I’m currently watching “The Chef’s Table” series on Netflix. It’s a collection of wonderful documentaries about some of the most important chefs currently operating in the culinary world today. The other day, I watched the segment on Dan Barber (@DanBarber if you want to follow him on Twitter). He’s a chef who has spent a huge amount of time whittling away and drilling down to elemental food…what makes things taste the way they taste, how can we breed vegetables, feed animals, cultivate soil that makes the best and most flavorful food possible?
It’s a fascinating question and one that he is answering in a myriad of different ways. He has a restaurant in New York City, Blue Hill, and then another in upstate New York, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the farm where a lot of his magic happens. As I watched the episode and saw him on the farm and in the kitchen (he’s very much still a hands on, working chef), I thought about how wonderful it would be to eat at one of those places and taste exactly what he’s talking about. But, the other thought intruded, I could never afford that. After I finished watching, I Googled the NYC restaurant. There are two menus to choose from, The Daily Menu ($88 prix fixe) and The Farmer’s Feast ($98). I thought, okay for New York City, that seems reasonable for the location and for what I know he’s dong regarding food. If I were planning a trip to NYC, I would put that on the list. I’d probably put a trip to Stone Barns on the list, too.
Then, I thought, but what about the people for whom a hundred dollars for a few morsels of food is not just another planet, but another universe? What about the people who have never seen a pea picked, wouldn’t know a bean plant if it fell on them, and have no idea what veal is, much less where it comes from (Barber is changing the face of that, as well)? I agree with everything Dan Barber is doing, I applaud it. What he’s doing needs to be done and I know one of his large goals is education. I also realize he needs to earn a living, too, and running any kind of a restaurant ain’t cheap.
But. In the episode, nearly everyone I saw working on the farm and in the restaurant was white, fairly young, pretty healthy looking. I’ve been schooled a lot of privilege lately, from trans* friends, to all the horrible things going on in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities. There’s so much privilege in everything Dan Barber is doing. I have to confess that part of me thought that perhaps it was just a little too precious, a little too removed from the real world of hungry people with no access to plant breeders and grass fed meat.
And yet…if you want good crops and ultimately, good meat, you must feed the soil. No one really knows how soil works in the first place, but they do know that the more living organisms in the dirt, the better dirt it is. Dumping tons and tons of fertilizer on exhausted dirt will not get you a better, healthier crop. Oh, you’ll still get crops and they might even be pretty, but the actual food content will be pretty thin. So, farmers and restauranteurs like Dan Barber are totally necessary. People with that insatiable drive and curiosity to ask plant breeders to breed them a butternut squash for flavor rather than shelf life. Barber works with some plant breeders at Cornell University and one of them said that no one had ever asked him to breed anything for flavor before. Well, why do we eat? Of course, we eat for sustenance but flavor is probably the number one reason we love to tuck into a good meal. It tastes great. The aromas and flavors take us places, perhaps back to a well-loved meal with family, or forward into a future that has more such wonderful gatherings in it. Food and eating are not just about shoveling fuel into your mouth and then running on to the next task (well, law students and medical residents would disagree), but about sharing and caring and listening. To cultivate this way of eating is to cultivate the deeper connections between human beings.
For me, the saddest thing about the vast majority of our eating habits is that it’s so rushed, hurried, something to be got out of the way, dishes done, kitchen cleaned, spit spot, don’t dawdle over that plate, I need to wash it! My favorite uncle’s second wife was Swiss. The rare times they visited and I was around, she made mealtimes epic. I remember once we went to Shoney’s (Shoney’s!!) and lingered over the breakfast buffet for three hours, talking, drinking more bad coffee, discussing world philosophy and family, and who knows what else. It is a dear memory, since both she and my uncle have passed, and it was a wonderful lesson about what mealtimes should strive to be.
So, I completely understand what Dan Barber is trying to do. I applaud him for his vision and his good work. I just wish it could be spread around all over, to everyone, right now.