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Dan Barber Once Got Fired for Being Outstandingly Bad at Bread

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But he's pretty good at talking to us, so it's okay

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Blue Hill/Mark Ostow

When chef Dan Barber was working for Nancy Silverton at Campanile in the '90s, he was so spectacularly bad at breadmaking that Silverton wound up firing him. It all turned out okay in the end, though: his two restaurants — New York City's Blue Hill and, ninety minutes north of the city, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a white-tablecloth, tasting menu-only restaurant located on a working farm — are among the most celebrated in America. (Eater's own Bill Addison included Stone Barns on the National 38.)

So how did Barber go from failed baker to one of the country’s most acclaimed chef-restaurateurs? Find out on the premiere of The Eater Upsell, a brand-new podcast hosted by Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito. During their conversation (transcript below), Barber discusses his days as a young cook in Manhattan, the difference between a cook and a chef, being a leader in the farm-to-table movement, his sustainability manifesto The Third Plate, the inspirational power of Anthony Bourdain and Beyoncé, and the philosophical epiphanies he had while his New York restaurant was converted into a temporary pop-up called WastED, where meals were made using ingredients that are more generally considered trash.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.


Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 1: Dan Barber, edited to just the main interview. (If you want the parts where Helen promises to take Greg to Buddakan, you're just going to have to listen to the recording above.)

Helen Rosner: Not too long ago we talked to Chef Dan Barber, who runs Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The day he was here in the Eater Upsell studio was the day that he found out that he was nominated for not one but two James Beard Awards.

Greg Morabito: And he actually just won those Beard awards.

Helen: But he didn't know it at the time. So let's see what he had to say.

***

Greg: How do you deal with award stuff? You've won awards, you've been nominated for a bunch. Do you get nervous about it? Do you zone it out? Are you aware of it?

Dan Barber: I get very haughty and arrogant. I get these T-shirts made that say... Yeah, no, I don't know. I'm okay. It depends on the award because with some of them, the vectors all point to me, and I really don't love that. Of course, I have an ego, so it does well for me, but the part that doesn't do well for me is there's the team, the family of Blue Hill, which is essential to any good restaurant or any restaurant at all. It's all about the symbiotic nature of how everyone's working together and everything, but you can't say it enough because the team is everything. So, when I get awarded for something that I feel like I deserve only partial credit for, that makes me feel — not upset, but it's complicated.

Helen: But it was the whole restaurant which was nominated, which is great.

Dan: No. That's what I'm saying, this one I'm feeling great about because Stone Barns has been open now ten years. We've been working very, very hard and changing everything about the restaurant since the day we opened. We've really gone through a huge flux — changes that just have, I think, improved the restaurant over time, and so I'm thrilled to be recognized for it.

Greg: So, Stone Barns is ten years old and Blue Hill Manhattan is 15 years old?

Dan: 15, yeah, exactly. Right on.

Helen: Which in restaurant years, is like a thousand.

Dan: In today's world, I guess so, yeah. It doesn't feel that way. The thing about it is the change. I do have a team that's hungry, and the industry itself is in flux — as you know better than I do. So, it's nice that we have support to try out new things and do different ideas that keep a place alive and keep a pulse. WastED is one example of that, but there are smaller examples throughout the course of a week that just end up amounting to feeling that the place is alive.

Greg: How did you get into kitchens? You went to culinary school. Did you work in a kitchen before that?

Dan: Yeah. I had worked for a while. I was just kind of trying to make some money in college and I didn't know what the hell I wanted to do after college, and so I was still cooking because I actually wanted to bake bread. Last night Nancy Silverton was a visiting chef at WastED. She fired me from La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles in 1991 or ‘92 or whatever. She was instrumental in my becoming a chef because I didn't love the whole cooking thing and I was really fascinated with bread and I thought I was really good, and I was terrible and so she fired me. So, that's why I ended up just cooking: to figure out what I wanted to do, and here I am.

Helen: What was it about bread that attracted you?

Dan: I just loved it. I was just like a bread fiend and I sort of still am. I'm glad because in my book, The Third Plate, it actually ends up being sort of about wheat. If there's a main character, it ends up being a character — it's the donkey in the book. It carries the story, wheat, because if you follow the history of wheat, you follow the history of agriculture in this country, and even in many ways in the Western world. I was lucky that I had this fascination, because I had a hunger for bread and it's stayed with me.

Helen: What does it mean to be bad at bread?

Dan: Oh yeah, well I was bad. It's hard to be bad at bread, but I accomplished this very well. I would have gotten a James Beard Award for Outstandingly Bad at Bread. I was he, I was that person.

