It’s a humid, sweaty day at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. I’m The Public, here to learn about sustainable agriculture, and to pet a few baby goats. There I am, on my knees and digging my hands into the dirt searching for weeds, sporting my Kale university t-shirt and bright green muck boots. I’m joined by a young chef who works at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the farm’s famous restaurant that towers in the distance like a storybook cottage. In his British accent, he says to take a bite of the frizzy carrot tops poking out of the soil.
I tear off a tiny piece of green lace and place it on my tongue. I think this is what ponies and baby bunnies must taste when they eat carrots between mouthfuls of grass.
As it turns out, it’s what diners at the James Beard-awarded Blue Hill sister restaurant in Manhattan are greeted with, too.
The first thing I bite into at the Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village is a feathery stalk of raw fennel. It’s herby and bittersweet, as fresh as if I’d picked it myself back on the farm.
“We suggest you eat with your hands,” the straight-faced waiter says with a practiced proficiency, her hands crossed in front of her apron.
Recently, Blue Hill was featured on an episode of Chef’s Table, the Netflix documentary series that profiles the most revolutionary chefs in the world. Stone Barns is the collaborative effort of a group of like-minded organic farmers and conservationists, including Blue Hill Executive Chef Dan Barber.
The double doors that divide the kitchen from the New York City dining room swing with hushed efficiency. Between the comings and goings of uniformed waiters, I spot the chef. It seems fitting that Barber wears not the traditional white uniform on a Friday evening, but outdoorsy loose-fitting pants and and an earth-colored t-shirt.
Sustainable farming is hard to define, because it isn’t one thing, it’s many things. As Barber says in his book, “The Third Plate,” it takes a farmer with a certain kind of worldview. Unlike small-scale farmers, whose livelihoods depend on making a profit, Stone Barns can afford to risk going against standard farming methods that have existed since the Industrial Revolution. The differences include for example, raising livestock on one hundred percent pasture without the cheap grain that most producers rely on; and throwing out the nature-defying chemicals and pesticides, and instead focusing on raising hardy plants able to withstand the elements.
But for the average local farmer, staying alive requires making a profit. Barber says that with the romanticization of the modern farm-to-table movement, farmers are more and more simply catering to feed chefs’ demands.
Whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. Which is really about an expected way of eating . . . The farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around.
To put it simply, farmers markets are directly influencing the way food is being produced in America. Farmers are growing what they know will sell. And according to Barber, that creates a pattern that ultimately takes a toll on the fertility and health of the soil. In other words, when we grow the foods people want to eat instead of the foods that best support each other as members of a larger ecosystem, we harm that ecosystem. And when soil can’t supply plants with the best sources of essential nutrients, they become, surprise, less nutrient-dense. And less flavorful.
And that is how a carrot grown at Stone Barns tastes distinctly more carrot-y than other carrots.
Barber is one of the first modern chefs in the world today to show us that that it’s the chef who has the power to influence the way food is grown, because it is the chef who feeds us all of our expectations.
At Blue Hill, there is a slow, relaxing rhythm to the meal. The dim lights seem to close in more around the candlelit tables in the hushed grey room as the cool New England summer evening progresses. Our waitress arrives next with the first course from the menu: fava beans layered with silky sweet peas, gooseberries, currants, butter cream and a foam of that tastes of grass and saltwater.
Next are springy half-moon eggplant steaks, grown in the same field as the carrots. That field was a cow pasture back in the 1930s when Stone Barns was a working dairy farm. Rich mineral deposits from manure (cover your ears, lalala) and ongoing soil maintenance programs at Stone Barns keep the field fertile for growing delicious crops. Like sponges, the eggplants soak up a sprinkling of bone marrow and sesame vinaigrette. The dish is completed with a spicy peach salsa that adds a summery heat.
The next dish is a roast Freedom Ranger chicken, a breed that’s not the typical restaurant or supermarket-supplied bird. That would be the Cornish Cross, the product of the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow competition, as the guides on the farm informed me. The idea was simple: invent a chicken that would grow into more meat at a speed that would flood the market with more supply. The Stone Barns pasture-raised Freedom Rangers taste slightly gamier and more like meat than the ubiquitous Cornish Crosses, because who knew a chicken’s lifestyle affects its taste. According to Barber, freedom to roam and the the physical integration of muscle and fat is what creates rich flavor.
The final course is a basket of summer strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, and currants still on the vine. It’s a simple gesture that seems a paradox as we sit inside a restaurant off the sidewalk in Manhattan. This may be about as close to a farm as many New Yorkers ever get, but the taste of food as nature, not just an ingredient that arrives on a plate or in a box, is what lingers long after the meal.
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