[Herald Interview] Chef dreams of sustainable food ecosystem

By Korea Herald

A visionary chef says it’s time to move beyond the “farm-to-table” model and espouse a holistic paradigm that harmonizes sustainable farming and healthful dining.

  • Published : Feb 20, 2017 - 15:37
  • Updated : Feb 20, 2017 - 15:40

America’s dinner table has been quintessentially defined by the corn-fed, seven-ounce steak, served with steamed baby carrots.

While the dish may be savory, the agricultural practices involved in its creation have not been so kind to the soil, sapping it of vital nutrients.

That needs to change, according to Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York City.

Barber says it’s time to move beyond the “farm-to-table” model and espouse a holistic paradigm that harmonizes sustainable farming and healthful dining. 

Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York City (AP Photo)

His ideas are rooted in a diet of vegetables, grains and livestock organically grown from the local farm, dubbed “the third plate,” which tastes good and also supports the ecosystem behind it. As he describes in his 2014 book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” the concept refers to a meal produced in a virtuous cycle of agriculture and gastronomy that nourishes the land while synchronizing our tastes with those supplied by Mother Nature.

“Over the past decade, we’ve seen the enormous costs of our industrialized food system to our environment and health,” Barber told The Korea Herald by email.

“More and more studies are showing that diverse, holistic agriculture is the only way to feed the world. But that kind of beneficial agriculture can’t be sustained if our diets don’t support all of its diversity, or if we continue to eat more meat, particularly the center cuts, and use our grains for fuel or animal feed rather than food.”

“We need to encourage diets that reflect what our landscapes can readily provide. That’s what I mean by ‘the third plate,’” Barber said. The “first plate” was a classical meal centered on a large cut of meat with vegetables, while the “second plate” comprised meat sourced from freely bred animals and locally grown vegetables.

As a central tenet, Barber relishes embracing a cornucopia of vegetables, fruits and underutilized meat and fish parts, sidelined in typical modern cooking.

“Rotational crops” like buckwheat, millet, barley, kidney beans and other less celebrated grains -- which cycle nutrients back into the soil -- are the main ingredients of Barber’s proposition, unlike “cream crops” asparagus, tomatoes and carrots, which suck nutrients from the soil. By returning fertility back to the land, flavor in food can be reaped and sustained over time, he lays out. 

Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village, New York City (AP Photo)

Barber’s opinions on food and agricultural policy have frequently appeared on the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as on the Food Network and other prominent media outlets. He has received numerous culinary honors, including the James Beard Foundation Award for outstanding chef and as one of the best chefs in the US. 

Previously appointed by former US President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, Barber was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009.

Barber, who grew up on his grandmother’s Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts, said she “saw the intersection between our ways of farming and eating.” His early days on the farmstead became the inspiration for his two restaurants, which offer as signature dishes roasted parsnip steaks aged in beef fat and served with bone marrow and braised beef shank in Bordelaise sauce.

“I’m not an optimist by nature, but I’m hopeful about a food revolution taking place, because it is rooted in hedonism,” he said. “People are discovering, or maybe rediscovering, that food grown in the right way with the right kind of ecology behind it is invariably more delicious.”

This understanding has led to heightened demands about food, Barber noted, with consumers wanting to “know who’s farming it, where it comes from and how it was grown.”

The future food industry in advanced economies like the US and Europe will be based on diversity, Barber projected. Regional networks of farmers, plant breeders, processors, millers, maltsters and distributors will operate in their localities, working together to maximize ecology, economy and flavor.

Soil-supporting crops like buckwheat, rye, barley and legumes will be popular across advanced industrialized societies, he predicted.

“We’re at an interesting inflection point, where people’s tastes and preferences are ahead of the big food system’s ability to deliver,” he said. “That’s a source of enormous opportunities for creating jobs and nurturing entrepreneurship. We need to think about how to scale up these ideas and raise the threshold for flavor and nutrition.”

Barber’s book combines wisdom gleaned from his 10-year tour of the globe. In Spain’s southern “dehesa” -- a multifunctional agro-sylvo-pastoral system and cultural landscape -- he explores the time-honored tradition of producing olives, acorns, cork, wool and jamon iberico, a type of cured ham. Off the Straits of Gibraltar, he recounts age-old practices of aquaculture and tuna-fishing.

Regarding his experience in Asia, Barber highlighted the region’s “incredibly rich micro cuisines” incorporating rice, legumes, vegetables and lesser cuts of meat.

“There’s an enormous amount to learn from these food cultures,” he said “And I think collectively we should be challenging ourselves to think about how to apply new technologies and tools -- from plant breeding to soil science and culinary techniques -- to improve these systems.”

By Joel Lee (