On Being a Chef Activist

by Dan Barber

The idea of chef as activist is a relatively new one.

It was the nouvelle cuisine chefs of the 1960s who, breaking with an onerous tradition of classic French cuisine, stepped out of the confines of the kitchen and launched modern gastronomy. They created new styles of cooking based on seasonal flavors, smaller portions, and artistic plating. In doing so, they established the authority of the chef, giving him a platform of influence that has only continued to expand. 

We now have the power to quickly popularize certain products and ingredients—in some cases, as with certain fish, to the point of commercial extinction—and increasingly we do, with dizzying speed and effect. But we also possess the potential to get people to rethink their eating habits.

Which is where farm‑to‑table chefs have been most effective. Today the message has gone viral, highlighting the perils of our nation’s diet and exposing the connections between how we eat and our heavy environmental footprint.


And yet, for all the movement’s successes, and the accompanying shift in popular consciousness, the gains haven’t changed, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping how most of the food in this country is grown or raised.

Nor, for that matter, have they changed the culture of American cooking. Americans have more opportunities to opt out of the conventional food chain than ever before (farmers’ markets are ubiquitous; organic food is widely available) and more information about how to do it (innumerable cooking shows and easy access to a world of online recipes), but the food culture—the way we eat, which is different than what we eat—has remained largely unaffected.


Chefs are often asked how their menus are created, especially how new dishes come into existence. Some of us are inspired by a favorite food from childhood, or we’re drawn to rethinking classic preparations. A new kitchen tool may spark an idea, or a visit to the museum. As with anything creative, it’s tough to pinpoint the origin, but whatever the process, the scaffolding for the idea forms first; assembling the ingredients comes later.

We forget that for most of human history, it happened the other way around. We foraged and then, out of sheer necessity, transformed what we found into something else—something more digestible and storable, with better nutrition and flavor. Farm‑to‑table restaurants promote their menus as having evolved in that order: forage first—maybe with a morning’s stroll through the farmers’ market—and create later. The promise of farm‑to‑table cooking is that menus take their shape from the constraints of local agriculture and celebrate them. 


Farm‑to‑table may sound right—it’s direct and connected—but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain. 


What we refer to as the beginning and end of the food chain—a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other—isn’t really a chain at all. The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together. Which is how I came to understand that the right kind of cooking and the right kind of farming are one and the same. Our belief that we can create a sustainable diet for ourselves by cherry-picking great ingredients is wrong. Because it’s too narrow-minded. We can’t think about changing parts of our system. We need to think about redesigning the system.

A good place to start is with a new conception of a plate of food, a Third Plate—which is less a “plate,” per se, than a different way of cooking, or assembling a dish, or writing a menu, or sourcing ingredients—or really all these things. It combines tastes not based on convention, but because they fit together to support the environment that produced them.

And its realization will rely, at least in part, on chefs. They will play a leading role, similar to that of a musical conductor.

Today’s food culture has given chefs a platform of influence, including the power, if not the luxury, to innovate. As arbiters of taste, we can help inspire a Third Plate, a new way of eating that puts it all together. That’s a tall order for any chef, not to mention eaters, but it’s an intuitive one as well.


This excerpt from “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” by Dan Barber is reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Dan Barber, 2014.