Farm-to-table cooking is no longer just a trend — at any restaurant worth its salt, it’s an assumption. This is thanks in part to Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. But for Barber, the farm-to-table process starts even earlier than sourcing locally grown ingredients — at the genetic level. “It’s just another way of looking at a recipe,” he says.
Barber is currently preparing to make his first foray into the "casual" genre with a standalone bar menu at the West Village location of Blue Hill — but turning toward more informal fare doesn’t mean he’s changing his signature approach. In an industry that relies on mass-market produce that’s often devoid of nutrition (and therefore taste), Barber says he is more committed than ever to the idea that great cooking means finding the most inherently flavorful and functional versions of his ingredients possible.
The potatoes in his pizza, the tomatoes in his marinara sauce, the wheat in his biscuits — these are all the result of his work with plant breeders, who develop better-tasting crops through seed saving and cross-pollination. "The breeders are mixing these ‘ingredients,’ so to speak, but it’s on the genetic level," Barber says. The chef has built relationships with numerous breeders over time, finding their best crops, helping to improve those promising varieties for taste and utility (with assistance from the Stone Barns Center, where the flagship restaurant is located), and showcasing the results in his cooking.
For Barber, that ecosystem serves a larger purpose than simply producing great tasting food. He sees his work as the continuation of the land-grant universities established in every state in 1862. These institutions, like Ithaca’s Cornell University (located in Central New York, it’s the closest one to Blue Hill), allowed plant breeders to essentially create — and evolve — our agricultural network. "Public plant breeders built the initial wealth of this country," Barber says. "True sustainability in farm-to-table means great-flavored fruits and vegetables need to constantly be updated, and that’s what breeders were doing for thousands of years."
Understanding what makes Dan Barber’s food so tasty, then, requires going beyond what is happening in the kitchen, or even in the farm at the Stone Barns Center. It requires going to these breeders, several of whom have spent years collaborating with Barber on preserving and updating extraordinary varieties of produce. Meet a few of them now:
A simple dish of roasted squash goes a long way, especially when it’s a honeynut squash. "It’s sweeter, it tastes a lot better, it’s more nutritious," says Michael Mazourek, a breeder at Cornell University’s School for Integrative Plant Science. The extraordinary honeynut squash is the result of Mazourek’s first advances into breeding for flavor, as opposed to yield — something he was inspired to do when he met Barber and Jack Algiere, the farm director of the Stone Barns Center.
"[Barber’s] way of presenting really connects you to the farm and to the produce," Mazourek says. "His food celebrates what makes them special and unique." Mazourek was already familiar with a tiny variety of squash called the honeynut, but after giving it to Barber to use at the restaurant, the chef encouraged him to dig deeper. Barber was a fan, but thought its flavor could be further improved. The two decided to work together to enhance the honeynut by performing crosses between different types of squash.
According to Mazourek, his big breakthrough came when he saw the way Barber roasted the squash to bring out its key flavors. "I had been microwaving everything for a taste test, but we realized then we were missing flavors," he says. "I now knew what to look for: the sweetness, the creaminess, the depth of the roasted flavor." Mazourek ended up crossing the noneynut with a summer squash variety called Tromboncino, known for its superior flavor and texture — in the hopes that Barber can eventually serve the result like a steak.
Mazourek is still working on refining this version, but says the collaboration has been eye-opening. "It’s exciting when you bring something new, and [Barber] adjusts a preparation around it or comes up with a new one," he says. "But it takes both of us working together for me to be inspired to find ways that might work even better. The creative energy builds on itself. It’s mutual inspiration."
One of the most anticipated items on Barber’s upcoming casual menu is a doughless pizza, featuring a crust made entirely out of potatoes. The potato base is sweet, crispy, and smoky without tasting burnt, and it’s made from a potato variety called the Lamoka, developed by Cornell potato breeder Michael Falise.
A decade ago, Falise was concentrating primarily on breeding potatoes that would later become chips. The potato chip industry in New York is enormous, so chipping varieties, as they are called, account for 75 percent of all potato acreage in the state. Falise showed Barber his chipping variety called Lamoka; it grew well in the Northeast, and most importantly, did not accumulate sugar in storage, which causes burning when fried. Barber started regularly incorporating it on his menu — testing out early versions of the doughless pizza and making potato chips with fresh herbs threaded into them. Ever since, Falise has been bringing Barber into the fold to test new varieties — particularly those non-chipping varieties that are destined for grocery stores and restaurants.
The entire development process for potatoes can take 10 to 12 years from the first cross; this ensures the resulting potatoes (a uniquely temperamental crop) are durable, high-yield, disease-resistant, and — thanks to Barber — tasty. "We have some growers that grow for Wegmans that will give me peripheral but not concrete reports on taste. With Dan, he’ll tell me ‘[it] sucks’ or ‘it’s great,’" Falise says. "Barber has made us more excited about table [non-chipping] varieties."
