A Better Plate: Dan Barber Wants to Change the Way We Eat 

For years, Dan Barber has been extolling the virtues of farm-to-table, nose-to-tail cooking. As the chef and owner of two award-winning New York restaurants, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, as well as a frequent scribe on topics of sustainability, Barber has helped propel the movement further and faster than almost anybody else. Yet in his recently released book "The Third Plate," the author argues that today's farm-to-table system doesn't go nearly far enough as the alternative to industrial food systems. Scene sat down with Barber when he was in Cleveland.

So you're trying to change the way Americans eat. Why not pick an easier topic, like climate change?

We have an ingrained cultural guidebook that makes us eat a certain way. Our expectation as diners is for a plate of food with an 8-ounce piece of protein, vegetables, starch, twice a day, seven days a week. That's an anomaly, and it's not sustainable. The reason they project we won't be able to feed the world's population is because it's based on feeding everybody an 8-ounce piece of steak.

We're seeing improved access to good food and farmers markets everywhere we look. Isn't that a success?

There's nothing wrong with shopping at farmers markets and buying local food; it's the right step. But where I now take exception — because I found it to be an emperor with no clothes — is when you hold up this system as the answer to the industrial food chain, and it's not. We're still eating that 8-ounce piece of protein, only now it's local and grass-fed beef, the veggies are organic and the starch are whole grains. But that plate of food is still very exhausting on the land and does not represent what a true farm landscape can produce.

If these foods are grown in a virtuous way, what's the problem?

We eat high on the hog from the farm — the "cream of the farm." We eat tomatoes, we eat strawberries, we eat asparagus. These are the Hummers of the food world; from a soil perspective they're very needy. We often talk about nose-to-tail cooking, but we very rarely talk about nose-to-tail farming.

What's the philosophy behind nose-to-tail farming?

There's this farmer in upstate New York who grows the best wheat I had ever tasted. I visited his farm — all 2,300 acres of it — and saw everything but wheat. I saw buckwheat, barley and millet, cover crops like vetch and clover, leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas. What I learned from that experience was that all of these crops are planted in a very particular way and at very particular times for very particular purposes: they each provide the soil with specific needs to enable it to grow the most delicious wheat.

So all we need is more farmers like your friend in upstate New York?

That farmer loses money on all those other crops because he doesn't have a market to sell them. He's not making a living selling those soil-building crops. That is the idea behind the "third plate"; we need to change the whole culture. We need more farmers to accept these sunk costs and find great chefs who are willing to pay a premium for the produce.

Chefs were at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. Will they also lead on this front?

I think chefs can play a crucial role because we are curious about flavors. Chefs can help orchestrate change and broadcast the message in very delicious ways. This will bleed into the mainstream culture, but it will take time. If you look at places like Applebee's and other chains, a lot of their ideas come straight from high-end chefs.

What does a model 'third plate' look like?

At the restaurant I serve a parsnip steak that was soil-aged for 14 months. We roast it like a steak, carve it like a steak and serve it with a rich bordelaise sauce made from beef bones. We flip the classic arrangement on its side. The anatomy of the first or second plate is there, but in keeping with what our landscape can provide.

Is the future of sustainable cuisine going to be hyper-local?

It has to be. The pattern of eating in Cleveland will be vastly different from eating in North Dakota or Southern California. In southern China alone there are thousands of micro-cuisines based on what's nutritious and delicious and can be harvested from the land. These cuisines have survived for generations; they are the definition of sustainable. We don't have that in America, and we never had.

How will that philosophy ever beat out Big Ag?

Big agriculture relies on resources like water, soil fertility and cheap labor to produce crops like wheat, corn and soy — and all of these things are crumbling. And weather is becoming less and less stable; in fact, we're going into a period of unprecedented instability. Diversity is the only answer. That's the future — and it's going to be a very delicious future, I think.

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