Seeds of Inspiration from Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns
While some restaurants embrace a ‘farm to table’ philosophy, Chef Dan Barber takes that ethos to an entirely new level. His own farm and other local farms, butchers and dairies produce the best possible ingredients but it’s his seed breeding project that has his captured his attention. Blue Hill at Stone Barns has not only taken the #12 spot on the 2018 list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, but Chef Barber also won the Chef’s Choice Award, voted on by his fellow chefs for his passion and inspiration. Aspire Lifestyles’ Director of Dining, Ann Hill spoke with Chef Barber about local flavors and him always keeping eyes open to oddball varieties of produce that might end up being the next big thing.
Aspire Lifestyles: Blue Hill at Stone Barns takes ‘local’ to an incredibly exciting level, sourcing ingredients from very close proximity to the restaurant, if not from your own farms. As you travel and experience different cuisines, products and techniques, do you incorporate those flavors and influences into your cooking? And what has been the most interesting ingredient, technique or dish that you have experienced while traveling that has inspired your cooking?
Chef Dan Barber: These days, I’m most enticed by ingredients that come from breeding projects. When a plant breeder is working on a new variety, he or she has to go through hundreds, sometimes thousands, of different experimental lines in order to get it down to the right one. And because the food industry demands consistency and uniformity, plant breeders often discard anything that might not fit the bill. That’s a shame because as chefs, we know that those oddball varieties are also often the most delicious. Recently, a potato breeder sent us a few different experimental trials of potatoes. What’s crazy is that the one we loved the most— this mind-blowingly delicious potato— was one he was told to discontinue because a potato chip company didn’t like it. Can you imagine how many other potentially delicious vegetables get thrown away by breeders for a similar reason? Those are the types of ingredients I find most exciting.
Aspire Lifestyles: You’ve have created Row 7 Seeds https://www.row7seeds.com/ which is breeding seeds for flavor. This is exciting because it seems that mass produced vegetables and fruits these days don’t have the flavor they once did. If you bought a peach, it tasted like peach; that’s no longer the case unless you buy from farmers markets. What made you decide on the 7 seed types currently available and what’s on the horizon? Please tell us more.
Chef Dan Barber: First and foremost, they’re delicious. But more importantly, the seven varieties we launched with each tell a unique story. The 7082 cucumber, for example, was created because one of the farmers we work with at Blue Hill used to talk about the cucumbers from his childhood in Jordan—cucumbers that were complex in flavor and so fragrant that they’d fill the kitchen with their aroma. The 7082 is still in the experimental phase but it’s an attempt to bring those characteristics back to the cucumber along with improved disease and pest resistance. For us, if a variety doesn’t thrive create new possibilities in both the kitchen and the field, it has no place in our catalog.
Aspire Lifestyles: What progress have you seen over the span of your career so far? What would you like to see happen, and how are you becoming part of that evolution?
Chef Dan Barber: On the one hand, we live in a very different world than we did twenty years ago. When we first opened Blue Hill back in 2000, “Farm-to-Table” was just coming into the lexicon. Since then, we’ve certainly made a lot of headway— people are far more curious and engaged about food than ever before. And yet, even with all the talk of “locavore” this and “organic” that, big food just keeps getting bigger. The seed industry is controlled by just a handful of powerful chemical companies who only care about yield and uniformity. We’re trying to disrupt that with Row 7 by funding breeding projects that support a healthier (and more delicious) food system.
Aspire Lifestyles: What is the most important value in cooking that you teach and stress to your kitchen team?
Chef Dan Barber: Taste everything before plating. Everything. It’s so simple but it takes an extraordinary amount of discipline to do it every single service.
Aspire Lifestyles: Do non-chef family and friends ever invite you to their home for dinner and cook for YOU?
Chef Dan Barber: The best non-chef chef in my life is my wife. She’s an exceptional baker— dangerously so.
Aspire Lifestyles: People come to your restaurant for special occasions that become life moments. For you, it’s your day to day job description. What constitutes a really great day at work for you and can you tell us about any that stand out?
Chef Dan Barber: When I get to learn something. Most often, it’s from talking to a breeder or farmer about their work. The idea for Row 7 actually came from one of those conversations. About ten years ago, I was talking with Michael Mazourek, a squash breeder at Cornell and co-founder of Row 7. We were chatting in the kitchen when I saw a cook prepping a butternut squash. I thought about all the hoops we have to jump through—all the butter and brown sugar we add—to make a butternut delicious. Not to mention the pain it is to chop. So I turned to Michael and asked him (sort of jokingly), “Well, if you’re so good at breeding squash, why don’t you shrink that thing down and make it taste good?” He looked at me and said, “In all my years of making thousands of different varieties of plants, no one has ever asked me to breed for flavor.” His response changed everything for me. It got me thinking: what if CHEFS had a say in the breeding process? What if we could write the recipe before a vegetable even goes in the ground? The possibilities are endless.
Aspire Lifestyles: One evening you get to take five chefs (present or past) to dinner at any restaurant in the world. Which chefs do you bring along with you and where do you take them (aside from your own restaurant)? Why those chefs and why that restaurant?
Chef Dan Barber: How about one chef with the knowledge of five? Jean Louis Palladin—one of the greatest chefs of my generation, and among the most influential chefs of the last half century. He came to America at a pretty bleak time in our gastronomic history. But rather than dismissing the cuisine (as most French chefs did), he elevated it. Palladin pioneered New American cuisine by celebrating iconic American products like Virginia ham and sweet corn and distilling them through the rigors of French technique. The man was a genius. I think if I had the chance, I would invite him to Stone Barns—or maybe Blue Hill Farm—and explore familiar flavors with fresh eyes. To see and understand how he thinks through— and tastes— each ingredient….that would be pretty unbelievable.
Aspire Lifestyles: How has your placement on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list changed your life?
Chef Dan Barber: It changes the mindset of the kitchen. When you’re a line cook working in an environment as intense as this, surviving on little to no sleep, it’s easy to lose purpose. Recognition from 50 Best inspires the team in more ways than I can count.