Meet Dan Barber: America's next foodie-in-chief

Move over Michael Pollan! Dan Barber has a radical new vision for the future of food

Published May 24, 2014 8:00PM (EDT)

Dan Barber     (AP/Steven Senne)
Dan Barber (AP/Steven Senne)

As the unofficial spokespeople for our organic-eating, Food Network-watching ways, when chefs talk, Americans tend to listen. And Dan Barber — the farm-to-table icon behind restaurants Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill Stone Barns in Tarrytown -- isn't wasting his platform.

Barber has given a wildly popular TED talk, been counted among TIME's 100 most influential people, been appointed to the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition and, as of last week, authored a nearly 500-page book laying out a radical new vision for the future of food.

So when Barber came out last weekend with a New York Times op-ed detailing the shortcomings of the farm-to-table movement he had previously helped promote, people paid attention. While we like to pat ourselves on the back for eating seasonally and locally, Barber's contentious argument went, the foodie fad that grew to become the face of sustainable eating has failed to bring about the promised revolution. Industrial agriculture still rules, Barber argued. And as it keeps growing, more and more small farms and native prairie disappear under Big Ag's plow.

If we really care about changing our food system (as anyone who hopes to feed our growing world should), Barber believes we're going to need a true revolution. And "The Third Plate" is his thesis, over a decade in the works, for what that change must look like.

Among other things, change means thinking holistically, embracing diversity in ingredient choice and cuisine, and shifting meat over from its vaulted place at the center of the dinner plate. But while the solutions Barber describes are frighteningly extensive, they also, in his telling, sound delicious. That, more than any warning about the consequences of continuing along with the status quo, could be thing that ends up making a difference.

Salon caught up with Barber to discuss our unsustainable, uniquely American way of eating and his prescription for meaningful change. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I was struck by this statistic in your New York Times piece: that 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is a priority for them when purchasing food. What do you think people mean when they say that, and how would you definite sustainable food? It seems like a very vague term, in this context.

I mean, it’s very vague, and it’s getting more and more vague. We tend to reduce the idea of sustainable food choices down to labels. Is it organic? Is it local? Is it biodynamic? Is it grass-fed? Is it line-caught? And yet we still haven’t come to a full understanding of what any of those mean. And look, the "third plate" is another label, I guess. But really, it’s an attempt to bring all of these things together and to complicate the picture of it. I’m hoping that it will also get us closer to understanding a real recipe for good food. If you have that, then ultimately sustainability is in the mix, because you can’t have really good food without a sustainable system that’s producing it.

That sounds axiomatic, like you can’t have a good carrot without good soil and good farming -- we know that intuitively to be true. But when you back up and study the recipe of the carrot, from the seed to the sauté pan, it’s very clear that there is a real recipe involved.  That was the initial search in the book. I taste something really delicious -- like jaw-droppingly delicious -- and now I’m on a search for it: to figure out why this is so delicious, which is another way of saying, why is this sustainable? I think those two things are one in the same, and what I discovered is important for your question: that in asking, "how is that carrot grown?" I was asking a little bit of the wrong question, because what I kept getting pointed to is the larger mechanism at work that produced the carrot. It was a landscape, a whole farm and, ultimately, a whole community.

You also say that we shouldn’t imagine the food chain as a "chain," with fields on one end, and a plate on the other. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what that image leaves out, and what a better visual might be -- in the book you mention Olympic rings.

I look at Olympic rings and I think you can’t find a place where it starts or ends. It's a loop, and not to get too philosophical about it, but it's ever-expanding. As you start to look more and more at a carrot, for example: if you really study the seed, you can ask, are we supporting older varieties of carrots, or is it their newer varieties, that are bred for particular localities and regions, that make them super delicious? Then we get to soil: do we have the right fertility to activate all the flavonoids and make this carrot taste good? And then you keep going: the farmer is rotating in other crops to prep the soil for the carrot. What are those crops, and are we eating them? And is he cover cropping and resting the soil? And are there animals that are a part of that rotation, because manure is another amendment of that soil? And you get into the whole area of, at what point are they picking it, is it after a freeze, so the sugar content is really high, and the nutrition and flavor levels are off the charts?

