the next wave of american cuisine -- 10/28/14

Today's selection -- from The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber. Dan Barber, who helped originate the concept of farm-to-table restaurants in 2004, now wants to push his reconception of American eating habits further:

"Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, along with the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, opened in the spring of 2004. ... [We] take the harvests from the Stone Barns fields just outside the kitchen window, or from farms within a radius of a hundred or so miles, and incorporate them into the menu. How much more farm-to-table can you get?

Blue Hill Farm and Friends

"But during that summer evening, the shortsightedness of the system -- and perhaps the reason farm-to-table has failed to transform the way most of our food is grown in this country -- suddenly seemed obvious. In just the first few minutes of a busy dinner service, we had already sold out of a new entree of grass-fed lamb chops. ...

"The night of the lamb-chop sellout, I began to think that the hole in our doughnut was the menu itself, or our Western conception of it, which still obeyed the conventions of a protein-centric diet. Sure, our meat was grass-fed (and our chicken free-range, and our fish line-caught) and our vegetables local and, for the most part, organic. But we were still trying to fit into an established system of eating, based on the hegemony of the choicest cuts. By cooking with grass-fed lamb and by supporting local farmers, we were opting out of the conventional food chain, shortening food miles, and working with more flavorful food. But we weren't addressing the larger problem. The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow. Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer's picked that day (and I should know, since I do it often), but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. Which is really about an expected way of eating. It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops, because if they don't, the chef, or even the enlightened shopper, will simply buy from another farmer.

Dan Barber

"Farm-to-table may sound right -- it's direct and connected -- but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.

"We did away with the menus a year later. Instead diners were presented with a list of ingredients. Some vegetables, like peas, made multiple appearances throughout the meal. Others, like rare varieties of lettuce, became part of a shared course for the table. Lamb rack for a six-top; lamb brain and belly for a table of two. No obligations. No prescribed protein-to-vegetable ratios. We merely outlined the possibilities. The list was evidence that the farmers dictated the menu. I was thrilled.

"And then, after several years of experimenting, I wasn't. My cooking did not amount to any radical paradigm shift. I was still sketching out ideas for dishes first and figuring out what farmers could supply us with later, checking off ingredients as if shopping at a grocery store. ...

"The very best cuisines -- French, Italian, Indian, and Chinese, among others -- were built around this idea. In most cases, the limited offerings of peasant farming meant that grains or vegetables assumed center stage, with a smattering of meat, most often lesser cuts such as neck or shank. Classic dishes emerged -- pot-au-feu in French cuisine, polenta in Italian, paella in Spanish to take advantage of (read: make delicious) what the land could supply.

"The melting pot of American cuisine did not evolve out of this philosophy. Despite the natural abundance -- or, rather, as many historians argue, because of the abundance -- we were never forced into a more enlightened way of eating. Colonial agriculture took root in the philosophy of extraction. Conquer and tame nature rather than work in concert with nature. The exploitative relationship was made possible by the availability of large quantities of enormously productive land. ...

"With few ingrained food habits, Americans are among the least tradition-bound of food cultures, easily swayed by fashions and influences from other countries. That's been a blessing, in some ways: we are freer to try new tastes and invent new styles and methods of cooking. The curse is that, without a golden age in farming, and with a history that lacks a strong model for good eating, the values of true sustainability don't penetrate our food culture. Today's chefs create and follow rules that are so flexible they're really more like traffic signals -- there to be observed but just as easily ignored. Which is why it's difficult to imagine farm-to-table cooking shaping the kind of food system we want for the future. ...

"Not long ago ... a food magazine asked a group of chefs, editors, and artists to imagine what we'll be eating in thirty-five years. The request was to sketch just one plate of food and make it illustrative of the future.

"It brought out dystopian visions. Most predicted landscapes so denuded that we will be forced to eat down the food chain -- all the way down, to insects, seaweed, and even pharmaceutical pills. I found myself sketching out something more hopeful.

"[I imagined a] plate that kept with the [conventional American] steak-dinner analogy -- only this time, the proportions were reversed. In place of a hulking piece of protein, I imagined a carrot steak dominating the plate, with a sauce of braised second cuts of beef.

"The point wasn't to suggest that we'll be reduced to eating meat only in sauces, or that vegetable steaks are the future of food. It was to predict that the future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about cooking and eating that defies Americans' ingrained expectations. I was looking toward a new cuisine, one that goes beyond raising awareness about the provenance of ingredients and -- like all great cuisines -- begins to reflect what the landscape can provide."


Dan Barber


The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food


The Penguin Press HC


Copyright 2014 by Dan Barber


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment