LA Chef’s Q & A with Chef Dan Barber about “The Third Plate”

(Originally published June 18, 2014 on

Recently chef and author Dan Barber was kind enough to provide answers to some questions LA Chef’s Column had for him provoked by his new book The Third Plate, and his recent interview with Evan Kleiman. Below is that Q & A. In his engaging book, Barber illustrates through examples, and stories how flavor, food and culture are tied to place. Like wine, carrots, tomatoes, other produce and pastured livestock all have their own terroir that’s tied to soil, the micro climate and what livestock eat which, in turn, helps or should help define regional cuisine. As Barber repeatedly notes in his book, you are what you eat eats, and to have healthy flavorful and nutritious foods, you have to begin with healthy and well-nourished soils that are interdependent upon both plants and animals.

LAC: One of the reoccurring themes of Joyce Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution” that attempts to define “Californian Cuisine” is that chefs created demand and thus a market for produce and artisan products from farmers and other suppliers. Not sure if you read Goldstein’s book, but how did the chefs that Goldstein wrote about like Alice Waters fall short in supporting suppliers when these chefs rediscovered seasonality and farm to table cuisine?

DB: I don’t want to trivialize the incredible work of people like Alice Waters. She did so much to shape and inspire my own cooking, not to mention a whole generation of chefs and farmers.

But we should be careful in labeling “cuisines.” Cuisine to me refers to an integrated pattern of eating and farming created in response to a particular landscape. And that’s something that’s very difficult to find in most of America. I get especially frustrated with this idea of California Cuisine. In terms of landmass, California is bigger than Italy. And yet, as we all know, Italy has dozens of distinct regional cuisines. Why should a place as enormous and geographically diverse as California be contained to one cuisine? Here’s another question: how is it that there are more cuisines in Italy than there are in the entire United States? We need to be thinking about these things on more of a micro-scale.

LAC: Do chefs need to further educate themselves on what it takes to develop flavors of produce by understanding what’s involved to build soils through soil and animal rotations?

DB: The real recipe for flavor begins long before the kitchen. As chefs, cooks and eaters, we need to do more to educate ourselves about that process. We need to stop thinking about individual ingredients and begin to engage with the systems that produced them.

LAC: Since crop rotations are a required part of organic certification, should chefs converse with farmers they buy from to know these farmers rotations to better utilize what the farms have to provide at different times of the year?

DB: A dialogue has already begun between chefs, farmers and eaters. My hope is that we can push this conversation forward and start asking more of one another. Unfortunately even the best farmers are often forced into making decisions based on consumer demand. What if they instead made decisions based only on what nature was demanding, and we learned to encourage those decisions through our cooking? That’s a much more evolved way to look at the farm-to-table equation.

LAC: “Farm to table” is just the first step in reconnecting to and knowing where your food comes from, but shouldn’t chefs go beyond farmer markets to get even fresher ingredients by forming partnerships with suppliers (e.g. Manressa) to get even more unique plus fresher ingredients rather than wait in line with all the other chefs at farmer markets? Produce loses nutrients, and flavors fairly quickly after it is harvested?

DB: I’d like to say yes – after all, why wouldn’t you want a closer relationship with the person growing your food? Why shouldn’t there be more reciprocity between chef and farmer, where we can influence one another’s decisions in the field and the kitchen to maximize ecology, economy, and flavor? But I don’t want to understate how difficult it is. I have incredible respect for any chef who even dips their toe into this stuff, because it’s a much harder way to cook. Of course it’s a much more delicious and exciting way to cook, too. But it’s hard, especially if you’re boxed into an a la carte menu. That system will never allow chefs the flexibility to use ingredients efficiently, and to their best advantage. It necessitates waste.

LAC: With some chefs growing their own produce in urban gardens, can they rotate crops on a smaller scale to build soils to get better flavors? Can you build soils on roof top gardens?
What is your attitude toward aquaponics? I would think this would produce flavorless produce?

DB: I see great value in getting urban communities involved with food production, and I feel excited by the consciousness-raising potential of rooftop gardens (we have a rooftop garden at Blue Hill in Manhattan, and diners go crazy for the story). But my focus is more on farm systems, because I think that’s where we need to focus most of our efforts for the future. That’s also where our negotiations with the soil are most critical.

I’m not very interested in hydroponics (and therefore aquaponics) for the same reason that I’m not very invested in laboratory meat. Can it produce something tasty to eat? Sure, but you’re removing something from its natural context. That’s not a recipe for real flavor.

