DAN BARBER NEVER met a vegetable he didn't like. Short, round, gnarly, twisted like a pretzel or perfectly formed - all get the same tender loving care from the chef whose name is synonymous with 'farm-to-table', 'sustainable agriculture' and 'one-man campaign against food waste'.
In return, they love him back, growing happy, strong and full of the flavour that nature meant them to have, in the bucolic fields of Stone Barns - a non-profit farm and educational centre in Pocantico Hills, 50km north of New York.
They all take pride of place in his famed restaurant Blue Hill - a beautifully refurbished farmhouse in charmingly rustic surroundings - starring in a four-hour long playlist of chef Barber's creative hits.
This is where he puts his money where his mouth is, serving blue-ribboned vegetables that might have been swaying in the wind just hours before your meal; inventive dishes made from food waste; and specially cultivated squash varieties you've never tasted before.
With military precision, you're served equal parts food and running commentary. Vegetables from the Farm are exactly that: baby turnip, red pepper, fennel frond and baby bok choi impaled on a block of wood, raw with just a light spray of vinaigrette. A Squash That Wants to be an Avocado is a hollowed out green squash filled with mashed flesh and an avocado seed pressed into it. Duck feet - otherwise tossed out but here turned into crispy, hollow web-shaped crisps. Char-grilled brussels sprouts still on their stalks, which you hack off with the provided scythe and swipe through some mayonnaise.
There's a cracker made out of pig's head. Home-made salami. Salty duck liver decorated with a crisp chocolate sheet. To die-for bread made from ancient grains like einkorn, which are milled into flour in-house. Not-quite-to-die-for sunflower stalk served like bone marrow, its insides scraped out and turned into an acidic purée, topped with crispy fried petals and seeds.
You're whisked into the kitchen where the man himself lets you taste shavings of a newly cultivated variety of beet that is sweet without any earthiness. And honeynut squash, cross-bred to be naturally sweet so you don't have to add sugar to it when it's boiled and puréed. It tastes amazing.
There's butter made from the milk of two happy cows who roam around the farm - one is creamy white, the other yellow, but we can't taste the difference. We're also served beef - from a 16-year-old dairy cow. It's a little powdery, with a flavour of dry aged meat. And we try not to get squeamish over the milk colostrum ice cream drizzled with milk jam with a soufflé on the side, which tastes better than it sounds. You lose count of the number of dishes you've had but what you do remember is the uncompromising nature of the food, and its heartfelt desire to connect with the landscape around it.
People pigeonhole him as a rabid tree-hugger out to save the earth but "at the end of the day, I'm driven by deliciousness," says the supremely down-to-earth, unassuming chef. "My endgame is to eke out the best possible flavours. It just so happens that when you're in the game for better tasting ingredients, you are-by virtue of that-also in the game for better ecology. I am a spokesperson for things like good farming and local producers because they inevitably lead to the most delicious food."
The man who has gone on TV to show you how to make burgers out of pulp from juiced vegetables and has recipes even for other waste like salmon blood or skate wing cartilage, adds, "My advocacy for food waste is also in pursuit of flavor. Isn't 'waste' just a more callous way of saying 'overlooked'? What's crazy is that those overlooked ingredients are often the most delicious. Take offcuts of meat, for example. Traditional cuisines herald parts of the animal-like lamb neck and beef cheek-that we consider trash. The way I see it, the first step in addressing food waste is to redefine it as 'delicious'."
Leading the Way
While chefs seek out the best ingredients from what's already available, chef Barber has gone a step further by creating his own.
He started Row 7, a seed company that breeds vegetables such as squashes and beets (hence their appearance at Blue Hill) for flavour and nutrition, unlike conventional farming which focuses on high yield and uniformity. The idea came after he challenged farmer-turned-partner Michael Mazourek to grow a squash sweet enough that it didn't need extra sugar when it's cooked and puréed. To chef Barber's surprise, he bred the honeynut squash, and Row 7 was born.
But his goal isn't just to grow tasty vegetables for high-end chefs but to make the seeds available to large scale producers. That's how he partnered Sweetgreen, a casual salad restaurant chain, to put the hybrid Robin's Koginut squash on its menu. The company bought 100,000 seeds to be planted by its network of farmers - just the kind of result chef Barber is looking for.
"The Sweetgreen collaboration is very exciting. It's less about profitability than it is about making these ideas mainstream. We're looking for partnerships that will help cultivate a new food culture-one that puts flavour first."
Changing the world?
For all his many ventures, the epicenter of his professional world remains Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where the pressure to keep pushing the envelope is high.
"We offer a multi-course tasting menu of 25 to 35 dishes and each table gets a unique menu. It's intense, but some of our best ideas come out when we're experimenting in the middle of service. Chef David Bouley once told me, 'When your back is not against the wall, you'll never really create something brilliant.' And I think a lot of what I do in the kitchen is to create that tension."
Outside of work, his own dining habits are surprisingly simple - starting with breakfast to go while he drops his daughter off at school.
"Recently, I've been infatuated with these oats from one of the best farmers I know- Klaas Martens. Oats are a champion crop-they suppress weeds, control erosion, and rebuild soil. I love the idea of eating something that is regenerative both for your body and the earth."
He spends the day tasting, so he rarely sits down for a meal, although he eats something light like vegetables or fish before service. "When I'm lucky enough to have dinner out with my family, we keep it simple: usually pizza or pasta in the neighborhood."
He sounds like a regular guy who happens to be trying to change the world. Except that's not his plan. "I just want to cook good food."