The turkey whisperer

Celebrated chef Dan Barber talks about raising and cooking turkeys, tweaking Thanksgiving traditions and supporting sustainable farming without being puritanical.


Adam Roberts
November 21, 2007 4:23PM (UTC)

Most people don't frolic with turkeys before eating them, but that's precisely what I did this summer before dining at Blue Hill Stone Barns, Dan Barber's idyllic farm-cum-restaurant in upstate New York. The meal, which was among the best I've ever had, was both playful and refined. Each course came with a lively presentation about the featured ingredients, how they were grown, when they were picked and what made them special. We left the meal delirious, drunk and, most impressive, edified: Blue Hill Stone Barns is more than a restaurant -- to quote its Web site, it's "a platform, an exhibit, a classroom, a conservatory, a laboratory, and a garden."

What better person to ask, then, about a holiday that celebrates the harvest than a man who has devoted his life to harvesting the best food possible and cooking it to perfection, and who raises his own turkeys. Dan Barber is as philosophical about food as he is talented, he's renowned for his public speaking (his "Carrots and Almonds" speech from the Taste 3 conference, which you can watch here -- is legendary), and he's a darling of both critics and foodies alike.

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I spoke to chef Barber by phone on his drive from the city (where he runs the original Blue Hill in Manhattan) to the farm. His speech pattern is both anxious and confident, a bit like Woody Allen's: lots of stops and starts and "ums" amid brilliant insights and witty anecdotes. Unlike Woody Allen, however, Barber straddles both city and country: His ability to cook and thrive in both environments makes him a perfect Thanksgiving guide.

What's your Thanksgiving family tradition?

We spend Thanksgiving at Blue Hill Farms [the family farm for which Blue Hill is named] in the Berkshires. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to Thanksgiving. In some ways, Blue Hill Farms, the aesthetic, is ridiculously Thanksgiving-ish in its origins. It looks like Plymouth Rock -- and I've always kind of liked the traditional Thanksgiving foods: the sweet potatoes and the turkey and the traditional sort of stuffing.

Do you have any flourishes that you do?

I cook a traditional turkey -- I roast it, get it all glazed and beautiful. But I cook another turkey sous vide, and that's the turkey I serve: the one that's sous vide. I have a show turkey -- like that beautiful shellacked turkey everyone "oohs" and "ahs" over that I have sitting in the kitchen all day. Nobody knows about it, but I heat up the other turkey in water and slice that and pretend to break down the glazed turkey.

People don't notice the glaze isn't on it?

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Not really. Actually, the whole thing started when the gas ran out one Thanksgiving a while ago and I couldn't cook the turkey in a gas stove. But I had sous vide from the restaurant, so I did the turkey in the dishwasher. I put it on the wash cycle and it came up to temperature; it heated the turkey up beautifully.

I was actually going to ask if there'd been any Thanksgiving disasters and that sounds like it might've been a big one.

It was a disaster that turned into a culinary masterpiece. To say it was the best Thanksgiving ever would be a little precious and predictable, but it was the best turkey I ever served.

Cue cheesy music.

[Laughs]

Are there any traditional dishes you refuse to cook because they're beneath your standards?

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What's a traditional one -- like jellied beets from a can?

Or marshmallows on sweet potatoes.

Well that's a '70s tradition. I don't consider that part of our heritage.

But a lot of people do it.

A lot of people are misguided. That's a 1975 sort of invention -- or '65.

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That's coming from someone who cooked a turkey in a dishwasher. Do you have any tips or tricks for managing Thanksgiving without going crazy?

Being organized doesn't hurt. And to stop the obsession with everything having to be really hot when it goes out. Have a menu where everything can be at room temperature because it's going to be anyway. I don't mind my turkey being room temperature and I don't mind the stuffing not being piping hot; that tends to relax me. One of the things that makes everyone so jittery is when you feel like people aren't sitting down right on time or aren't eating right away. But if you can get over the fact they're not going to eat piping-hot food you can relax a bit more. And a couple of glasses of Champagne doesn't hurt.

What kind of turkeys do you raise at Blue Hill Stone Barns?

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We raise two different varieties, which is interesting in and of itself. It relates to this idea of: How do you keep the tradition but bring it into a modern context without being Wylie Dufresne? And I can relate that metaphorically to the two types of turkeys we raise: One is a Bourbon Red, which is a very old breed that's no longer raised because 99 percent of turkeys in this country are raised in confinement, and they're not a confinement animal; it's an older delicate breed with terrific flavor that takes a long time to go from chick weight to market weight.

And the other bird we raise is the Broad-Breasted White; literally 99.99 percent of the turkeys that are raised for Thanksgiving are of this variety -- the latest, most advanced technological breed from the industry. The industry is concerned with making money, and to make money they have created, through many, many years of breeding, an animal that can go from chick to market weight in a third the time of a Bourbon Red. It can take on a lot of Marilyn Monroe-ish characteristics: big breasts. And it tastes pretty good and it has a great efficient grain-to-weight conversion. We take the breeding technological advances -- the efficiency that these animals convert to weight gain -- and we put them out to pasture. We do feed them grain because they're omnivores, but they get to pasture and run around over the land at Stone Barns; they're fed a buffet diet of different grasses and bugs, so they tend to grow very healthy.

What's the taste like? Which do you like better?

The Bourbon Red is probably a more preferable bird in its flavor. And if you're not obsessed with breast, it's got beautifully proportioned light and dark meat and really complex and deep flavor. But I'm kind of a Broad-Breasted White guy -- not that I'm obsessed with the breast, but I'm obsessed with this idea that one can take in the talk about moving toward sustainable foods and stuff. The purists look at the Broad-Breasted White as the Darth Vader, as the absolute epitome of industrialization. I look at it as taking the technological advances of breeding, which have been pretty profound since World War II: feeding the bird the right kinds of things, keeping it in open pasture, letting it have a very varied diet and in that way letting it create great flavor.