LAC: If cover crops are grazed by livestock, in place of costly feed, rotated through fields on integrated farms, and that livestock’s meat is also sold to support the farm, then why would all cover crops need to be harvested and consumed on a third plate for human consumption?

DB: Almost any ideal farming system integrates animals, grains and vegetables. Klaas Martens, an organic grain farmer who is one of the heroes of the book, recently added pigs and chickens to his farm; they eat the discarded hulls of emmer wheat left after harvest—essentially a free meal. Klaas also has dairy cows grazing on certain cover crops like clover. The cows eat the tops and the rest of the plant is plowed under to feed the soil. Both are perfect representations of the Third Plate, encouraging more diversity, conserving resources through the on-farm relationships, promoting good flavor.

LAC: You note the dumbing down of flavor [and nutrients] of our food, but isn’t it more of not knowing what we don’t know since most people raised in American “culture” have no frame of reference as to what is actually flavorful? Eating burgers from 20 cows, or 50 udder butter and milk or chemically processed margarine doesn’t exactly develop one’s palate.

DB: I worry that whenever you talk about developing or educating people’s palates, it comes off as condescending. But I do think that chefs can and should provide a context for understanding real flavor. That turns out to be important from a nutrient perspective. I spoke with one plant breeder who’s identified a correlation between the strength of a carrot’s flavor and its nutritional benefits. That’s a powerful idea: that nutritionally significant compounds are the most interesting from a culinary perspective. The problem, he told me, is that most consumers prefer milder carrots. I think chefs have an advantage because we know to define flavor as complexity, not just, say, sweetness.

LAC: In your book you have chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin and Gilbert le Coze who provided a much wider frame of reference as to what tastes good, so wouldn’t you say the role of the chef is to educate younger chefs, as well as diners, of the potential of flavors to get beyond what these chefs and diners think they know to what is possible in terms of produce, and flavors?

DB: The Third Plate points to chefs in particular as curators of flavor because we have this unique opportunity to educate through the context of delight. That sounds like an elitist argument, especially when you point to high-end chefs like Palladin and Le Coze. With its rituals, multiple course tasting menus, and the fussed-over food, this kind of cooking doesn’t usually bring ecological consciousness to mind. But I argue that chefs, particularly high-end chefs, are uniquely equipped for this challenge. Working in haute cuisine gives chefs the luxury to innovate, to be thoughtful about our cooking. In many ways that’s what you’re paying for—someone who is thoughtful and rigorous about their food, and their ingredients. With the food system failing, restaurants are poised to become laboratories to explore these kinds of connections—the relationship between a plate of food and the landscape that produced it. I think that can and does trickle down to other chefs and eaters.

LAC: Evan kept commenting on how special, unique and idiosyncratic the places and people you high-lit in your book were and are. But are these places really that unique or simply more really good examples of manmade integrated systems that work and listen to nature rather than try to impose upon (largely via chemicals) nature? The pump at the fish farm for example regulating flow based on the natural tidal flows. Aren’t there numerous other examples of manmade methods of farming more in tune with nature be it crop rotations or holistic management with animals based or not based on Alan Savory’s bio-mimicry of herds?

DB: Some of these systems are utterly unique, but only because they’ve evolved to suit their ecosystems so perfectly. Take thedehesa, the 2,000-year-old system of Spanish agriculture that integrates forest, grassland, crops and livestock—and, in the process, produces the best ham in the world (not to mention high-grade olives, acorns, cork, dairy and beef). My hope is not that we look at the dehesa and attempt to replicate that exactly in the U.S. But it can still be instructive, and inform how we approach our own landscapes. We need to study the principles that make the dehesasuccessful—a sense of ethics surrounding the health of the land; a disturbance of nature designed to add, rather than subtract diversity; a style of farming that is deeply intertwined with and supported by the culture and cuisine of the place—and ask how can we apply those here. There are many brilliant farmers in the U.S. who are working in tandem with nature to produce great food—Klaas Martens is a good example. But there’s no cuisine in place to fully support them. We need to do more on the culinary end to create a culture around this kind of farming.