Helen: What is it, just, like—

Dan: It was like the recipes and stuff, and I was always so tired. Just the thing, the night shift. In defense of me, I was cooking in the mornings to earn money. I was cooking at Nancy's restaurant Campanile in the mornings, so I was like a short-order breakfast guy. I was like going from the bakery to the thing, and then I'd try and sleep in the afternoon if I had to go back to bakery. It was just hard. It was bad. It was a bad scene to me.

Helen: It's that "time to make the donuts" kind of mentality.

Dan: Yeah, I actually woke up saying, "Time to make the donuts." I did.

Helen: When are we talking about here? Is this like the '90s?

Dan: Yeah, early '90s.

Helen: So, you went to LA, but you grew up in New York City, right?

Dan: Yeah. I'm born and raised here.

Helen: You went to school also on the East Coast, right?

Dan: Yeah, I went to Tufts University. I was just cooking a little bit in college, started this catering company in college with a friend.

Helen: No way.

Dan: We did a lot of really cool stuff.

Helen: What did you make?

Dan: We used to do these huge, huge, huge parties, like dinner parties, and everyone would come in and have to give 20 bucks when they entered. We just did these tasting things that we passed around the room. It was great. It was really great.

Helen: Do you remember any of the menus?

Dan: I remember making lots of ravioli. I was like the pasta guy.

Helen: Bad at bread, good at pasta.

Dan: Back then, I was pretty good at pasta. I think we were buying the sheets of pasta. I was really just forming the dough. I know I was forming the ravioli. I don't know if I was making my own dough. I may have. We got to be very popular, so I had to like, economize or streamline the food process, whatever you call it.

Helen: Efficiency.

Dan: Yeah, efficiency. We were okay with that.

Greg: I saw somewhere that you worked at Bouley.

Dan: Yeah.

Greg: How did you get there?

Dan: I went to LA and then I was up in Berkeley in San Francisco, and then I came back to New York and I worked at a restaurant that you never heard of called Luxe, which was really great at that time. This was 1990, maybe ‘93 or ‘94, and it went out of business and I was looking for something not so long-term, and Bouley I knew was going to close within a year. I thought that would be a good place to go and he had an opening, and so there I went.

"The amount of cooks that became chefs out of Bouley's kitchen is unreal. It's endless."Greg: Were you working with anybody that you would know later in life?

Dan: All of them. The whole kitchen. Everyone went through that kitchen. I came a little bit late, I guess, but the amount of cooks that became chefs out of Bouley's kitchen is unreal. It's endless. His influence continues to be felt now in this generation. Brian Bistrong I worked next to, he ended up working at The Harrison in New York and now he's working in a great restaurant out in the Napa Valley. Bill Yosses I worked with. You know him, he went on to be the White House pastry chef. There are a lot of cooks in that kitchen that were fantastic and continue to be.

Helen: That transition from cook to chef is — it's a matter of time, but it's also a matter of, I don't know, mindset, I guess. There are a lot of cooks who I've met who are really happy just being cooks, who don't necessarily have the ambition to become the head of an empire, whether it's running restaurants or running a brand.

Dan: That much I understand. I have no interest in running an empire. No. I mean, I'm a chef, but I still feel that way. I know a lot of chefs who are driven by that, and I think they have their own kind of genius. This is very hard to do, and hard to build, and it's getting harder to build like that. It was a little bit easier I think back a couple of years ago, or two decades ago, like Wolfgang Puck really started this a little bit. Those days might be over, I don't know, but it's harder to form that kind of empire. It's easier to build from it. I got a lot of chefs who keep adding restaurants, amazingly.

Helen: Also branching out in other directions, which I was thinking about this morning when I was looking at the Beard results. I was really interested in the book categories because books are awesome. There were so many names who have been incredible chefs whose food I've eaten and whose ethos I admire in the cookbook category, and then there's you in the Literary Food Writing category. One of the things that's great about Third Plate is that it is an incredibly beautifully written book.

Dan: Thank you. That's very nice. Thank you. I spent ten years.

Greg: For real? That was ten years in the making?

Dan: Yeah, a little bit more. I really kind of slaved over every paragraph, as you writers do.

Helen: Well, we try to slave, I guess. When we have time.

Greg: Slave over tweets and Facebook posts.

Dan: Well, right, you have a ten-minute time frame, but I had all the time.

Helen: How does cooking compare to writing for you? How do those two things fit into your life?

