Blue Hill at Stone Barns

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I recently had the opportunity to interview Dan Barber of Blue Hill NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns for my radio show, Chef’s Story. It wasn’t the usual interview where I ask all about his childhood, background, influences etc. I dove right into thorny topics with him. Dan as you might know has written a seminal book, The Third Plate. It is unapologetic. It cautions, enlightens and instructs us on the dynamic and evolutionary trajectory our food system is on. It is as frightening and exciting as a Transformer movie.

Dan Barber, The Third Plate, photo of Dan: Mark Ostow, photos courtesy of Blue Hill at Stone Barns

One aspect of our talk really struck me and I want to share it with you. Vegetables are not benign to the earth. They need a lot of water, fertilizing and human labor. They take a lot of land. Dan is not an opponent of vegetables, but he is first and foremost a responsible guardian of the earth. He believes we can all live sustainably, if we live an educated, humbled and moderate life. We should understand not just the nutrients and calories in our food but what I will coin here, its earth factor (EF). What does it take from our earth to produce a tomato, a pound of beef, an acre of GMO corn?

Dan used the term ‘the tomato is the hummer of the vegetable/fruit world.’ It uses a massive amount of water: 13 gallons per tomato. So can we be righteous eating a tomato from drought stricken California? Over eating a marbled 16 ounce T- bone steak? Should we avoid both as excessive EF? Interesting.

I do think socially conscious people want to know what they are eating. And they have a right to know. But next to the ingredients and nutrition labeling, don’t we need and want to know the EF factor too? I would.

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I read William Deresiewicz’s New York Times article,  “A Matter of Taste”, which challenged the idea of food as art. It made me take a serious think on the subject. Hang on a bit, this will be a longer post than usual but a subject worth exploring. Here’s what Deresiewicz says on the subject:

Food is highly developed as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art, the madeleine itself is not art.

First, let’s define art. In searching on the internet for a usable definition I thought Ellen Dissanyake’s captured it for me: the expression of the thoughts of the artist are successful when it engages both the maker and the viewer and creates dialogues of wonder. Its subjective and stimulating ends seeks to enlighten and entertain.”

Dan Barber, photo by Susie Cushner

Let’s take a modern day “madeleine” and deconstruct it as art for Mr. Deresiewicz. It’s the lowly parsnip, in the hands of a culinary master and chef, Dan Barber. Dan is the Chef/Owner/Creator of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York. A restaurant that creates a dialogue with the land and a chef that speaks to the seasons.

A parsnip is one of those vegetables that is relegated to the root cellar, a cousin to the turnip and a brethren in the circle of least likely to please winter veggies such as brussel sprouts and cauliflower. So what has Dan done with the parsnip? He’s put it center plate! But not just on a one-dimensional plane in a new recipe. Dan creates dishes that are complex and intensely involved with listening to the land while delivering taste on a celestial level. The parsnip in his hands engages us in a new way and stimulates us to think about the relationship between man, food and our physical surroundings. Its more intense depth of flavor, sweetness and deliciousness surprises us. And the beauty of its presentation not only pleases but shocks us. The story behind it makes us challenge our long held opinions. How did he do this with a parsnip?

Dan started by thinking about what he could serve his customers in February in the deep of winter. He is committed to being local and seasonal. He worked with his farmer, Jack Algiere to continue growing parsnips in the snow filled months. They harvest huge parsnips from the frozen ground and crack away the dirt. These parsnips are supersweet because the freezing temperatures concentrate the sugars, unlike fall harvested vegetables. Their post autumn size allows the parsnip to be reimagined. Dan roasts these parsnips whole. Then the presentation of this root vegetable main course is done with a bit of fanfare. The diner’s attention is riveted as the once lowly parsnip is paraded tableside and sliced as a steak, ready to be a hearty meal in the cold of winter. The parsnip is the center of the plate, the star of the meal. The concept of protein as main course is moot…not even missed.

Parsnip Steak and Beet Ketchup, photo courtesy of Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Does this not engage the diner in a new way? Does it not make her question the human/land connection? Does it not entertain in its deliciousness? Does it not give us a sense of wonder of how large our universe is and how limited we have been in harvesting our foods? Does it not change your relationship with the parsnip? Now a vegetable of preference but only in this new season, this new context. If the parsnip did not have a pleasure with it, an entertainment factor, the concept and recipe could be restricted to science and social issues….but precisely because it pleases in a sensual way, it qualifies on all counts….as a piece of art!

Dan’s work is important. So important that we are working with him on our new Farm to Table culinary program. It is important for our school to graduate not only the best chefs in the country. We also strive to be a breeding ground for culinary artists. Those chefs that engage both the maker and the diner and create dialogues of wonder.”

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