One very enjoyable way to discover what makes the cuisine of Dan Barber so special is to take a guided tour through the gently sloping fields at Stone Barns Farm in Pocantico Hills, New York. Walking past the movable chicken houses and the year-round greenhouses, we settled onto a scenic hillside where dozens of sheep were grazing leisurely, while a smaller group of newly-born lambs hung out together nearby in the shade. As Barber, our tour guide, explained every subtlety of the farm’s operation with the patience of a schoolteacher and the passion of a chef, I soon learned how important grass management was to a small organic farm like this. Barber also explained to me – I’m admittedly a farmer-challenged city type -how the different varieties of grass instill flavor into these animals, how important the compost is to the vegetables that are grown there, and how all the different aspects of the farm’s operations are so interrelated.
I had never thought much about a farm’s grass, but on that May afternoon Barber encouraged me to consider it the foundation of any successful farm. “This time of year it grows so fast, like a Chia Pet,” he explains as he squats down close to the earth, where the majority of Stone Barn’s creatures spend their life. He finds a small clump of the broad-leafed green stuff, which was so thick and tall most lawnmowers would probably choke on it. “This is what they love,” he says proudly, “this is like ice cream.” We watched the sheep’s progress, and sure enough they were only savoring the types of grasses that Mr. Barber said that they preferred, avoiding the taller grass that had already sprouted seeds. “This is like an over-mashed pod of peas,” he says as he shows us a clump of grass which had gone to seed. “Because all the energy in the grass has gone toward making the seed, all the sugars have pushed up through the grass into the seed to give it energy to procreate. That’s not something that they want to be eating. It’s also not very flavorful for their meat.” stepped back and watched the behavior of the entire herd. These sheep were on a mission, and unlike humans who frequently require a reminder as to what food is healthful, they instinctively know what’s good for them.
It doesn’t take long before we find out why this method of farming is superior to grain-based operations – it’s all in the grass farming. “Drive by any big farm that’s raising lamb or beef cattle or goats or whatever they’re raising. You’ll often see them lying in the same grass day after day, month after month. They’re hungry animals, so of course they’re going to eat this (the bad grass). But the toll it extracts on the flavor of the meat is incalculable.”
As the tour continues, Barber’s childhood summers spent on a Massachusetts farm, along with his Upper East Side rearing and his Tufts education, are all
apparent in his manner and in his knowledge of all aspects of farming – the scientific, the spiritual, and the political. He keeps stressing how important
it is to properly manage the grass. “The more I learn about meat farmers, it’s more like they’re grass farmers. Meat is almost like their side
project. It’s all about what’s in the grass at certain times of the week, of the month, even certain times of the day.” Craig Haney, Stone
Barn’s resident animal farmer, spends much of his time as grass sommelier, matching the different farm species to specific pasture areas in order to achieve
the best results, using thin-wired portable electric fences attached to car batteries to change feeding areas often.
Along with the beauty of the rolling pastures of Stone Barns comes the imperative that the operation remains profitable and self-sustaining. To put this goal in perspective, Barber and his staff have broken down the 23,000 square feet of the indoor year-round greenhouses - the largest soil-to-soil indoor greenhouse in the country - into a simple algorithm: it must produce $1.80 a square foot every two months in order to break even. Stone Barns’ vegetable farmer Jack Algiere uses that number as a guideline, and to a large extent it determines what is grown year round. That suits Mr. Barber fine, but it also restricts what can and cannot be on his menu. “If it was up to me and I was going just by what I wanted on the menu, I wouldn’t be growing 12,500 square feet of greens. Because, you know, I like salad, but I’d probably be growing a lot of varieties that I’m more accustomed to.” What grows at Stone Barns is what works well in the soil there, and what gets replanted by Algiere and his staff every 6-8 weeks. So the growers to a large extent dictate what is on the menu at both Blue Hill restaurants.