You can’t look at one circle without looking at another, and so I like that image better than a chain, because a chain suggests you could hop in at any point and parse out an understanding of the carrot. To me, the lesson I learned was that you can’t do that. A chain is more commensurate with us reducing the definition of our farm system down to these buzzwords, which I think ultimately gets very confusing.

From the way you describe all of this, it doesn’t seem to me so much that you think the farm-to-table idea failed -- it was still a really important first step in heightening awareness about these issues.

Yeah. A+ for raising consciousness, but maybe a B- or C+ for actual on-the-ground change. That would be a fair grade. A tough grade, but a fair grade.

Right. So do you see this whole concept of a third plate, and of rethinking the food system, as a completely revolutionary way of thinking, or would you say you're taking some of these ideas and just pushing them further, putting them more into practice?

Can I say a soft revolution? Gentle? Is there such thing as a gentle revolution? I think what you’re getting at is like, is it more farm-to-table, or are we looking at something radically different? I think we’re looking at the former, but we probably need to re-look at that definition of farm-to-table, because it's become so entrenched in this idea that you and I can go to the farmer’s market, like I did this morning, and buy asparagus, and rant and raise the flag of sustainability and farm-to-table and say we’re changing the world. And the truth is, that’s going to come up really short, and it has over the last ten or so years. I mean, it’s an arbitrary number of years, but if you take the last decade, it’s true, and it’s not changing -- it’s in fact the opposite. And if we wait another ten years, the effects of that are not benign on the landscape that we want to produce for a growing population, and a population that seems, anyway, more and more interested in this issue and interested in where their food comes from.

And at the same time when you hear the phrase “farm-to-table,” it tends to have this elite status: you think of pricier food, that's harder to access for most people. Do you see the third plate as a way to start to fix that problem?

Actually, yes. But first of all, I don’t know if it’s hard to access for most people. In many ways, farm-to-table is easier to access now than it’s ever been, by a lot. Farmer’s markets are expensive but it is possible to eat well and eat affordably through them. That’s true now in a way that wasn’t true five years ago. There’s been an explosion of farmer’s markets, and it’s very exciting and also an indication that this movement is penetrating. It's just happening in the urban landscape a lot more than in the rural landscape, which is a real contradiction.

Anyway, to your point, I think the answer is yes, because I think if we connect all of these truly sustainable ideas about agriculture like an Olympic ring, the price of food will for the most part go down, not up. If we were to eat more barley, and eat more rye and kidney beans and buckwheat, the relative price of wheat would go down because from the farmer's point of view, he or she is subsidizing these crops that are needed for soil health through the wheat -- the crop that we covet.

That’s a real irony, because there’s plenty of food, there’s just not the food that we gravitate towards, or that we in the farm-to-table movement highlight enough. And what we’ve got to do a little bit more is highlight diversity. I don’t mean just different kinds of tomatoes -- I mean different kinds of crops that make the soil ready for tomatoes. That’s a calculation that farmers make quietly to themselves, and they're sunk costs -- they are rotation vegetables, and if you’re a big enough farmer, small grains. And they all end up going into bagged feed for animals, and he doesn’t make any money on that, or he makes very little money depending on the market situation of the moment. And so he charges more for the wheat, and unfortunately organic agriculture and local agriculture then gets this bad rap for high prices.

In farming, unless you’re spraying a lot of chemicals, and unless you’re some of the worst abusers of chemicals, you’ve got to rotate in other crops. You can’t just grow one crop after another. Even if you’re conventional, unless you’re a serious corn and soy farmer, for the most part you’re always rotating, and it’s one of these really fundamental parts of farming. We just don’t know the nuts and bolts of farming, and we don’t support the nuts and bolts -- what we support is the cream. When I went to the farmer’s market, I was buying the cream of the soil’s fertility. Those tomatoes we’re about to buy in August, they’re the Hummer of the food world, from a soil perspective. So we need to support all the crops that come before and after the tomatoes to bring the price of tomatoes down.

It would seem to me that the really big problem there would be getting over this cultural obsession with trend foods: picking out one thing that’s the food of the moment and eating it to death. There needs to be a way to send a message that we can't all covet the same thing.

That’s it in a nutshell. The trend foods and the trend diets. That's a problem, and that’s an American issue, because we have no cuisine. I came to the conclusion that the problem with all this is we root around looking for the diet or the food fad that’s going to make us feel healthy and look good and be sustainable at the same time, and in the truth that really depends on where you live in America. What’s good for one region is not good for the other. So if you’re living in Southern California, you should be eating lots of fruits and vegetables. But if you’re in the Hudson Valley, you should probably be supporting a dairy and some type of meat production.

And unfortunately, because of what you just said, we have Paleo diets, and we have these cockamamie ideas of what the world can support because it’s in fashion or because it shows to be working for the short term, but that will last about as long as the conversation and then we’ll be on to something else. Unfortunately, the land can’t support those diets, which is why other cultures have cuisines that have evolved over thousands of years. Those cuisines go to support the landscape and they go to improve the ecology. You know, Italian food was based on very humble ingredients and soil-building ingredients: beans, and different grains. And when they invented Parmesan cheese, they didn’t take the whey and through it away. They created Prosciutto di Parma: they fed the whey to the pigs instead of grain, and the pigs fattened up beautifully and they produced this incredible product.

So that’s one example, but there are a million, in every cuisine. There are five hundred different cuisines in Southern India alone, and they're all based on: what does the whole farm produce, and how do we produce dishes and a diet that support the landscape? Because that was the only choice they had. We were never forced into that negotiation in America. Whenever the soil starting failing we just picked up our plows and moved west. And we kept moving west to California. And it’s very recent that we had no more room, and our soil productivity is not what it was fifty years ago -- it’s actually failing. What we really need to do is be forced into what Europeans were forced into before they ever came over here, which was to figure out how to make this work on a plot of land without chemicals -- because that’s truly not sustainable, and because we have no more land to plow up. I don’t want to exaggerate it for the sake of pumping up interest in my book, but this is a really critical moment in agriculture, because we are for the first time at a point where we have no more space.

Can the kind of growing that you describe -- taking the whole farm, and rotating crops -- be done on a large industrial scale, or do we need more people to return to small-scale farming?

My book isn’t written to answer the question of how do we feed the world, in part because I think it’s sort of a question that determines a kind of answer. I mean, in many ways it’s a crazy question, because we already produce enough calories to feed 12 billion people -- everyone from conservative to very liberal agriculture economists will say the same thing. The question is about distribution. And our distribution system is the thing that really needs refining and a much more democratic approach to feeding people. The other assumption is that by 2050, when we have 9 billion people, which is what everyone says, we can’t feed the world on what we’re doing now. Well, that assumption means that the world will continue to eat the way we’re eating today. And I take exception to that assumption because it’s a huge one. We cannot eat the way we’re eating today and feed 9 or 10 billion people, it’s true. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t eat better, with more nutrition and flavor, and in a way that's better for the environment. It means changing our diet. And unfortunately, the American expectation for dinner, the protein-centric plate of food, it’s not just something that’s been ingrained in our culture, it’s also something we’re exporting, and that’s the really nuts part of this.

But the second part of your question is a very fair one. You describe the system of rotations, and can that be done at an industrial scale, and the answer is absolutely. Klaas, a grain farmer I admire, has a 2,000 acre farm: that is, to be fair to your point, actually a small farm on a grain scale. But what I learned from all this is that the books are cooked when the Big Ag people say you can’t feed the world on a guy like Klaas’ property, because we won’t have enough food. Well, look at the way they answer that: they say they can’t produce enough food, but they’re saying he can’t produce enough corn or soy or wheat. To a certain extent they’re correct, because to simplify things, if you and I were to go to Klaas’ farm and over 10 years weigh how much corn he produces in a decade, versus how much corn a big industrial farm in Iowa raises, Iowa would beat Klaas by a landslide. It’s not even close. The problem with the calculation is the way the question is asked. So yes, they’re producing more corn, but Klaas is also producing a hundred other crops. And that’s not being weighed, it’s not in the calculation, because people aren’t eating them.

So when we say feed the world, people aren’t eating those crops that Klaas has to grow in order to feed the soil. In Iowa, the farmer is putting out a little fertilizer bomb and the corn grows. That has lasted pretty well for the last 30, 40, 50 years, but increasingly we’re seeing that these yields that they’re producing are going down, not up, and it truly is not a sustainable system. So we have to change the question and say, what if people were to change their diet to reflect their own ecology? Farmers would be thrilled. The ones I’ve met, anyway, who are growing monoculture crops, would be thrilled. They have no market, so what do they do? They have to make payments on insurance and leasing land, and leasing equipment and they’re forced into the system that’s there. As much as I don’t want to simplify this, the whole thing really does come down to demand. And we aren’t demanding the right kind of crops and that’s going to force change, I do think, on the very, very large scale. You need a huge amount of demand and you need the right infrastructure to get it to market, and we have none of that.

