Dan Barber, renowned chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, spoke about challenges he, his chefs, and the farmers face at Westchester County's Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture this past weekend. He took the time to answer a few questions about what he'd recommend to this year's candidates and the need for sustainable agriculture to solve the imminent problem of fossil fuels.
LM: What initially inspired you to take another look at the food we eat and the food you serve?
DB: I guess there would be two things. First is the farm. I grew up farming the land at Blue Hill Farm with my brother and now business partner David Barber. Our grandmother made very direct connections between taking care of the land and preserving the open space. That was a big thing for her. It was a really beautiful, beautiful place so she made sure I understood those kinds of responsibilities and aesthetic beauty. I probably made a connection between that and responsibility to food. That would be the beginning.
Understanding that being a chef with stories that they (customers) can attach to their food -- as in they know where their food is coming from -- ends up for people, I think, making the food taste better. There's a self-motivation that I would like for people to share in the story because it enables them to taste things they otherwise wouldn't taste. It seems to me we've been so removed from where our food comes from. Where are you from?
LM: I'm from Kentucky.
DB: Maybe you're not that removed from where your food comes from, but people around here are. We are hard-wired to want to know where our food comes from. We were hunter-gatherers not that long ago, figuring out what was good for us, what was poisonous, what was good for our children, and whatnot. When we have an opportunity to connect, it gives great pleasure because it's part of who we are.
So there was that unconscious connection to my grandmother and to growing up, and there was this understanding that, in terms of making people who come to Blue Hill happier, one part of that experience has to do with letting them know that I know where their food is coming from.
LM: New York Magazine's Grub Street called you a "farm-to-table missionary." How do you see yourself?
DB: Missionary? Am I a missionary? I'd rather see myself as a farm-to-table storyteller along the lines of what I was just saying because missionary has the associative definition for me of a zeal that borders on both arrogance and annoyance. I don't like people who are missionaries generally -- unless I believe in their mission -- and even then I find it annoying. I'd rather not be the guy who lectures.
I don't think anyone wants to be told what to eat, just like you didn't want your mother to tell you what to eat. We already have guilt and eating. If I'm making you feel more guilty about eating, there's something wrong with that. So am I a missionary? No, I am not.
LM: Ruth Reichl said she hopes the next President and First Family will serve as a model for the rest of the nation by eating sustainable food and growing a garden at the White House. She recommended you as a suitable chef / spokesperson. Would you be interested in the position?
DB: Not as a chef, but as a spokesperson, yes, I would be. In part because I think I'm seeing the way food is connected to everything that goes on politically. It's not only me, but I'm seeing it more and more clearly. I used to say and I think part of my bio was, 'trying to ignore the political ramifications and just deal with good flavor,' but that's impossible to do.
You can't delve into this issue without being invested in the political consequences of what we're encouraging our farmers to grow, what kind of policies are being written. You can't disconnect it from health care. You can't disconnect it from environmental legislation. You can't disconnect it from global warming. You can't disconnect it from small town community America and all this middle America or whatever the candidates keep talking about. It is so intimately connected to that, that to look at food without seeing those connections is to not really understand food.
From a presidential perspective, it makes a lot of sense to me that there is somebody who is making these connections, and making the people in power more aware of this, but it starts with the people. There is a groundswell of consciousness that when I was opening Blue Hill was not there, and that was ten years ago. It's a whole new world and that's very exciting.
For shear political issues, look at what's happening with grain prices to political stability, in the Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Haiti. These are all places that were and are currently severely destabilized because of food prices. At what point are we not going to see that our reliance on grain, our reliance on fossil fuel agriculture is leading to these incredible price spikes when we're so tied to oil? And when we're so tied to oil, we're partly in Iraq because of our fossil fuel alliance in agriculture. Agriculture is 20% of our fossil fuel use, and cars is I think 29%, so it's high up there. I don't think people are talking about that enough, so yes, I'll be, not a missionary, but a storyteller for that.
LM: Other than not using as much fossil-based agriculture, do you have any concrete steps or recommendations for the next president?
DB: I'll be as vague as I need to be here because I'm running for this position now. I think there's a real opportunity to make these issues appeal to this wide swath of the American public. This issue about sustainability, about agriculture, however you want to frame this discussion, it's been in the corner of the Eastern elite. That's the worst thing that could happen to this movement, because it's middle America, red states in general, that feel like, 'First of all, why are all these people in these metro reasons so hoity-toity about food? They don't even know a good damn thing about food and here I am raising their food.' When in fact, we're on the same side of the fence.
This is a libertarian issue as much as it's an evangelical issue. Not because everybody eats, but literally because these are things people espouse like less government that doesn't our how food is grown and distributed. That's, 'Have government stop spending precious dollars on subsidizing farmers that are growing the wrong kinds of food.' For this conservative ideal about middle America they always talk about, these kind of farm policies are so destructive to the very core of who we believe we are as a county.
We need a president that can remove it from the elitist, rich man's, farmer's market, organic perspective, and turn it into a very mainstream thing. It can be done. Look at Willy Nelson. He does it through his music and he's popular and everything, but it's more than that. He's a genius because he's leveled the playing field on this issue, in a way that no one else has. I believe that there is a bulls-eye, wide-open opportunity and the first president who does this is going to be remembered for it for a long time.
I am convinced that the economic realities of growing food the way we're growing it is not sustainable any more. When the environmental realities, when the gastronomical realities, when the health realities, all of that hasn't been enough, what's going to push it is this price parity between the kind of food I was talking about and the kind of food that we're eating. When there's a price parity, people are going to be looking at it much differently.
I would start with the farm bill. The farm bill is this incredible piece of legislation that has a recipe -- it puts in the ingredients and the methodology for everything that's happening in the way food is grown. The next farm bill is six years from now, but it needs to be put in place now. There was a big ground swell of opposition to the way business is done in the farm bill. It was talked about a lot and it seemed like there were going to be a lot of changes, but in reality, what I learned is these type of meetings that set the stage are happening now for the next farm bill.
I would start there and I would start to build coalitions around diverting subsidies from big grain aggregates to local and more sustainable food system. The number one policy I would attach to is not rewarding farmers for the amounts that they grow. If they are encouraged to take a temperature on resilience of their eco-system -- and there are many ways that that can be done -- and be paid for that, we'd see a dramatic change overnight.
LM: For those who didn't hear your talk at Gourmet Institute this past weekend, can you speak a little bit about the challenges you, your chefs, and the Center's farmers face at Blue Hill at Stone Barnes and Stone Barnes Center?
DB: The challenges are how do you provide a sustainable food system twenty-eight miles from New York city with all of the costs that are attached to farming in a metro region, with the cost of labor, the cost of goods, all of that. Can you grow food? Can you make money doing it? The enormity of the challenge, I have yet to fully grasp, but it's a big one.
LM: The New York Observer reported you and Mr. David Black sold a book to Ann Godoff at Penguin. What's it about?
DB: I don't know what yet. I have to start writing it tonight.
DB: It's a narrative book. It's not a recipe book.
DB: Storytelling, yes. Thank you. You gave me an idea.
LM: Which do you prefer: cooking or writing?
DB: You asked me at the wrong time because I just came from a really hard week. I was at the restaurant until 2 in the morning last night, so I'm not loving cooking right now. I also haven't written a thing in four months, so writing. But I don't envy what you do, if that's what you're asking.