Dan Barber: “How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal?”

Dan Barber: “How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal?”

Dan Barber is chef/co-owner of the Michelin-starred, farm-to-table New York restaurant Blue Hill, and also Blue Hill at Stone Barns  (in upstate New York), where organic produce for the two restaurants is grown.

In addition, Barber is a man who knows how to tell a good story—a skill he puts to good use in The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, published in 2014. (Acclaimed journalist Ira Glass, of This American Life, professes envy of Barber’s writing skills when he introduces him in the YouTube clip Beyond Farm-to-Table.)

Barber’s book opens with a yarn:

A corncob, dried and slightly shriveled, arrived in the mail […] Along with the cob was a check for $1,000.

It turns out that a seed collector had sent the cob, an heirloom corn dating back to the 1600s. Native Americans had cultivated that particular variety because of its flavour, and it was then adopted and enjoyed by colonists. But the frigid winter of 1816 killed the American plants; starving animals and people ate the harvested barn-stored cobs. The variety disappeared altogether from New England.

But in the 21st century, the seed collector traced this corn to a rare crop in Italy. That is the cob Barber now holds in his hand, along with a plea to grow it—and $1,000 to persuade him to accept the challenge.

Barber’s vegetable gardener Jack is enthusiastic: “This corn is the rare case of flavor driving genetics […] How often do you get to be a part of that in your lifetime?”

At harvest time, Barber mills the corn and makes polenta from it. But he doesn’t expect what happens next:

suddenly the pot began smelling like a steaming, well-buttered ear of corn. It wasn’t just the best polenta of my life. It was polenta I hadn’t imagined possible, so corny that breathing out after swallowing the first bite brought another rich shot of corn flavour. The taste didn’t so much disappear as slowly, begrudgingly fade. It was an awakening. But the question for me was: Why? How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal?

In telling this one story, Barber weaves together history (the corn), memoir (his childhood on a family farm), and anthropology (gardener Jack uses a Native American “Three Sisters” system of planting the corn with beans and squash). He writes about the science of companion planting (“legumes draw nitrogen from the air into the soil”). He even fits in a wonderfully affectionate portrait of his grandmother driving from the family farm into town for hairdressing appointments:

Ann (never “Grandma”, never “Grandmother”) rounded the corners in her Chevy Impala at incredible speeds, maneuvering with the ease and fluency of a practiced finger moving over braille. Her head was often cranked to the left or to the right, antennae engaged, inspecting a neighbour’s garden or a renovated screened-in porch.

And, like many chef-authors, Barber gives readers a peek behind-the-scenes at the realities of restaurant life. He tells us about the pressures of sourcing the raw materials for the meals, getting the food out to diners, and the immense power of certain New York restaurant critics. And he admits that, early on, a menu featuring copious amounts of asparagus was the result of a mistake:

After returning from the farmers’ market that morning and unloading a mountain of asparagus packed into the trunk of a yellow cab, I discovered another mountain of them already in the walk-in refrigerator […] and went into a rage about the disorganization in the kitchen […] I told them that [the asparagus] had to be used in every dish. I must have sounded serious because they appeared in every dish.

Barber’s stories differ in perspective and tone to many other chefs’ accounts of the “real” world of restaurant kitchens, to a large degree because Barber himself comes across as an engaging character. Yes, he is a chef, but his persona—on the page and also in many YouTube clips—is humble, curious, and collaborative, contrasting to the ego-driven  extremist chefs often at the centre of chef memoirs.

The focus instead is on the impact of industrialised 21st century food systems on environmental and human health. “The warnings are clear”, Barber writes:

because we eat in a way that undermines health and abuses natural resources (to say nothing of the economic and social implications), the conventional food system cannot be sustained.

His criticism does not spare his own approach. Yes, his restaurants attempt sustainability, he says, with grass-fed meats, organic vegetables, and local produce. But he realises those measures don’t go far enough:

The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow […] 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.

Barber’s concept of “the third plate” was inspired when a food magazine asked him—and others—to look 35 years into the future. What would we be eating? Working out his ideas, he sketched three plates: the past, with its emphasis on American-style excess in the shape of a large steak; the present, “infused with the ideals of the farm-to-table movement”; and then, the third plate:

In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef […] I was looking toward a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and—like all great cuisines—begins to reflect what the landscape can provide.

With the attitude that “truly delicious food is contingent on an entire system of agriculture”, he sets out to try to understand how this can be achieved. The narrative becomes a classic quest as Barber chronicles his travels, conversations and discoveries. Among the folks he meets are an organic wheat farmer in upstate New York, a fish farmer, and one raising pigs and geese (for no-cruelty foie gras) in Spain, along with many other passionate researchers and growers.

His focus on flavour is never far from his argument. He writes, for example, about single-udder butter—that is, butter made from the milk of just one cow, with an ever-changing flavour profile reflecting the individual beast, her breed, the season, and what she’s eaten. The changes in the milk’s taste are just what industrial food production doesn’t provide; industrial food products are, by definition, large-scale, predictable, repeatable commodities. Of course there are convincing environmental and social concerns about industrial-scale food, but this example points to how complexity is drained from our flavour experiences when we eat industrial food.

After much searching, Barber identifies an approach to food production that he believes is sustainable. And because he never loses control or focus, weaving his narratives in complex and engaging ways, his argument has a persuasive power that arises from his curiousity, optimism, and idealism.

In fact, the argument assumes an almost spiritual power as he explores the connections linking everything—the microbes in the soil, the plants and insects, the animals that we eat, and human individuals and communities, past and present:

A core finding of my experiences was that I was asking the wrong questions. Each time I tried to parse the specifics of how something was grown, I was instead pointed in the opposite direction: to the interactions and relationships among all parts of the farm and then, with more time, to the interactions and relationships embedded in the culture and history of the place.

With science, history and culture all being considered, Barber sees the way forward as being intimately connected to taste and deliciousness—to the sensual and social joy of eating. The concluding paragraph of his Introduction states this very clearly and the rest of the book bears him out:

Truly great flavour—the kind that produces plain old jaw-dropping wonder—is a powerful lens into the natural world because taste breaks through the delicate things we can’t see or perceive. Taste is a soothsayer, a truth teller. And it can be a guide in reimaging our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.

Certainly, in my own musings on what makes food truly satisfying, Dan Barber has assumed a seat at the head of the table.

Dan Barber: “How had I assumed all those years that polenta smelled of nothing more than dried meal?”

Try this:

• Visit farmers’ markets to seek out the just-picked flavours from small-scale local producers.

• Shop on-line at Farmhouse Direct, a nation-wide on-line version of a farmers’ market.

• If you can, grow your own heirloom fruits and vegetables.

 Find out about Slow Food activities in your area of  Australia or the world.

• Drool over the website for Dan Barber’s Blue Hill restaurants:

•  Watch the YouTube clips: Here is a series of clips, long and short, in which Barber talks about his insights into food production:

Dan Barber | Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 2012 (9 mins)

Dan Barber with Ira Glass: Beyond Farm-to-Table—A New Food Revolution, 2014 (1 hour, 7 mins)

Food Pioneers: Dan Barber on the way we think about food, 2015 (interviewed by Caroline Baum at Adelaide Writers’ Week, 1 hour)

• Eat out sustainably in Sydney: Ceru Restaurant opens in Sydney during January 2016. Chef Tom Kime’s Eastern Mediterranean food is free range, organic and ethically sourced, and features sustainable seafood.


Dan Barber, 2014, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, New York: Penguin.

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