While the initial investment in Stone Barns by David Rockefeller, in the range of $30 million, did not go entirely into the agriculture operation – the restaurant and the grounds and the stone barns themselves took much of that – a good part of it was spent on creating a sustainable farm to support the restaurant. While the reaction of many farmers and chefs who visit the farm and restaurant is something along the lines of “This is great, if only I had a Rockefeller behind me,” Barber points out that some of the most intuitive ideas that helped the profitability of the operation have been the product not of a sizable inheritance, but were rather the result of old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity. Eliot Coleman’s techniques - whose books were devoured by Barber while he was at Tufts – helped spawn a number of large and small innovations, including a movable greenhouse that produces vegetables such as leeks, shallots, and spinach nine or ten months a year. Algiere and some of Blue Hill’s chefs built the plastic sheeted structure, which slides around a previously unused grassy knoll on large metal “skis”, for about $2,600 - not exactly a Rockefeller-like sum.
If you drew a picture of one of those circular arrow-ended recycle icons and place each step of the farm to table relationship into that repetitive circle, the last step would be the restaurant, where the food that is produced is prepared and eaten. But the beginning of this circular sustainable process would likely be one of Mr. Barber’s favorite places on the Stone Barns tour - the compost pile. What’s that, you say, a pile of leaves? Not even close. This high-tech compost pile is to the vegetables what the grass is to the lamb and the chickens. “It affects everything, including the flavor of what we’re doing,” explains Barber, “and the economy of what we’re doing, because the vegetables in the greenhouse grow a lot faster with better quality compost.” A specially outfitted tractor blends the combined mixture – restaurant trash and forest refuse among other things– in such a way so that the outside and inside of the pile converge, killing bad bacteria and promoting biological health. “In a sense the farmers become like chefs - they’re cooking something like a soufflé, in a large, very even oven.” The resultant mixture is then brought to the greenhouse, which adds vitality and strength to the soil there. “If the soil’s not strong, then the plant’s not strong, and if the plant’s not strong bugs attack. Bugs attack really quickly, because they see nature is compensating for weakness.”
Farming has always been in Barber’s blood. He spent his summers at Blue Hill Farm, his Grandmother’s 300 acre property near Great Barrington Massachusetts, where his duties included driving the tractors, baling the hay, and then packing it away into the barn for the winter. He went to high school at Dalton on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and then attended Tufts, where he majored in English and Political Science. Although he had done some cooking in college where he dabbled in part-time catering, he never pictured himself doing it for a living. But Barber took some courses in Tuft’s agriculture program, which ignited an interest that had been bred into him from his childhood. “I was reading Wendell Berry and Rachel Carson, all these people that were at the forefront of the agricultural movement, and that kind of stuff was really exciting to me. I never thought it would become a career, I just thought it was interesting. But it really provided me with an interest in the political connections to the way we eat, of which there are many.”
Just after college, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Political Science, and he was all ready to fly off to Asia and write about the Hong Kong handover to China when the program was abruptly cancelled. “It was an accident,” Barber remembers. “I was really all set to go there, and I probably wouldn’t have been cooking now if I had gotten that. It wouldn’t have been a bad thing, but it would’ve been different.”
The disappointed scholar then did what any 22 year old political science major from New York City would have logically done next – he drove to California to learn how to bake bread. Barber “drove across country because I had nothing to do,” and eventually landed in Alice Water’s kitchen, where he discovered that he related more to Vegetables on a fence the suppliers than to the chefs. “I spent most of my time working with the farmers that supply her. There were about eight different farmers that I used to hang out with. But I was there for a very, very short period of time.”
Eventually he surrendered himself to the fact that cooking was his calling, so he came back to New York and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, where he graduated in 1994. His first major gig after he graduated from FCI was in Paris with Michel Rostang. Barber says that the things he learned there, besides how to survive long grueling hours, were discipline, technique, and the importance of sourcing your ingredients. “I got lucky, because there was a big staff change at Michel Rostang, so I got a job in the kitchen. Then Michel was gone after the job was completed, and he offered to help set me up in the South of France, where I toured around different restaurants. It was a great experience.”
Returning to New York with a year of French cooking experience, he was able to enter a kitchen where dozens of well-known chefs had started their careers – the kitchen of David Bouley. “He’s really a master at letting ingredients speak for themselves, and what you get served from him is so unpretentious in its technique and its manipulation,” says Barber of his former mentor. “Bouley is one of the great masters at being extremely humble in the face of good ingredients.”
He worked at Bouley at a slightly awkward time, in 1996 when the restaurant was gearing to shut down, but working at the top restaurant in New York at the time made an impression on him. He had also started his own catering operation with his brother David, and that was taking up more and more of his time. But by the time Bouley closed, he had come away from that experience with enough confidence to help him land a job as executive chef at a French restaurant called La Cigale in the Lower East Side.
While he was working at La Cigale, Barber used to pass a little restaurant on his way to work called Washington Place that somehow felt drawn to. “It was sort of a nondescript restaurant,” Barber remembers. “The owner was in love with having a restaurant in the West Village, but it was going out of business. So I kept going in there and offering to buy it.” One day, the owner told him what he wanted to hear. It had a very large kitchen, so Barber knew that he could run his catering business from it. His brother David remembers that he immediately saw the benefits of not having to drive all over the city to meet potential catering clients.
“We thought if we had this neighborhood bistro that didn’t have a real extra focus on the bottom line and paid for itself, we could invite customers into an environment that we could control, and have them do tastings in the restaurant as opposed to in their house,” David explains. “We leveraged the growth of the catering business that way.”
David became Dan’s partner (and still is), and Blue Hill restaurant was born. It was named after their Grandmother’s farm, which they now own along with their sister and their uncle. The Barbers brought in a chef to help out named Alex Urena, a talented chef that Dan had worked with at Bouley, and who now owns his own eponymous restaurant in Manhattan. Much of the produce that Blue Hill restaurant served came from local farms and the Green Market in Union Square, but they also saw the potential in their 300 prime farming acres in the Berkshires. “The whole point of Blue Hill was to celebrate the Hudson Valley,” says Dan, “but also have a built-in customer for Blue Hill Farm, which wasn’t really producing anything. But the hope was that, as Blue Hill Restaurant became established, the farm would become more established.”
Before long, the restaurant became even more successful than they imagined it would, and the Barbers had no choice but to begin scaling back the catering business. Then, just a few months after opening, a man named James Ford brought his boss into Blue Hill for a meal that would change their lives. Ford’s boss was David Rockefeller, an avid environmentalist and the 93-year old last surviving grandson of the legendary oil billionaire John Rockefeller. They came to eat Chef Barber’s food, and they would later present them with a proposal to participate in the redevelopment of Stone Barns, a proposal that would also be offered to the likes of Thomas Keller, David Bouley, Danny Meyer, and many others. But David Barber recalls that they had some advantages in being awarded this bid. “We had good qualifications, and we had also established some special relationships with farmers in the Hudson Valley that weren’t available in the green market.” Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Ford eventually decided that the Barber family’s passion (the group also included David’s wife Laureen) for freshly farmed food, along with the fact that they had strong farming backgrounds, made them the best group for the project. It also didn’t hurt that they had named their restaurant after their family farm, something that touched Mr. Rockefeller, since the project was all about a farm that his family had used, and was one that he still loved.
The Stone Barns project was a huge responsibility. The land had quite a legendary status, as it was dedicated to Peggy Rockefeller, David’s wife, who had passed away in 1996. Peggy had spent a great deal of her life helping to protect the environment and promoting local agriculture, and was a founder of the American Farmland Trust (www. FarmLand.org). Initially asked to only be operators of the restaurant, the Barbers were eventually offered, and accepted, the opportunity to play a larger role in the development of the entire project. “There was sort of a unique point in the project’s development where we were asked to paint a bigger picture of what might happen here,” says David. “So our role expanded at that point and it ended up being the plan that they went with. That was very serendipitous and it was a lot of work, but well worth the effort.” In addition to running the restaurant, which would be developed within the stone dairy barns, Dan would become creative director of the facility, and David the financial director.