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How should average Americans shop for a turkey when they don't have access to a Bourbon Red, and how should they cook it?

There are two parts to that question: The first is, where do you get a turkey like a Bourbon Red or a turkey that's pastured? The first place to go is a farmers market. They generally have older breeds these days, and they also put them out to pasture. Any farm that's small and independent and isn't part of the industrialization mode raises the animals on grass.

If you don't have a farmers market nearby or if you have a farmers market where someone's not selling Bourbon Reds, go on the Internet: Heritage Foods is a great source, and Eatwild.com is another great site for sustainably raised turkeys. The last thing to do is to start asking your butcher or the guy in the meat section of your supermarket for some of this stuff -- if enough people ask and enough people talk about it, it's likely they're going to make changes.

To cook it, I would do one of two things: I would blow the turkey out of the oven at 550 degrees for a really short time. You fuckin' blow it out: high heat all the way. When the bird is really crisp, you open the oven and cover it with a little tin foil, but basically you don't open the oven for the entire time. That's one way to do a terrific turkey. The other way is to cook it at 260 degrees, in a really, really low oven, and that means basting constantly. At the end you can turn up the heat to crisp the skin a little bit. But the main thing is, I'd never cook a turkey at 350 or 375 degrees; it's the in-between thing and it's horrible because you're drying out the turkey.

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But at 550 degrees, how do you monitor when it's done? Put a probe thermometer inside it?

You can put a thermometer in or watch the juices run -- when they run clear it's done. But you have so much leeway with a turkey you cook nice and slow because you have a lot more room for error.

Both those methods scare me a little bit -- I have a 22-pound turkey I'm doing this year.

Well, yeah, I wouldn't exactly be too excited if the health department was coming to check the way we cook our turkey; they'd probably have a heart attack. But if you have a good turkey, I like a really slow bake -- let the proteins of the meat not coagulate. Actually, it's the exact same idea as sous vide.

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So with the winter approaching, do you lose heart as a farm-based chef?

I really look forward to the winter -- totally. After a couple of freezes, before the real hard winter in January and February, you can eat the best food of the year because of this phenomenon that happens with root vegetables and heartier winter greens: The starches in the vegetable, whether in the root or plant, convert to sugar. So when you taste this incredible fall harvest in the Northeast, that's part of celebrating Thanksgiving; part of the reason things tasted so good in New England and continue to taste so good is that cold weather turns this stuff into sugar.

What do you do in the real dead of winter when there's a blizzard outside?

Look, I buy food from the big food chains, I buy food from California, a little from Mexico, from Florida. I love citrus fruit; I'm not a purist. I love that I can order a blood orange to [be delivered to] my doorstep overnight. So in the dead of winter, I don't want to be eating cabbages and stale bread -- to be puritanical about this kind of stuff year-round is kind of silly.

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So in winter I'm eating citrus fruit and tropical fruit. People freak out in Blue Hill when they see pineapple on the menu; they say, "Oh, I thought you were a sustainable restaurant." That's ridiculous; there's great mangos out there; I don't want to be denying myself or the diner the experience of that.

The question is, To the extent that you can, do you know your purveyor? And to the extent you can, are you still buying locally? Even in the dead of winter, we're buying potatoes, and onions, which you have to store because they cure, and garlic. Lamb, venison, all of that stuff still gets slaughtered in the dead of winter, and the flavors are fantastic and they're local. So to the extent we can, we're supporting the food chain, a small local food chain, but still recognizing the splendor of what the world has to offer. And I'm not embarrassed by it.

It's interesting to hear you say that because it seems the culture's caught up to this with Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and the word of the year is "locavore." It's nice to hear that you're not so militant.

I do like that locavore movement a lot because it makes people aware of food and within their own ecology. But I don't think it's a way of life for a restaurant unless you want to be a throwback to a restaurant in a Shaker village at the turn of the century.

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How do we make people make choices with what they're eating in terms of where it's grown? If you get militant about it, it's going to last as long as this conversation, because there's enough rules and sacrifices out there. I try to put this movement toward more sustainable foods in the context of hedonism and delight. There's delight and hedonism in enjoying food from other climates at the appropriate times.

What do you foresee being the next big food trend?

I'd say transparency is going to become a big issue. There's a great quote from Pollan: "You are what you eat, but you are what you eat eats too." There's this idea that just because something has an organic label on it or a local label means it's good for you, and that isn't necessarily true if you're not concentrating on what the thing you've been eating has been eating. But the word organic comes from organism; it's the whole thing, the whole gestalt. It's not just how it's being grown, but who's growing it -- that was incredibly important back in the '60s when this whole movement started. So there's a complex definition for organic and sustainable, and it has a lot more to do than with just a farming method.

People are going to demand [to know] a bit more: That turkey they're going to enjoy for Thanksgiving, what did the turkey eat? That's probably a good trend for the future because it really wakes people up, both people eating the food and people producing the food. And for me, I have a very vested interest in this because when you can tell stories about Bourbon Red vs. Broad-Breasted White, you taste things in your turkey you wouldn't otherwise taste. Through the story, though the narrative, you connect in a way you otherwise wouldn't to your food. Part of enjoying food and giving thanks is knowing about this stuff. That's an exciting future for us eaters -- it will make the food taste better.


Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is a freelance writer in New York and runs the popular food blog, The Amateur Gourmet.

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