New York Culinary Experience: Q&A with Dan Barber

20091007-danbarber.jpg

[Photograph: Chichi Wang]

In a Q&A session with Dan Barber at the New York Culinary Experience, the issues of the day were sustainability, the true meaning of "organic," and the role of taste in changing our collective behavior and preferences. Dan Barber, executive chef/co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurants and a board member of the Stone Barns Center, has been raising awareness about better-tasting, local food for years through his cooking and writing.

Hosted by Gillian Duffy (Culinary Editor of New York magazine), the session started with a discussion of the nation's transition from the "organic" movement to that of "sustainable farming." Barber noted that while the organic movement began with an emphasis on understanding the origins of one's food (hence, the etymology of the word), the current and more limited definition of "organic" is essentially that of refraining from fertilizers and pesticides. On the other hand, the sustainable farming movement recognizes the ecological and environment impacts associated with our food choices.

Barber's Sustainable Farming Practices

Barber's broad definition of sustainability is to participate in a food chain that is ecologically beneficial—i.e., to give back to the land as well as to take. In addition to the flavorful pink veal that he raises (truly delicious, as confirmed by Gillian Duffy), Barber discussed his brood of hens. Most famously expounded by Michael Pollan, the instance of raising chickens that peck at the manure of the grazing cows—thereby fertilizing the land while gaining nutrition themselves from the grubs present in the manure—was touched upon by Barber, who raises such chickens on his own farm.

In Barber's case, his brood of one thousand hens follow his sheep. This mimics the natural system of birds following herbivores—a system that is found in so many instances in the wild. Ever the pragmatic idealist, Barber uses the Tyson/Purdue breed of chicken rather than a heirloom variety: the former can produce up to five eggs per week, while the latter, only one egg per two weeks. (His turkeys, by the way, are broad-breasted whites rather than the heritage breeds that much higher in price.)

While Barber freely acknowledged the culinary benefits of having mangoes in the winter, he emphasized the logic of buying local foods rather than having them shipped from faraway locations. (Oil—its role in distributing pesticides and fertilizers, in addition to transportation—prevents the fossil fuel from being a sustainable choice in the future, especially taking into account the rising prices per barrel.) While there was limited time to expound on the matter, Barber touched upon using solar-based systems as the right alternative.

The Importance of Taste

At the end of the day, Barber spoke passionately about the importance of taste in convincing us to alter our eating habits. The rest of the issues—ecological sustainability, humane treatment of animals, environmental well-being—are arguments rather than catalysts for true change. In order to support local movement and farmers, we must prize taste. To recognize that a locally grown carrot tastes intensely like a carrot is the first step. For Barber, our resolution that we simply won't eat tasteless food anymore, or feed it to our friends and family, is the key to real action. Chefs, Barber concluded, are uniquely capable of using the taste tactic. So then are we home cooks, who must also make the same choices everyday about what we buy and consume.