“Farm to table” is a phrase that gets bandied about by contemporary restaurants to the point that it feels like a cliché. But for chef Dan Barber, the subject of Season 1, Episode 2 of Chef’s Table, “farm to table” is more than just a buzzy phrase — it’s a way of life.
Who is Dan Barber?
Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Eater critic Bill Addison’s 2016 Best Restaurant in America) in Pocantico Hills, New York, and one of the fiercest culinary advocates for sustainable, ethical farming and seasonal cooking. Barber’s family owns Stone Barns, where, with help from the farmers at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, they grow ingredients used at both restaurants. Part of his approach to cooking is working directly with farmers to develop unique types of grains and produce for the menu, such as the red pepper eggs and experimental “898 squash” featured in this episode.
What was Barber’s journey through the culinary world like?
Barber was born in New York, where he grew up spending time on the family farm. His mother died when he was 4 years old, which meant that Barber learned to cook for himself at an early age. In college he developed an obsession with baking bread; that passion took him to Los Angeles, where he worked at Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery — before promptly being fired for messing up a major order.
In his early 20s, Barber got an internship at Michel Rostang in Paris where he became acquainted with the histories and traditions of French cooking as well as the obsessive pursuit of quality. “That’s when the bug, I think, hit,” he says. After returning from Paris, Barber worked as a caterer. Barber eventually went on to open Blue Hill with his family in Greenwich Village in 2000. The restaurant wasn’t immediately successful. However, on a night when Barber decided to make the whole restaurant’s menu using a backlog of seasonal asparagus, restaurant critic Jonathan Gold happened to walk in. The restaurant earned a rave review.
Barber and his family followed up the Greenwich Village restaurant with Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2004.
What was a major turning point moment in his career?
After returning from France in 1997, Barber was running a small catering company out of a “ridiculously illegal” underground kitchen in Chinatown and “desperately trying to make a go of it” by handling an event each week. In the midst of preparing food for a 300-person wedding, Barber decided to step out around 4 a.m. to get a snack and accidentally locked the door. The experience gave Barber a panic attack thinking about the possibility of a fire and the illegality of the operation. “Physically, I lost it and I got this itching attack,” he recalls. “It was just the weirdest physical manifestation of pain.” He appeared so distressed that a man on the street stopped to check on him. “I had not felt more depleted or low in a moment. Every chef I know that’s successful has had moments of just really intense failure.” Barber thinks this type of failure is important because it “introduces you to an idea that you don’t ever want to return to.”
What are some notable quotes from Barber in this episode?
On his thoughts after Jonathan Gold walked into Blue Hill on a night when the chef had demanded every dish incorporate asparagus: “What was clearly a very stupid decision on my part played itself out in the worst possible way. I just thought we were going to get skewered.”
On cooking in a restaurant: “It’s exhilarating, and the challenge of it is to know how much of this work you can stand.”
On how each component of a dish represents the larger role of farming and sustainability: “It’s not just about the dish, it’s about what the radish represents. It has to add up to something larger than a plate of food.”
To a cook, in the kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns: “If it’s not going to be perfect, don’t do it.”