ways that are really powerful.

One of the travesties of the American diet is that we've never had a tradition.

One of the travesties of the American diet is that we've never had a tradition. We never had a cuisine. We don't have a deeply embedded understanding of how to eat healthfully, and deliciously, and responsibly.

On the other hand, one of the blessings of the American diet or the American culture is that we're so nimble. Because we don't have these entrenched ideas, we tend to be able to be introduced to new ideas. It seems to be a little bit in flux. The expectation of protein-centric plate of food is pretty ingrained, but I don't know that that's always going to be that way. Look at the way diets keep fluctuating every year. Butter was almost eradicated from the American diet, and now it's on the cover of Time.

Butter was almost eradicated from the American diet, and now it's on the cover of Time.

No one heard of Greek yogurt ten years ago and now it's the hottest selling organic food. It wasn't even on the radar then and now you can get it at Walmart, farmers' markets, and grocery stores. Look at the dizzying speed with which chefs have introduced and broadcast new ideas. These ideas trickle down to the everyday person, whether it's through the Cheesecake Factory, or through a person being inspired by websites like Eater. There's a million ways, but chefs have that stage.

I think the future of eating meat in this country and creating a sustainable system, doesn't involve ignoring meat, it's not to become a vegetarian. I'm pretty certain of that now after the research I did for my new book The Third Plate. It doesn't make any sense, especially from where we're sitting.

[Photo: Official Site]

Would you say that chefs are cooking more with what ecologically makes sense?
I want to be careful like giving prescriptions to chefs because I'm the one learning from them. I'm looking at what chefs are doing all over the place. You look at some of the best cooking going and that's what's happening, whether it's René Redzepi at Noma or Massimo Bottura in Italy, or Sean Brock in the South or Alex Atala in Sao Paulo. These are guys who are doing just what we're talking about. You very rarely go to their restaurants and have a hulking cut of meat to end your meal.

I'm not trying to prescribe anything to chefs. I'm just looking at what chefs are doing more and what's been working in regards to changing diner's expectations about meals. Compared to most people, we're more than willing to do the work, that's the beauty of being a chef.

I think Thomas Keller said in The French Laundry Cookbook, "Cooking a steak is heating. It's not cooking." Cooking, preparing tripe is a transcendent act, and that's what chefs want to be doing. We're laborers, but we're also craftsmen. We take great joy and excitement in transforming cuts of meat, that's part of the art of cooking.

The challenge is to convince diners not chefs.

There's no chef who doesn't feel more excited about cooking a chicken gizzard than a chicken breast. I haven't met one, and I'd like to meet one if there is somebody who feels like chicken breast is a better flavor experience than a gizzard, or chicken feet, or chicken neck, or even chicken skin. You pull 100 good chefs and all of them will tell you that that's what they'd rather eat.

The challenge is to convince diners not chefs. How do you convince diners to sit down to a meal, a high-end experience or just a meal that they're expecting something from and be presented with that and share in that kind of excitement. That's the challenge. That's what I see chefs doing all over the place. I'm not leading that. I'm following it. If anything I should be doing a lot more of it myself. It's a very risky proposition. You get a lot of pushback.

Blue Hill Berkshire Pig [Photo: Blue Hill at Stone Barns]

It's fair to say that you're inclined to use certain types of meat depending on the times of year? That there's a seasonality to meat.
Oh my God, yeah. There definitely is a seasonality to meat. We don't really serve chicken in the Winter.

Do you have customers that get upset over that?
Yeah, a lot, a lot. I'm not doing it as like a fuck you to customers or anything. I'm not making any kind of political side. I don't think the flavor of Winter chicken is very good. I'm not really driven to chicken in the middle of the Winter.

How do you deal with customers that ask for the chicken?

I'm not really driven to chicken in the middle of the Winter.
It's the same way you deal with customers that ask for tomatoes in the middle of the Winter. I mean what's the difference? That's part of the potential of the chef to educate and not in your face education but soft education. People ask why don't we have chicken on the menu, we explain it. The waiters are pretty dialed into this. They're explaining it but I don't want to be didactic about it. Do we have it on the menu regularly? No way and that's just because of flavor. It has nothing to do with anything else other than it just … When you have the chicken in the late Spring, Summer and Fall, you don't look back. It's like the tomato issue. You don't put a tomato salad in the middle of January.

I think it goes back to that idea that like you talked about how we just have so much access to meat all the time in a way we wouldn't. We're accustomed to having it all year round whenever, wherever.
That's a great point and that dials back to the tomato example. Who changed the equation with eating tomatoes in the Winter? Chefs ... It was not all of a sudden, it took a few years because in the 70s and 80s, when I was growing up it used to be that a gourmet restaurant was raspberries and tomatoes in the middle of the Winter that were flown in from somewhere. That meant you were eating a luxury meal.

Who changed the equation with eating tomatoes in the Winter? Chefs.

That was the expectation of the diner. That wasn't chef. That was the expectation of the diner. Now you really got chefs who are empowered in a way. This comes back to the Nouvelle cuisine era where the chefs unshackled themselves from the confines of a menu and also the expectations of the diner. It allowed chefs like me to not serve chicken in the Winter. It's just along the continuum.

I think that the idea that chefs could change people's minds about tomatoes in the middle of Winter, I would suggest that ultimately we're going to start looking at meat very seasonally. Beef, I think you're going to end up looking at grass fed beef as … we might have it cured and dried as we do during the course of the year, but we mainly serve grass fed beef from September through November and that's the time when they're coming off the Fall grass. That's when they're finished. Around now it's more like October, November, December, January. Those are beef that were finished on the last flush of Fall grass. That makes for the most delicious grass fed meat.

I think the direction of meat eating in the future is going to be to look at this in a hyper-seasonal way.

It's not that grass fed meat from a good farmer at this moment in time is bad or that a farmer that slaughters an animal in February you're getting terrible meat, not at all. You're getting meat that's finished on hay, on dried grass. That's just not as good. I'm not driven to it. Do we serve it? Yes, but I think the direction of meat eating in the future is going to be to look at this in a hyper-seasonal way. Hyper-seasonal I mean to suggest this isn't a prescription for every restaurant in the country because every restaurant has different seasons for this. I mean every restaurant is located in a different area that's different seasons for their grass. That's why I started with pastured because pasture dictates all this.

If you're on pasture then you have to be dictated by the season. By going back to our earlier conversation, if you're on grain you don't have to worry about those variations. A chicken in Winter is a chicken in Spring is a chicken in Summer. That's when you feed grain. When you're in the grain game you can be very consistent about the diet and the consistency of meat. When you're on pasture you have to really work with the rhythms of the season. That means you have to cook differently at different times of the year too and with different breeds. It comes down to really knowing intimately the landscape and the animals that you're supporting in your restaurant and you end up cooking differently.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns. [Photo: Blue Hill Farm/Facebook]

Do you believe people who eat meat should see at least once animals being slaughtered to gain appreciation for what's on their plate? If so, why?
Intuitively I subscribe to that, but I don't know that you need to see the sacrifice to be worthy of eating meat. There's a part of me that believes that all cooks should, which is what we do here at Blue Hill. We make them part of slaughter because they're working with these animals, with a ton of meat throughout the course of a week. I feel that it's pretty important that they get that kind of side.

I don't know that you need to see the sacrifice to be worthy of eating meat.

If you're eating meat and you're knowing the farmer and you're supporting the right kind of ecology I think that's enough. Or I'll put it to you another way, if I were to demand everyone who eats meat thoughtfully should also slaughter or be a part of a slaughter of meat I would say the same thing about the harvest of a plant of kale or the harvesting of a tomato. You need to be there for the harvest.

We differentiate it because the sentience of animals is such that we believe it's important, but really the most important thing is that we become more connected to our food. That means a landscape, too. For those who demand that we see or be a part of a slaughter if we're going to eat meat, I would only add that I demand that you also be a part of a vegetable harvest or a grain harvest or both because you end up learning and appreciating things in different ways. It's not just about the sentience of the animal that's important, it's about the whole system.

I hate to dictate that everyone needs to watch a slaughter.

It's a complicated way to answer a very simple question. I don't know that there's a simple answer to that because I hate to dictate that everyone needs to watch a slaughter. I don't know that that's the right prescription although off-the-cuff, sure. The more we know about what's going on in our food chain the better. You've got to look at that in more depth than just the animal. It's got to be the whole system.

I'd be just as satisfied for someone who went to see how the animals were rotated on grass than the slaughter itself. If you see an animal, a healthy animal and it goes back to tasting a healthy steak. You taste a really, really delicious steak you know it's coming from a healthy animal that's raised in the right way. I would say if you are hell-bent on seeing a slaughter you'd be just as informed by seeing how an animal is rotated on pasture because it's just as informative.

So you believe that that people should get involved in the process in some sense?
Yeah, I think that's it, get involved in the process, get more involved, dig deeper. Learn your niche. That's the key. Everyone needs to learn our niches. The United States has so many niches. We are a huge country with huge environmental differences. That means that animals need to be raised very differently. In North Dakota, in New Jersey and in New Mexico you're raising different breeds, different animals at different times of the year on different grasses.

Our responsibility as eaters, and I really think as chefs, is to learn those niches and what the environment tells us in terms of what we should be raising on them. That should dictate our menus. From there you're free. You're just free to create and to take advantage of the bounty. The constraint is you have to work on what the grass or what the landscape is telling you it wants to grow.

When animals are on pasture it dictates so many things. When you're on an all grain diet you can manipulate a certain kind of environment that both doesn't produce really delicious food and also is not responsive to those niches and to the variances. That's where we need to be more adept and inspired by are the niches.

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Blue Hill at Stone Barns

630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills, NY 10591