Among them is his latest creation: the Upstate, a tiny, smooth potato that turns incredibly creamy when cooked, no butter or cream needed. Barber and Falise have been working together since 2007, meaning that the varieties that Barber is currently testing are only just becoming fully viable (like the Upstate), or are still in development.
Mountain Magic Tomatoes
The addictive tomato sauce on the upcoming doughless potato pizza, the meaty-but-meatless tomato sliders, the smoked tomato soup: The mighty tomato figures heavily on Barber’s menus (particularly during peak season in August). But the juicy, fragrant tomatoes he uses are not the heirloom varieties — grown from seeds that have been protected over generations — so often hailed by the chef community.
Instead, Barber works with a hybrid called the Mountain Magic that, according to breeder Randy Gardner, eliminates a lot of the problems that heirloom varieties face, like cracking and disease. Gardner, who spent several decades breeding tomatoes for North Carolina State University, created the variety by crossing a large tomato he had bred for strong disease resistance with a grape tomato that was high in sugar.
"It’s a good-flavored tomato, highly resistant to fruit cracking, highly productive, high in sweetness," a combination of traits that’s often difficult to be able to pack into a single tomato, he says. "It’s sort of magical — that’s why I gave it that name." He sent the variety to Cornell University for trial, where Barber discovered and "fell in love" with the tomatoes.
Gardner says that Barber’s adoption of his tomatoes led to a surge of interest in his work, so much so that Mountain Magic seeds are now widely available. He’s now developing a new variety, Mountain Rouge, a disease-resistant, high-yield version of the steak-y, marvelously acidic Brandywine tomato. He hopes that Barber will be able to test the Mountain Rouge out at Blue Hill, as "chefs recognize the quality of the tomatoes," he says. "And people who eat at those restaurants get an opportunity to see what different tomatoes are like and get an appreciation for really good flavor and texture."
Barber II Wheat
Imagine a whole-wheat bread that’s nutty, chocolatey, bright, and nutrient-rich — a far cry from the stuff in a bag that you’ll find in a grocery store. The exceptional bread service at Blue Hill is the result of Barber’s unique obsession with wheat, which led him to partner with breeder Steve Jones to create a variety specifically for the restaurant.
Jones was a commercial wheat breeder until about eight years ago, when he moved to a small research station north of Seattle to help breed specific wheat varieties "with more of an identity, flavor, and name" for chefs, bakers, and local communities.
Barber approached Jones in 2009 to help him recover an old variety of Spanish wheat called Aragon 03. Jones instead offered to create a hybrid variety that would improve upon what Barber had brought him, "something that would yield enough to have it make sense for the farmer, but still retained the characteristics of old wheats — the flavor, the ability to grow in a diverse environment, nutritional value," Jones says. He worked with Barber at every stage of the process, choosing parent varieties with the desired traits to cross, then tasting each of the resulting types of wheat and deciding which would work best in the types of dishes he wanted to make — from brioche to beer. They ended up with Barber II Wheat.
The wheats Jones develops, like Barber II, serve to help nourish the surrounding environment; unlike commercial varieties, his wheat populations have "a lot of diversity and variation. That allows it to evolve over time and become adaptable or native to where it’s grown." He hopes that more chefs can get on board with growing their own wheat. "The wheat becomes unique to a place — that’s great environmentally and economically."
New England Eight Row Flint Corn
For a long time, polenta — the corn-based dish native to Italy — was considered peasant’s food. But at Blue Hill, the polenta has a "distinctive and phenomenal texture and flavor," according to rare-seed collector Glenn Roberts. And "the classic mouth grip that polenta has, it does all the poetic blooming in the pot."
Roberts discovered the remarkable New England Eight Row Flint Corn variety — which is drought-resistant, water-tolerant, high in flavor, and incredibly nutritious — while researching in Rhode Island, determining that it dated back to the Narragansett tribe in the seventeenth century. However, the variety was wiped out by one brutal 1816 winter. Roberts made the connection that sometime before its extinction in America, the corn had made its way to Italy, where it had become "the go-to, #1 polenta maize," referred to as "Otto Fille." (The term was a nod to the corn’s ability to produce "eight rows" of kernels when planted, versus the standard of four or five.)
That the variety was allowed to die out in the United States was "unfathomable" to Roberts. So, he mailed some seeds and a check for $1,000 to the Stone Barns Center, asking for help in regrowing the corn. "I thought, ‘They’ve got plenty to do, they won’t be interested,’" Roberts says, "and my friend said, ‘For stuff like this, Stone Barns will stand on their head.’"
Algiere, Barber, and Roberts have been collaborating on preserving this variety of corn for over 10 years now, the kind of work Roberts believes is the key precursor to the breeding that people like Mazourek, Falise, Gardner, and Jones are doing. "If a culinary plant is vectored toward human nutrition and has remarkable flavor — and mankind has made a decision to continue this plant for thousands of years — you’re going to stop and think that there’s gotta be something there," Roberts says. "This is the basis for the future of food."