LAC: Steve Jones though seemed quite unique in that he hasn’t sold out to the systems in place at land grant universities and other universities that have been either bought by bio-tech companies or are pushing bio-techs for patents to license. The profit incentives for licensing of patents via the passage of the Bayh Dole Act and decisions by the Supreme Courts or receipt of research dollars from corporations has made places of higher education really extended corporate campuses paid for by tax payers and higher tuitions. I’ve gotten into numerous debates with microbiologists on GMO’s who want to see even less restrictions on GMO’s since this will allow their products to market faster where they will profit from licensure deals. I now cringe every time a university professor is rolled out or quoted as to the safety of GMO’s or their equivalence since I understand the conflict of interest and manufactured consent. So how do chefs and diners change and challenge such a well-financed well connected system in place to wrestle control back of our educational as well as government institutions from corporations and others lured by reoccurring licensing fees and profits? What’s your populace mandate? What’s a chef role in such food politics?

DB: Here’s a confession: until about seven years ago, I didn’t really know what a land grant university was. How is that possible? I’d like to think it was a glaring oversight on my part (and it was)—but it’s an oversight shared by the vast majority of chefs and eaters—I’ve even talked to young farmers who aren’t really aware of the land grant system. Part of my motivation in writing about it in the book was to shed light on a system that was established to service regional food sheds across the country. That mission has pretty much been turned on its head due to a lack of government funding. Most public plant breeders today receive the majority of their funding from agribusiness (including companies like Monsanto), which means they are breeding for yield and uniformity rather than flavor, nutrition or locality.

But I think chefs and farm-to-table advocates deserve some of the blame. After all, the local foods movement has largely left plant breeders out of the conversation. We’ve privileged heirloom varieties as paragons of flavor. If we could draw attention to the importance of modern plant breeders, I think that we could encourage, if not more government funding, then at least more grants devoted to the right kind of breeding (including open-source varieties available to all farmers).

Last year we hosted a conference at Blue Hill at Stone Barns bringing together chefs and plant breeders from around the country (95% of whom worked for land grant colleges). It was the first time, to my knowledge, that these two groups had ever come together. What I’ve discovered is that many of them WANT to be engaged — they complain that they have to throw out most of their most interesting varieties because there’s no money to pursue them. We’re continuing to work with several plant breeders around the country, promoting seed trials and chef-breeder collaborations, trying to change the conversation.

LAC: When you answered Evan’s question about breeders at the end of your discussion, I was only half way through the book. You discussing breeding a better crop seemed to echo what I hear or read many bio-tech microbiologists advocate as the promise of GMO’s. Having finished your book, I now have the proper context. But still in regards to California’s drought rather than look to breed a better solution, wouldn’t building soil be part of the solution since deeper soil has better water retention? Wouldn’t integrated farming also be part of the solution since livestock, especially ruminants and pigs, are composters that break down matter faster than simply composting vegetation in piles in brittle arid environments? And isn’t appropriate crop selection important that is selecting crops that don’t require as much water including indigenous crops like lambsquarter and amaranth?

DB: In order to meet the challenges of the future, we’re going to need to marry new, locally adapted varieties with forward-thinking, integrated farming systems. After all, you can’t have one without the other. The best plant breeders understand that the conditions a plant is grown in are just as important as its genetics. If the soil isn’t healthy and well managed, even the greatest genetics won’t be expressed. Our plant breeding, our farming, and our cooking will all need to take shape around very particular landscapes.

LAC: In all the arguments for GMO’s it is somewhat ironic that higher yields for future population growth is part of the propaganda when the crops grown aren’t fed to humans, but the super weeds that have resulted like lambsquarter and amaranth are eradicated by the pesticide cocktails now used in addition to glyphosate. Shouldn’t any local culinary tradition also utilize indigenous plants or hardy exceptionally nutritious edible “weeds”?

DB: Yes! It’s a nose-to-tail approach to the land.

LAC: As part of the third plate, shouldn’t reduction of food waste also be a large priority? Can’t this be achieved through integrated farming where livestock consume food waste keeping it out of landfills? Doesn’t the third plates also do this by expanding what’s edible thus getting comparable yields, as noted in the book, by utilizing all the crops in rotation and not just the “cash” crops?

DB: For the past 50 years, agribusiness has defended itself with the idea that their yields are feeding the world. But increasingly, that myth is being debunked. More and more studies are being released showing that diverse, organic agriculture—with integrated crop and livestock production and good soil management—is the only way to feed the world. Not only is this kind of agriculture is essential from an ecological point of view, but it also often out-performs chemical monocultures, productivity wise.

But we can’t have a discussion about the future of food without talking about how we eat. Those proclamations about feeding the world are based on the assumption that we’re going to continue to feed people the same way: eating more meat, and more of the center cuts; using our grains for fuel or feed, rather than food. What we need is a cultural paradigm shift regarding what we believe we are entitled to eat. We need to eat the whole farm. That’s what I’ve tried to lay out in the book.

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