I had the great good fortune to interview Dan Barber before a sold-out crowd at Cleveland’s MOCA last night, talking to him about his fine book, The Third Plate (NYTimes review here).

Barber, chef and owner of New York’s Blue Hill restaurant and maestro of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, is the most vocal and articulate chef soap-boxing for a sustainable food future.

The problem has long been that, while he’s been very good at articulating the problems, he’s never had a realistic solution. Americans can’t completely opt out of the industrial food system by relying exclusively on CSAs and farmers’ markets (much as we cherish them). And chefs must cherry-pick the best ingredients if they are to keep their restaurants filled.

Until this book, that is. Barber, through excellent reporting (how many chefs record interviews with their farmers?), storytelling, and thinking, gives us a glimpse of a possible sustainable food future.

It does not involve dismantling the industrial giants. Barber believes the environment will eventually take care of that. (By way of example, he points to what happened to one of the world’s biggest chicken purveyors when fuel prices rocketed in in 2007–08. Yes, we have a petroleum-dependent food system—sounds yummy, doesn’t it?). And he recognizes that small farmers can’t possibly feed all of America.

It’s the mid-sized farm, 2000 acres and up—those doing, say, $250,000 in sales annually—that are our hope if they will let the land dictate what they grow. They account for 40% of farmland, Barber said, but their ranks are diminishing yearly. Among the heroes of his book are two such famers, Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens in New York’s Finger Lakes region. They teach Barber that they can grow extraordinary wheat only if they regularly replenish the land by planting cover crops that return nutrients that are vital to the organisms that make the soil, a teeming benevolent coral reef below our feet, life-giving to the plants we rely on for our food.

Chefs, Barber says, need to show us how to make use of the cover crops as well as the wheat and tomatoes (the Martens’ cover crops typically sell for animal feed). Barber puts his money where his mouth is, as it were, by serving things like the Rotation “Risotto” at his high-end restaurant in Manhattan, a porridge of rye, buckwheat, and millet, held together and made creamy and delicious by a puree of brassicas (the mustard, kale, cabbage family).

Barber wants us to recognize that we are our soil. What we put into it ultimately goes into us. Our current model of pumping petroleum-based fertilizer into depleted soil to feed plants that would otherwise starve cannot go on indefinitely. He shows that organic farming is not something we should choose because it’s the morally and self-consciously “right” thing to do, but rather because it’s the selfish and self-serving thing to do, the way to create truly delicious food, tastes and pleasures and nutrients that we rarely experience. Read his excellent book for the details.

Thanks for coming to Cleveland, Dan! And thanks to Jill Snyder of MOCA for hosting (next up, the Ferran Adrià exhibit).

And thanks to Amelia Sawyer (and Jonathon!) and chef Matt Danko for opening your almost-ready-to-open Trentina to our group for a truly impressive and thoughtful Ohio-grown meal created by several of Cleveland’s finest chefs and restaurateurs: Fire Food and Drink, The Black Pig, Dante, Toast Cleveland, and Greenhouse Tavern. Made me proud to have them serve America’s foremost forward-thinking chef and NYTimes-best-selling! author. (Had to throw that in there, Chef.)


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© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.


12 Wonderful responses to “A Practical (and Selfish) Vision of a Sustainable Food Future”

  • Mary Sweeney

    Fingers crossed Ferran Adrià comes to Cleveland for the exhibit.

  • Natalie Luffer

    What I have discovered after purchasing two tomatoe plants, once having read that apparently I have never eaten a tomatoe that actually tastes the way they are supposed to taste, is that each day I anxiously run outdoors to grab the few red cherry ones realizing that it is very true.

    There is that sugar-sweet je ne sais pas kind of taste that is seriously succulent.

  • John K.

    Thank you Michael for fighting the good fight. And for bringing me into the fray. I’m not kidding when I say that you and your writing have completely changed how me and my family eat. You make a difference. Thank you…

    John K.
    Akron, OH

  • Morgan

    This makes sense and it’s great if chefs can build a relationship with a farmer to buy produce this way but it seems like this requires a change in business model to work on a large scale. How do I as an individual consumer eat this way? A CSA just with a somewhat different selection than the normal ones? Maybe he covers this in his book. It’s on my to-read list.

  • former butcher

    I’m half way through Barber’s book. What I like most about it is the lack of a preachy, “expert speaking here!” tone. It is disarmingly honest, almost confessional at times. Like when he realizes, too late, that he has served an endangered species (blue fin tuna) to a table of food experts in a vain attempt to win favor; and then doesn’t have the guts to admit the error when confronted by those experts. He has a lot of those “What was I thinking?” moments. And he ventures out across the country and across the globe to investigate how food producers are addressing the issue of sustainability. And it’s from the perspective of a chef, not a scientist or a crunchy granola advocate of turning the world upside down. Going back to reading it right now. You should too!


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  • Catt Fields White

    Thank you for the interview, and thanks to Dan Barber for continuing to pursue solutions. Just starting the book so maybe I’m missing some context, but it doesn’t take 2,000 acres for a good farmer to do $250K in sales; we have farmers in our markets doing much more on much less land.


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