The renovation of the barns, the restaurant, the grounds, the farm, the technology, cost $30M, and took four years to complete, yet the most important aspect cost nothing. The philosophy behind Stone Barns, the principles and ideas that make this project unique, the model it represents for farmers and chefs alike, these things all cost as much as the rain that will continue to water the 90 acres well into the future. Dan explains his philosophy eloquently, using a simple carrot dish, to explain his own personal benchmarks for the long-term success of Stone Barns. “If someone was to come here and experience some of these tastes, like this carrot, and they said ‘I’m not going to buy those prepackaged, plastic-wrapped carrots in the supermarket any more -I’m going to visit the farmer’s market.’ If that happens in one person’s experience here, that’s a good sign that what we’re doing here is worth it. 150 people have the potential to have that experience here tonight, and to me, that’s where the value in this project is.”
Barber has been known to service tasting menus that include vegetables that taste more like desert than, well, vegetables. The incredible taste of one of Barber’s dishes containing a single carrot could be one of the single most intuitive analogies of the sustainable agriculture movement. This simple dish shows how something so rudimentary can be made into something so spectacular. “When a carrot tastes really good, I am willing to bet that there is good ecology behind it,” Dan explains. “That really tasty carrot probably has good environmental thinking behind it. And it probably has good economy behind it, which means that someone who’s growing it is making money doing it, and someone who’s buying it is probably paying a little bit more than usual.”
Good ecology, good environmental thinking, and good economy summarize Stone Barns accomplishments in its first three years, although at first it was a struggle. The recent attention to green issues such as sustainable local food sources and healthier eating has also helped, placing the Barber family’s two restaurants in the limelight, for good reason. “It seems like everywhere you turn now people are talking about these issues, which is exciting for us, because we’re sort of in the middle. I think it’s exciting for us because we’re showing an example of a food system that we could all really benefit from.”
The attention his cuisine has received has been difficult at times for Barber, who is extremely modest and shy when talking about himself and his accomplishments, although he’s quite the opposite when the topic turns to agriculture or cooking. At last year’s James Beard Awards, where he was nominated for Best Chef New York City for the first time, he was so sure he would not win the award he arrived at the Marriott Marquis’ Broadway Ballroom five minutes before the winner was announced, unshaven and not wearing a tuxedo. He was shocked when he won. “There are so many guys and women who are so talented out there that I don’t put myself in that category of Best Chef in New York City. But obviously it’s great to be recognized,” he says.
When asked what is next, the one thing that both Barbers made clear is that it won’t be another restaurant. When the idea of a Blue Hill restaurant near their Blue Hill Farm’s operation in the Berkshires was suggested, Dan and David both said that was not in the plans – although Blue Hills farmer Sean Stanton overheard us and exclaimed “I’d love for them to do a restaurant up there!”
Fear of failure seems to be the driving force behind many great artists and their accomplishments. Barber’s modesty, along with his fears that everything could vanish, drives him continually to seek perfection. “Every chef I know who’s been very successful, including David Bouley, has had a big hiccup early in their career. When you’ve experienced failure, you’ll do anything to avoid a repetition of that.”
What is next for Dan and the Blue Hills team will more than likely involve new developments related to farming, especially since their Blue Hills farm has barely scratched the surface of what they can do with the acreage there, which is significantly larger than Stone Barns’ acreage. The dairy operation is growing, and a new cheese operation has begun. “We have milk from cows that are on 100% grass, and there are very few people doing that. The taste is unbelievable,” Barber says with so much enthusiasm it makes you want to drive up to Great Barrington and buy a few gallons.
Barber also likes to talk about the political side of farming and food production, and compares the outsourcing of America’s food production to today’s energy crisis, where our need for foreign oil has created waves of suffering that has been felt by millions. You get the feeling that all the awards and honors he has received won’t mean much unless he receives the biggest prize – awareness. “If in ten years we’re not seeing other connections going on between some kind of institution and chefs and farmers,” he says, “then we probably haven’t done our job.”
But Barber and his brother have already done their job, and now it’s up to the rest of us to follow their lead. It can all start with a trip to Stone Barns. But make sure you stay for dinner, lest you may not truly be converted, as I was.