So I'm in favor of this whole idea of moving meat away from the center of the plate, but couldn't one argue that protein is extremely important to the diet, that we need more of it than your conception of the third plate allows for?

There’s plenty of protein to eat. The question is not so much, do we eat meat? but, what are we feeding our animals? I think meat is totally defensible to eat. Not only defensible, you should be eating meat if you live in the Hudson Valley, if you live in New York, because it’s very hard to grow vegetables here. But we should be eating meat in proportion to what the land can provide. And really what we’re eating is the wrong parts of the animal.  We need to learn to cook, and we need to cook parts of muscles that are underutilized. And that takes some real cooking and some real thought and ingenuity and passion and interest in food. The lazy approach is to take the chicken breast and say "I need this for protein" -- what’s more interesting is to eat other parts of the chicken with grains and vegetables. And if your beef is eating corn from Iowa or your chicken is raised on a grain diet, or your pigs are in confinement, you're not doing any service to the long term health of the land and ultimately you, or your children, or your children’s children, are not going to have the luxury of deciding you need more protein in your diet.

Let's say I were to start today. Could you walk me through the process of how someone like me would go about constructing a third plate-style meal?

Protein shouldn’t be front and center to the point that it overtakes the architecture of the plate. I believe in that pretty strongly as a general rule. It needs to be eaten and enjoyed in a way that is commensurate with what we can feed our animals. So that’s number one, and number two, I would look at vegetables as something to concentrate on more, but I would also look to grains. Supermarkets are very responsive now to this campaign to eat local food, and this idea that we could be asking for different grains. Whole Food gets a bad rap for its expensive produce, but its grain section is incredible. Look at your everyday diet and include a mix of whole grains, and try to get them local. The next best thing is get them organic. And have that be the bulk of your diet. It’s not true for everywhere across the country, but as a general rule, somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of our agricultural land is in grains. Five percent is in vegetables. Think about that. If we really want to make profound changes in our landscape, we’ve got to think about a different way to raise grain.

Of course, it sort of goes without saying that if you have a direct connection with a farmer through a farmer’s market or a CSA, that's the best thing because you get into this conversation. And farmers are generally responsive to this kind of stuff because what we’re talking about only helps them be better farmers. It’s not something any good farmer would resist. They just need to have a market for it. So that’s kind of like the third plate, to get into these conversations and try to figure out a pattern of eating that supports your locale.

Also, I’ll just put a plug in for chefs. I sort of think we have some obligation and responsibility to curate this stuff. We should be thinking about ways to create demand and fashion around this kind of cooking and this kind of eating. And we have the opportunity as change makers, as these cultural icons as chefs are now: we have a voice, and we should be broadcasting. I think the challenge is to create a demand for the inbetween crops and to flip the understanding of gourmet cuisine on its head a little bit, and take away the impression of it being caviar, lobster, foie gras and large cuts of meat, lamb and steak. Every chef I know would jump at the chance to create menus that are around this kind of cooking. But it’s hard. It’s hard in my restaurant. People come to Stone Barns, where we average 25 courses. We go through the first part of the meal, it's like 30 different tastes, these little snacks, and then you go through five quick courses that are small, for an impression. And by the end of the five quick courses, invariably, someone at the table -- it happens multiple times a night -- will look up and say, "where’s the meat course?" And this is New York, with very experienced diners. What I'll say is, "You had tons of meat!" It was just hidden. I don’t mean to hide it, but it hasn’t been advertised. But it’s all in there, and we’re using the whole animal.

So we need to change that paradigm. That's why I think chefs and farmers are so aligned in this thing. We've embarked on this conversation between chefs and farmers, and the first outcome of the conversation has been the farm-to-table movement, because when we pursue great food, it goes back to what we were originally talking about at the beginning: great food and great ecological decisions are one in the same. They always have been and always will be. So that’s very promising. And now the idea is, how do we create a pattern of eating that really supports all this?

By Lindsay Abrams

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