Dan: They're both...I say this: it sounds against the grain or whatever, but I think they're so similar. I think they're both lonely businesses when you're at a certain point of being the chef — even though I just got through talking about my incredible team — in the end, they're such personal pursuits that are difficult to put into words, but become so personalized that they carry weight that you carry around with you. It's an art. It's a craft. It's both. Then the second thing that bleeds into that is that it's physical. I feel like both are physical. I've never heard anyone say writing is physical, but I learned that. I found the discipline to sit and to write for many hours. I usually never got a good paragraph off until I was sitting for many hours. It was really hard for me. It was really hard, really hard. So, I'm amazed by the two things: on the face of it they look very different, and I feel they're different senses, but in the end game, I think they require a tremendous amount of discipline.

Greg: How do you balance that with the two restaurants in two different cities?

"If Anthony Bourdain can wake up four in the morning with his crazy nightlife, I could probably wake up at six in the morning and get this thing done"Dan: I got into a good routine. I got into a really good routine. I've never said this before, I don't know why I'm thinking about it now, but I remember coming home from Bouley— I have never actually talked about this before — but I remember one night I came home from Bouley at like four in the morning after an incredible service. We were cleaning the kitchen forever. That's when the Food Network had just started, and Anthony Bourdain was interviewed by Alan Richman. I'll never forget this, and I forgot what the name of the show was, but he had just written a book — I don't know what book that was actually, it was 1993 or whatever, '94. He was talking, and so Alan asks the same question: "How do you do it? How do you do be a chef and how do you write?" Now of course I was interested in writing so I perked up at four in the morning. He was like, "I woke up at four in the morning every day, and I wrote, and then I went to work. I just got into this routine where I did it at four in the morning." When I started writing this book, like Anthony Bourdain as you know — it's like, if Anthony Bourdain can do that, can wake up four in the morning with his crazy nightlife that he was leading or whatever, I could probably wake up at six in the morning and get this thing done. It took a lot longer than I thought it would take. Obviously it took about double or triple the amount that I would think, but I got used to waking up very early and starting the day very early and going on less sleep. I ended up being able to do it. I'm not crediting Anthony Bourdain, although I love him and he's an amazing writer himself, but he did give me this sense of it's not impossible to do it. It stayed with me. Here we are.

Helen: There's this mug that one of my friends has, this coffee mug, and it says "You have the same number of hours in the days as Beyonce."

Dan: I love that.

Greg: That's brilliant.

Helen: It's really got the same idea. There are 24 usable hours in a day.

Dan: It's discipline though, isn't it? It's like how much do you want it? How much do you want the thing done? It's sort of trite to say it, but you end up getting as much done as you have the time to do it, sort of. It's very easy to say, "I've got 30 emails," and take an hour to do 30 emails, and it's also very possible to do those 30 emails and pitching as well. We all have that experience where it's, "Ha. I used to take so long to do this, and now I don't have the time, and I actually get it done." That's how I started. I was really very good about thinking about that at least. I'm not saying I followed it. Look, every day I came to the restaurant at 7:30 in the morning, I was there, and I usually was falling asleep in the first five minutes — down on the floor asleep — so I'm not saying I'm anything to write home about, but you think you have limits, and it's amazing how far you can surpass them if you put your mind to it

Helen: Did your cooking change while you were writing?

Dan:You're just trying to figure out how to eke out what the land could provide and then make it nutritious or delicious or whatever. That's the history of all great cuisines of the world. Yeah. My cooking is kind of always changing. Like I was saying, it's just always in flux. I started to realize from — and this is how WastED, too, came to the thing — I started to learn a lot more about historic cuisines, the history of cuisines, which I didn't know anything about, and just how they evolved. Of course, they all evolved differently, but if there's a through line it's that they came out of this hardship of the landscape. It was like, you're just trying to figure out how to eke out what the land could provide and then make it nutritious or delicious or whatever. That's the history of all great cuisines of the world. These terrible negotiations — heart wrenching, disastrous negotiations in many cases — but ultimately the ones that survived, the ones we call "cuisines" today, are the ones that are truly sustainable because they've lasted thousands of years. By definition, what else is sustainable unless it has lasted thousands of years? And delicious, because why else would they have lasted if they're not delicious? That informed a lot of the book and it informed how I cooked, which WastED came out of, because it was like, "How do you utilize the whole farm?" The whole farm, not just the cherry-picking of ingredients at the farmers market and call yourself a farm-to-table chef — which was me for many years — but how do you look at a food system? As a chef, you have this opportunity to put a lot of the pieces together and fill the holes and make things, and take advantage of and create a culture around eating that creates a pattern of eating. That is what a cuisine is. It's hard. There's no other word for it. It's a cuisine that drives against our worst kind of hedonism. In America, we don't have that. We have the history of American agriculture was so different than others like it was often another planetary system. It's like this Garden of Eden that we came over to when we had all these fertility, and we had rainfall, we had these incredible grasslands, and so we produced a ton of food, and we were never forced into that negotiation the peasants were forced into. And so we didn't utilize waste. Today we call it waste, but the lesson of WastED is that if you go back in the history of cuisine, they utilized the waste. They didn't call it waste. Coq au vin is a rooster. That's waste in America, it becomes dog food. In France, it becomes coq au vin. They braise it in wine to tenderize it, and then it becomes an iconic French dish. That's true of almost every dish that's a part of the great cuisines of the world. So, that's what I think we need to get to with American cooking. Sorry for the long answer, but my book is also 500 pages. Now you know why it took me 10 years to write the damn thing.

