It's all about flavour, and being kind to the planet with sustainable agriculture. But Dan Barber, the prize-winning American chef, insists he's not an ecologist who likes to cook.
"I think all chefs who pursue great flavour have good ethics," Barber said in an interview Tuesday after serving up one of his trademark meals at the behest of French chef Alain Ducasse. "When you pursue great flavour, you also pursue great ecology."
Barber is a leading figure in the so-called farm-to-table movement, a culinary approach that places great value on where and how food is produced and prepared. But he holds some views likely to discomfort some foodie purists. He's not opposed to foie gras — banned in California in July on grounds that the forced feeding of ducks or geese to produce the fatty liver is cruel. He dismisses what he says is an obsession with hard-to-grow heirloom vegetables. And — vegetarians take note — he thinks eating meat is "really justifiable" because growing only vegetables drastically depletes the soil of nutrients.
"It's a fallen world. We eat and sacrifice in the process," said Barber, who says eating responsibly includes eating meat and describes himself as a "limited carnivore."
Barber's mission lies elsewhere, and he's passionate about it: marrying the old and the new and shaking up the food chain as we know it to produce more nutritious food with enhanced flavour that reflects the land where it was grown. That means a new role for breeders of crops and livestock — and a stronger voice for chefs.
Introducing his guest chef, Ducasse, one of France's foremost celebrity chefs with restaurants around the globe, called Barber "the future American star."
Ducasse met Barber by chance in Monaco in 1993 after the young American apprentice dined — alone — at the famed chef's Le Louis XV restaurant, a meal that "changed my life," Barber said. It was a fairytale encounter as told by Barber in the introduction to Ducasse's book, "J'aime New York."
Barber went on to open two restaurants, Blue Hill in Manhattan and a second location 25 miles upstate in Pocantico, N.Y., also the location of his Stone Barns, a working farm that serves as Barber's laboratory and provides food to both restaurants.
Over the years, the Ducasse kept his eye on Barber and dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2009. It was clear to Ducasse that they share a culinary philosophy — creating dishes that exude the authentic tastes of the land, uncompromised by technique.
It was a commonality on display Tuesday, when Barber was the featured chef at Ducasse's "Essential Encounters" program at the Hotel Plaza Athenee restaurant that bears his name. The lunch — for which Barber flew ingredients in from Stone Barns — was a culinary adventure, course by course.
Tasty treats from bite-sized tomato burgers to pork liver wrapped in lacy chocolate or a "fence" of tiny, tender vegetables opened the appetite. A wheat brioche married with ricotta cheese and spinach marmalade was a standout. It was followed by the piece de resistance, a Crossabaw pig from the Stone Barns farm — roasted on pig charcoal made from the bones of slaughtered animals — accompanied by a new variety of squash created by Barber's team.
If an elegant presentation is very much part of the experience, not all of Barber's dishes have elegant names. The brioche — made from wheats that are the "parents" of what will become Barber wheat — is labeled "Aragon X LP3." Then there is the 502 butternut squash.
The lanky 43-year-old chef — named the nation's top chef in 2009 by the James Beard Foundation and selected by President Barack Obama to serve on the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition — is pioneering a new path to flavour by embracing the future while respecting the past. The awkward names of some offerings speak to this work in progress. The squash he served doesn't yet have a formal name, nor has it settled into a fixed taste.
Barber insists his culinary quest is not about genetic engineering, "just modern breeding" married with the best genes of the past.
"In America anyway, one of the more exciting social movements is related to food and sustainability. But my feeling is that we've talked too much about looking back for flavour... We look back to the way our grandfather or grandmother cooked for us," Barber said.
"But in fact I think the way to move forward is to not look back. It's to take some of the wisdom and genetic health of the best and marry it with today's thinking, today's technology, today's modernity."
Key to his method is reconnecting the chef and the farmer and the breeder. "We've disconnected the three camps," he said, and breeders "have been ignored in the conversation."
"Right now, breeders are being told only one thing. ... We want a tomato that can travel 3,000 miles and store in a refrigerator for 3 weeks." Instead, "We can breed for flavour, good nutrition and good yield for the farmer."
Above all, chefs need to make their voices part of the equation.
Chefs "can curate flavours for the future, help decide which direction we're going. I think we have to," he said. "Otherwise, who's going to choose what we're eating? ... General Mills and frozen food companies and companies that say 'farm fresh' when they don't mean that?
"That's why I think a chef's role is so important, because the tongue doesn't lie."
But can his marriage of heirloom and modern genes be reproduced en masse? Why not, he says. He envisions, for example, the possibility of producing butternut squash, America's most popular squash, with twice the vitamin C, twice the folic acid and with more fruit on the vine.
"That's a very decent way to look at the future of agriculture," he said.
"When we pursue great flavour, we pursue a lot of these other very important issues."
Follow Elaine Ganley on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/Elaine-Ganley