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Earth, Air, Water, Food

An “educated chef” savors the rhythms of nature

As you wind down the long driveway that leads to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, near Tarrytown, New York, Cornish Cross chickens peck at the thick grass on either side of the road. You’ll meet them again later in your visit, perhaps served alongside spicy pea shoots and the first fava beans of the season. The establishment, one of two co-owned by chef Dan Barber, A92, takes the concept of farm-to-table literally. Nearly all the produce and meat served there is grown or raised at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit collaborative farm that surrounds the restaurant.

Barber, in addition to winning star-chef status for his culinary expertise—he was recently named to Food and Wine magazine’s Hall of Fame—has become a leading voice in the sustainable food movement, a champion of local and seasonal dishes and ecological stewardship. He speaks to farmers about the economics of grass-fed livestock. He writes op-eds on farm policy. Now he’s working on a book about food and agriculture. And all because of his affinity for farming. “When you’re close to the source of your ingredients, you’re much more conscious of what’s happening in their life cycle,” says Barber, a soft-spoken, lanky figure in chef’s whites with a narrow face and rumpled brown hair. Thanks to his daily input on, say, what types of lettuces to grow in the four-season greenhouse or how to enrich the diet of the pigs destined for charcuterie, Barber can observe the biology, chemistry, and environmental effects of food production—which, he notes, are “all intertwined, connected to the way we eat and the choices we make when we eat.”

Nestled in the hilly countryside about 25 miles north of New York City, the Stone Barns complex was once part of a Rockefeller family estate that included a dairy operation. The massive Norman-style stone buildings are reminiscent of a medieval castle. In 2001, David Rockefeller donated the buildings and 80 acres of land and founded the Stone Barns Center, which now includes a four-season pastured livestock farm along with an education center for children and adults. Barber’s restaurant, which he owns with his brother, David, and David’s wife, Laureen, is a tenant of the Stone Barns Center, and the largest customer of its produce, meat, eggs, and honey.

The farm’s methods are nothing if not earth-friendly. The poultry, sheep, and rabbits are grass-fed. The fields are fertilized with the help of rotational grazing, using the animals’ own manure. A flock of geese keeps the weeds in the vineyard under control. At Stone Barns, an invitation to see the pigs doesn’t lead to a crowded pig-pen—it means a trip into the woods, where the sows and their piglets wander and root through twigs and acorns.

There is no place for squeamishness on the part of Blue Hill diners. Barber’s cuisine has earned top reviews almost everywhere, and the tasting menu runs close to $100—yet the place is all about the “circle of life.” As enchanting as the baby pigs and lambs can be on a balmy day, the presence of the on-site “processing center” makes it clear that Blue Hill caters to omnivores.

Depending on the season, the menu might offer a tasting platter of Berkshire pork cuts and sausages, or Finn-Dorset lamb chops with parsnips and ramps (aka wild leeks), or the aforementioned Cornish Cross chicken—which is meltingly tender, by the way. But a vegetarian would certainly not go hungry: a spring menu, for example, featured several ingenious asparagus creations, including a single, perfect sesame-encrusted spear-on-a-stick, as well as greens-filled ravioli in an herby puree of tatsoi (Asian mustard greens) and stinging nettle with snow peas fresh from the field.

Barber acquired his feel for the land early on. Although he grew up in Manhattan, his grandmother owned a farm in the Berkshires—the original Blue Hill, where Barber learned the basics of farm work. At Tufts, he majored in English and political science, but was greatly inspired by environmental studies, which he found “a moving, eye-opening experience.” He also took courses in the fledgling agriculture program at the nutrition school.

After graduation, he was supposed to go to China on a Fulbright Scholarship, but the program was cancelled. So he headed out to California with a few other Tufts buddies, and ended up baking bread in Los Angeles with Nancy Silverton at the La Brea Bakery. He went on to study at the French Culinary Institute in New York and worked in France for a year. Upon returning to the United States, he worked for the New York restaurateur David Bouley and at the French restaurant La Cigale. Meanwhile, he had started a catering business with his brother, which eventually led the Barbers to open the first Blue Hill restaurant, in New York’s West Village.

Acclaim followed quickly. Barber was named one of the “Best New Chefs” by Food and Wine magazine in 2002, listed among the “next generation of great chefs” by Bon Appetit, and inducted into “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” by the James Beard Foundation, among other honors.

Today, Barber presides over a food production laboratory that operates from field to fork. Everything is done methodically and scientifically. While the floor of the 23,000-square-foot greenhouse is a lush emerald carpet of young plants, for example, the ceiling is crisscrossed with a network of pipes and wires, as computers control the retractable roofs, fans, irrigation devices, and temperature.

Back in the kitchen at Blue Hill, cuts from the chickens, pigs, and lambs that once grazed nearby simmer in vacuum-sealed plastic sheathes in water baths, a technique known as “sous vide” (“under vacuum”). As an early adopter of this technology in the United States, Barber received admiring attention from the food press—and came under the wary eye of the New York City health department, which has jurisdiction over the restaurant’s sister establishment in the West Village. He worked with the city to develop procedures for monitoring the use of sous vide, and eventually became the first New York chef certified in its use.

Across the courtyard, in what was once the cavernous hayloft in one of the original dairy barns, is the new test kitchen—a result of a collaboration between Barber and Cornell University to study the science of flavor. It is not enough for the produce he cooks to be delicious, Barber says. “I want to be able to tell you why.” He continues: “I know the soil it was grown in had a lot of biological activity from the compost, and I can tell you it was picked at the right moment, and there was very little interference in the three hundred feet it traveled getting here. But I can’t really tell you the chemistry. I want to be able to explain that so people can really understand.”

And he hopes to do the same with livestock. “For each piece of meat, I want to know what’s really going on. Is it the type of grass the lamb was eating a couple of weeks ago? Was it the age? We have a whole database about when the lamb was born, who the mother was, whether it was a twin or a triplet or a single, what grass it ate, when and how it was rotated, what diseases it had, if any. I’d like to break the data down and evaluate it and then better understand it.”

His research, along with his speaking, writing, and other activities—he’s on the advisory board of a Harvard Medical School program that studies food and the environment, for example—make it tempting to label him “the thinking man’s chef.” But he bristles at the implication that other chefs don’t share the same ideas or commitment. “I’m an educated chef, blessed with a depth of understanding that enables me to communicate in a way that others aren’t able to,” he says. “It’s the luck of circumstance, more than any particular intellectual prowess on my part.”

If he chose, Barber could be less modest about this culinary prowess. The food at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is exquisite in its simplicity. On the early-summer “farmer’s feast” tasting menu, there is nothing that will interfere with the earthy flavors of newly harvested greens, the bright, acidy bite of new asparagus, the creamy, salty-sweet tang of homemade ricotta with honey.

And yet there’s more at work here than nature alone: for example, a freshly produced pullet egg—a miracle of taste in itself—is “soft-fried” so that its saffron-colored yolk is still runny, yet the white is firm enough to be crispy-coated. This is served with a collection of minted peas (a verdant rainbow ranging from sage to celadon to shamrock) and pistachios. And who wouldn’t be delighted by the thumb-sized asparagus burger, on a lilliputian bun, sitting atop a sea of sesame seeds in a margarita glass, like a tiny beach cabana?

HELENE RAGOVIN is a gourmet and a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications, covering the School of Arts & Sciences for the online Tufts Journal. In her print newspaper days, she was recognized for editorial and column writing by the New Jersey Press Association. Her most delectable assignment: a culinary tour of the Netherlands.

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