Helen: No, I think it's a big question. I think that foods that are not waste, but that we think of as waste, stuff like coq au vin, historically, that's not restaurant food. It's home cooking. It's fascinating for me to sort of take this restaurant angle.

Dan: That's right. You hit it on the head. The history of the restaurant is not that. You're right, but today it can be, or could be, or it is. All of it. It depends. Look at Noma, look at Massimo Bottura in Italy, look at Sean Brock, look at Alex [Atala] in São Paulo. There are all these incredible chefs looking at their region, their landscape, and not cherry-picking. A lot of them are looking back at what is traditional and reinterpreting in a modern context, but when they do that they're looking between the rows, in other words. We have the expression "nose-to-tail eating" for the farm-to-table movement. Really what we're talking about is nose-to-tail eating of the whole farm and that nose-to-tail eating of the vegetable. It's what we're doing at WastED, but what every chef is doing on their menu. It's in the DNA of a chef, actually, to do that. I think the purpose of WastED, or the idea of The Third Plate, is to wear it on our sleeve a little bit more. That's what these chefs are doing. I am not a leader of that at all. I'm following what many chefs have boldly gone to that I was too shy to do actually.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that there's a revolution happening in fine dining, that the idea of fine dining is being turned on its head"Helen: Do you think it's working? I think that what all these chefs are doing is really, really exciting in terms of the way that they're looking at their landscapes and the way that they're bringing everything into their kitchens, but then there's the second half of the transaction, which is the way they present what they find to their diners, and whether the diners are actually going home having received the message that the chef wants them to get.

Dan: That's a good question. I don't know. Maybe it's too early to tell? Maybe we look back on this in years, but it's not an exaggeration to say that there's a revolution happening in fine dining, and that the idea of fine dining is being turned on its head. Look, ten years ago, lobster, caviar, foie gras — you had to have that in a high-end restaurant. A lot these chefs came around — Rene [Redzepi] being among the more famous examples, but there a lot of others — that said they won't have it, because it's not an expression of where they are. And that became the calling card. They are tethered to something in history that defines a group of people, a nation. I mean, you know, it's hard with Rene, it's like you're tethering yourself to Vikings. I don't know what Viking cuisine is. Vikings like herring?

Greg: Very hot right now, yeah.

Dan: It's very hot because he was very smart to attach himself to something in history, and then reinterpret it, and then you're free. In America, that's the challenge of my cooking. What am I tethered to do? I'm tethered to a lot of great products, but not a pattern. Californian cuisine is not a cuisine.

Helen: Because California's only been around for a hundred years.

Dan: That, too. I got in a lot of trouble saying that in LA. A woman stood up, I was in a terrible mood, she stood up, and she's like, "Well, let me tell you about California cuisine." I said to her, "What? Can you explain to me what is California cuisine? What is it? It's a bunch of great products where you had virgin soil and tons of sunshine and everlasting amounts of water falling — or, you did. That's not sustainable. It's not inculcating itself into the culture and patterns of the everyday food diet." The everyday food diet for Americans is protein-centric — it's a steak dinner. That's what it is. We need to flip that on its head, and to your point, I think it's a big one, is that where it used to come from the home cooks and bleed into the culture, today it's coming from chefs and restaurants, or places of this kind of connection and broadcasting this message. Whether it's soft or hard in your face, I don't know, WastED is a little hard in your face, but do you leave there and say — or do you leave Rene's restaurant and say, "I want to cook with ants"? I don't know, but you get a different sense of what's possible. It is, I think, a lot more approachable. Maybe the ant example aside, but it's a lot more approachable than lobster, caviar, and foie gras. In that sense, it makes the restaurants a paradigm of cultural importance at the moment. That's what restaurants have become.

