by Elizabeth Winslow • Photography by Susie Cushner
Chef and visionary Dan Barber might be forgiven for presuming to know a thing or two about sustainable food systems. He writes about food and agriculture in national publications, has won his profession’s most coveted awards—including a 2006 James Beard for Best Chef: New York City—and was named in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list in 2009. At his flagship restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, food is grown in fields just outside the windows and grilled over wood harvested from nearby forests. But several years ago, when visiting farmer Klaas Martens at Lakeview Organic Grain, Barber had an epiphany that moved him in a new direction.
Barber and Martens were standing in a field planted with cover crop. Barber had come to talk about emmer wheat—a sweet and nutty grain that had him swooning. Martens, however, was talking about soil. His fields were planted with millet, barley, kidney beans, winter peas, mustard and clover—all part of his method to enrich the soil and build a foundation for a later crop of emmer by rotating crops that add nutrients to the soil.
As they spoke and surveyed the fields, Barber realized how limited his perspective had been, and how his own interest in nothing but the emmer had an impact on Martens’ profitability. Barber bent down and tasted a pea shoot. Revelation! It was sweet and complex. He gathered what he could and, that night at the restaurant, he created a new dish he called “Rotation Risotto.” Yet, as delicious as it was, Barber understood that his new ideas might be difficult for some to swallow.
In his new book, “The Third Plate,” Barber examines the trends in the way we’ve grown and consumed food—beginning with the first “plate” holding the traditional large portion of store-bought meat accompanied by few vegetables, followed by the current wave of “second plate” featuring a smaller portion of humanely raised, locally procured meat paired with copious, locally grown vegetables. Barber then challenges us to seek a “third plate” and question what sustainable really means, and he believes that the farm-to-table movement has hit a wall and will stall unless we take a whole farm approach to cooking and eating.
To illustrate this principle, his book follows a collection of eclectic culinary characters and food producers across the U.S. and around the world, and presents a cuisine path that more closely mirrors the system of agriculture. “The larger problem, as I came to see it,” says Barber, “was that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” He came at the problem again and again, first revising his menus—then doing away with them altogether. What he needed was a paradigm shift. “I was still sketching out ideas for dishes first and figuring out what farmers could supply us with later—checking off ingredients as if shopping at a grocery store.” Written over a decade, “The Third Plate” is the realization of this new way of understanding food. We caught up with Barber recently to hear more about the reshaping of our food consciousness and landscape.
Edible Austin: For people who haven’t yet read your book, how would you define true agricultural diversity as it relates to what we eat, and why is it important?
Dan Barber: As a nation, we tend to eat “high on the hog,” whether it’s a 16-ounce pork chop or a prized heirloom tomato. True agricultural diversity—and true culinary diversity—means looking beyond just the prime cuts and the costly specialty crops to all of the ingredients that make up a healthy ecology. We’ve seen the recent success of the nose-to-tail movement in celebrating underutilized parts of the animal. What if we applied that mentality to the whole farm? To overlooked, soil-supporting crops like buckwheat or cowpeas? To bruised and fallen fruits? To foraged crops like cattails? That is the question for the future: How can we make the most efficient and delicious use of what a landscape can provide?
EA: What are some relatively simple ways we can begin to diversify what we eat at home?
DB: Subscribe to a CSA and, more importantly, challenge yourself to use every ingredient you’re given in the box. Pretty soon you’ll become better acquainted with the ecological realities of farming, and you’ll start thinking more creatively in the kitchen.
EA: How does “The Third Plate” philosophy present a challenge to chefs used to working with “luxury” ingredients, and what advice do you have for them in meeting these challenges?
DB: The good news is that the idea of the gourmet meal is being turned on its head. Many of the best chefs in the world are no longer glorifying foie gras and lobster on their menus—in part because those things aren’t that interesting to cook. Instead, they are celebrating ingredients that are very specific to a particular place and time. I don’t want to understate the challenge, but when you truly commit to those kinds of constraints, I think it’s a much more exciting and delicious way to cook. That excitement spreads quickly to diners.
EA: What resources do you recommend for home cooks looking to discover and cook with underutilized ingredients?
DB: I like looking at cookbooks devoted to very specific micro-cuisines—the cooking of Sicily or Sichuan or Aleppo, Syria. That’s something we lack in America, but it’s something I think we should be working toward. These kinds of cookbooks can also be instructive in how to deal with underutilized ingredients, because many cultures have been cooking with them all along.
EA: Describe an ideal “Third Plate” meal.
DB: Depends entirely on the time of year. But as I write this, I’m watching a cook prep tonight’s “beetfurters,” made from beets, scraps of pork and beef and a little pig’s blood. We grill them over charcoal made from carbonized pig bones—which infuses them with this incredible smoky, fatty aroma—and serve them on a whole-wheat bun made from flour we mill in our kitchen. By itself, that’s a perfect “Third Plate” meal.