When Dana Cowin sat down with Dan Barber for a “Fireside Chat” at Taste Talks Brooklyn—a sister festival to both Northside Festival and Brooklyn Magazine—on Saturday, she acknowledged that a talk about the chef’s work to make food more sustainable and less wasteful food have been too dark. Instead, the former Food & Wine editor declared that she would push the Blue Hill chef toward the sunshine—and he was more than happy to oblige.
“Environmentalism asks you to give up stuff,” Barber said. Instead, what he wants to do is embrace hedonism. While what he does with food at his Blue Hill restaurants, farm, and writing promotes sustainability, his primary aim is to make things taste good.
He illustrated that idea when Cowin asked him to describe what food brings him the most pleasure, and he described the penne he and his team made from the stems of zucchini plants and served with a Bolognese sauce at Blue Hill at Stone Barns the night before.
“I was flipped out about that,” he said of the dish they’ve been perfecting for a while. Now, his kitchen has five crates of stems that will become food instead of compost. This is part of his constant search for the “in-between” crops.
Similarly, at the end of his talk he spoke of the new sunflower “bone marrow” dish at his restaurant, the result of years of his team’s experiments with the giant stalks, previously thought to be inedible. Though the outer core is bitter and unusable (they’d even tried braising it for 48 hours), one of his young cooks decided to cut a stem in half, scoop out its center, blend it with salt and pepper, and serve it in the stem like bone marrow. Not only does this dish create a new revenue stream for farmers, it encourages them to plant more sunflowers, which are allelopathic (meaning they naturally prevent weeds from growing in farms and thus eliminate the need for herbicides).
“What if we could reintroduce the sunflower, not because it’s beautiful and not because it’s allelopathic, but because [farmers] can get a revenue stream for it?” he asked. “The only way they can get a revenue stream for it is if we buy it. The only way we think to start buying it is if it’s delicious. The only way we know it’s delicious is through chefs.”
Barber predicted that 20 years from now we’d be seeing this delicacy sold at Whole Foods. “I’ll be a little embarrassed if it dies,” he joked.
While reducing food waste may seem like a hot new topic, Barber argued that the need to use everything is “baked into” the DNA of chefs. In fact, when he invited other chefs to be a part of his wastED pop-up restaurant in New York in 2015 and in London this year, they all used dishes already in their menus. In this way, he sees his colleagues as having the ability to lead a shift in the culture by showing the public that wasting less can also be delicious.
Barber was at his most animated when discussing his work with seed breeders. Again, he emphasized that his first goal was always to find foods that taste good. The Barber Wheat that bears his name came about when he was trying to revive a vintage strain of wheat from Spain. When he began to talk to seed breeders, he learned that no one was really asking them to make new crop strains for better flavor. He asked one if he could make a better butternut squash, and the result became the smaller, sweeter honeynut squash, now available at stores like Trader Joe’s.
Since then, other seed breeders have called him to talk about what they want to do with their trade. Many of them are growing older, having begun in the 1970s during that previous food revolution, and they’re eyeing retirement. First, though, they want to pass along their skills to others willing to return agriculture to an earlier, more diverse state.
The bottom line, Barber said, is that farmers will grow whatever there’s a market for. When an audience member asked him what we as consumers can do to promote better food practices, he invoked Michael Pollan’s idea that we vote on food three times a day.
“One thing I think we should underscore is to cook,” he said. “By really thinking about engagement with buying produce—if it’s at a farmer’s market, great; if it’s at a supermarket locally, great, if it’s organic, great—whatever it is, it’s really about that connection, because you’re tasting as you’re cooking (or you should be anyway) and with that the education, the solidarity with agriculture is right there.”
Photo by Cole Giordano