Greg: With the WastED pop-up, what was the inspiration to make it collaborative?

Dan: It's because of everything I just said. Everything I said is why I would say WastED couldn't be called "Blue Hill" because all these chefs are doing it. I am doing it, but I actually don't think I'm doing enough. It's part of that, too. It's like when I say "it," I'm saying that they're looking at the nose to tail of the vegetable, and they're putting it in a ravioli and selling it for $17. Yesterday's vegetables, but they don't call it "wasted ravioli." They call it "ravioli with whatever sauce," and it's $17. So, we have our pasta interpretation, but we're calling it for what it is, we;re wearing it on our sleeve. That's a new way, that's a new take on it, but all the ideas are the same. It's unbelievable. Every day — it's almost comical like a bad comedy — every chef that's visited, we have one every day, I have come to proudly with a twist on something that I thought I had invented. For example the other night, we were serving skate "wings" on the menu, skate cartilage, so after the meat is removed —

Helen: That's funny.

Dan: Yes, so it's just the bones that are fried, we make them into the shape of potato, what do you call it? French fries. And we serve it with tartar sauce. I'm pretty psyched about this because I thought we really figured it out, and I went to Danny Bowien who was there that night to show him the dish and he gave me the Cantonese word for it. It's in all these dishes. I had the same experience...I'm making these burgers from the leftover pulp from Liquiteria's juice, and Paula [Oland] at Balthazar's is making us these buns from rehydrated old bread. The buns are incredible, but they're from old buns. It was just incredible. I thought it was the most fucking brilliant invention, and then I brought over Dominique Ansel and I was the middle of explaining it to him and he said, "Yeah, my grandmother used to make those for me every morning for breakfast with a little milk and sugar." It's the same thing with Daniel Humm with this broth. He's like, "Yeah, my grandmother used to make that." It shows you that there's nothing new in the world.

Helen: None of it's new.

Greg: Now, I feel like I'm going to start looking at menus being like, "Can you spot the waste?"

Dan: You will be able to. I totally subscribe to that because I'm thinking of it now in a different way because I've now trained myself the last couple of months.

Helen: I think there used to be this spate of articles where it was like, "The ways restaurants are trying to fuck you over," and it was like "Never order their frittata at brunch." It's like, no, of course order the frittata! Help them! Help them use everything!

Dan: That's great. I'm going to use that line. It goes to the thing: we used to be very shy, we are still very shy. We're too shy about it, and in fact we should be wearing it on our sleeve. That's why it's an industry event. I didn't want to call it WastED. My brother and my sister-in-law felt the same way, who are my co-owners. We wanted this to be industry and we wanted all to share in what we do every day and push it.

Helen: I think WastED is fun though, because as a word it means a lot of different things. It's exciting to reclaim it and to give it a positive connotation. It's financially efficient, it's environmentally sustainable, and it tastes really, really good.

Dan: Yeah, it puts into action what is — and thank you — but it puts into action what feels like an overwhelming problem. It's relatively easy for me to sit here and say, "We're such a wasteful society. America is so wasteful, and I can give you the stats, and what could be done." The impact will last as long as this conversation. You'd probably use less paper towels at lunch today, but where does that go? So that's the opportunity of restaurants, increasingly, we somehow have this bully pulpit chefs. I don't know where it came from. Cultural icons? I have no idea. It used to be churches.

Helen: Now it's chefs.

Dan: Now it's chefs, I guess. Obviously it overstates it, of course, but I mean it to overstate it, because maybe we're headed in a direction where it's not the chefs who talk, who write the books. It's the chefs who cook who have the power. I'm articulating these ideas because I have a bully pulpit, I'm in Mr. Rockefeller's Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, I'm supposed to be talking about this stuff. But most chefs, as Dan Humm said to me when he was cooking, "I don't really want to deal directly with these issues. I just want to cook." Well right, that's right, because in cooking, especially in this way and the ways that he was talking about, you're changing the world because you're inculcating culture, and you're affecting culture. If you don't do that, all of this stuff, all of the shit, bad stuff that's going on, it just doesn't matter, because if it doesn't become part of the everyday food culture, if it doesn't translate into something that's fun and hedonistic and feels lively, then forget it. That wasn't the goal of WastED, but honestly coming out of it, I'm most happy about that. It feels fun, at least in the dining room — not to me, I'm always miserable — but in the dining room it's very fun and there's a good energy, and that, I think, is as important as the quality of the food.

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