Chef Q&A with Dan Barber of Blue Hill

Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, in the heart of the fertile Hudson Valley, less than one hour from the center of Manhattan, Stone Barns is a sustainable farm, restaurant (Blue Hill) and agricultural education center set on an estate once owned by David Rockefeller. The creative director of Stone Barns is the young chef and gentleman farmer, Dan Barber, who is also the Executive Chef and Proprietor of Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York City, and I had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with him via e-mail. It is worth mentioning that Dan was a featured guest at a cooking demonstration at Terra Madre in Torino last October, and was visited by Carlo Petrini and ended up in the pages of “Buono, Pulito, Giusto”. Before I spoke with Dan, I decided to pay a visit to a gorgeous slice of Westchester County ruralia- Stone Barns.

My host at Stone Barns was livestock manager Craig Haney, who gave me a personal tour and description of how the hogs, chickens, sheep and cows are raised. All animals are fed grass or organic feed with no GMOs, and have free-range of the pasture for most months of the year, but in the winter months, hogs and chickens in particular have their own enclosed yet spacious pens to keep warm and facilitate breeding. Cows and sheeps, the ruminants, help keep Stone Barns sustainable by spreading their own manure around the pastures and fertilizing the soil. Too much animal waste in one spot makes the soil acidic and has deleterious effects on growing fruits and vegetables. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the on-site restaurant, takes leftover food scrap and kitchen waste and makes compost in order to add further nutrients to the already rich soil at Stone Barns.

Q&A with Dan Barber

1. Is a carrot just a carrot or can it be transformed?I’m not trying to transform the carrot, but sometimes the experience of reconnecting to the true taste of an ingredient (not the antiseptic supermarket alternative) can be transformative in and of itself. My goal is to make the carrot to taste more “carroty” – to show off itsversatility while still respecting its inherent essence.2a. Do New York diners care about the provenance of ingredients and do they read and consider sourcing before they dine out?

I think that the good news is that people everywhere, but particularly in New York, are becoming more demanding in their dining choices. They are challenging the conventions of the general food industry by asking where their food came from; how it was grown; how it got to them.2b. Are your diners at Blue Hill (NYC or Stone Barns) obsessed with all the facets of sustainability or do they just want a delicious meal and not think too much about it?

I don’t want to force the tenets of sustainability down people’s throats. I try to provide our diners with a tasty meal and a story of where their food comes from. Even if it’s on an unconscious level, I hope that everyone eating at Blue Hill makes the connection between the food on their plates and the places and processes behind it. That in turn makes people more aware of the issues underlying the meal, and it makes the food more delicious.3. Is the level of composting the same at Blue Hill in New York City as at Stone Barns, i.e., do you compost at your city restaurant and haul it back to Stone Barns? I am guessing more compost comes from your Stone Barns restaurant than New York City.

For the most part, it’s just as rigorous in the city—I drive compost fromthe city up to Stone Barns twice a week.4. In a figurative way, what did you bring to the table at Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre? How was your demonstration received and what types of discussions/workshops did you attend?

It’s great to be able to draw on the experience of raising animals and vegetables both at Stone Barns and at Blue Hill Farm. The same precision and technology that someone like Ferran Adria applies to the plate I want to apply to farming – to the ingredients themselves.5. What type of role, if any, will you have at the Slow Food Nation conference taking place in San Francisco in May 2008? Do you plan to attend?Not sure if I will attend.6. Your two cents on the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, chances of Slow Food expanding beyond a cluster of concerned foodies and into the mainstream?

One of the reasons that Slow Food is so successful and has such apromising future is that it starts with a selfish or hedonistic desire for great food. It’s about reintroducing people to the joys of cooking and eating with the seasons – which I think is fundamental to all of us.

Ok, enough about sustainability and wholesome goodness, how is the food at Blue Hill?

Blue Hill's Greenwich Village outpost is set in a 19th century former carriage house and has a womb-like intimacy. Immediately I was transported back to the restaurant culture of my home town, San Francisco, where food and a warm ambience and a personal touch come first. Everything about Blue Hill is first class, from the flower arrangements, to the warm and solicitous maitre d', to the server who brought me an extra serving of sliced Berkshire pork on the house after noting the smallness of the meat in the otherwise Flintstone-esque pork chop. The front room filled with the happy purr of sated diners and I looked forward to sitting in the center of the action. Instead, my aunt and I were led to a near private alcove in the back, euphemistically known as the "Garden Room". I was not thrilled initially but conversation ended up taking center stage and the quiet hust of the back room worked out perfectly. Amuse bouche shots of green apple juice and delicata squash soup, paired with bruschetta topped simply with olive oil and celery provided the appetite catalyst, not that the prosecco was working its magic already. My two servings of Berkshire pork were succulent and earthy, my aunt’s leg of lamb was, well, lamb-y and barnyard. While the food was delicous, healthy and very sustainable, I was not crazy about our seating location in Siberia, yet we were treated well and given copious amounts of personal attention, and it’s hard to fault any meal chased with a glass of Grappa di Moscato. Next time, I will do a drop in and sit at the bar…Blue Hill is truly a neighborhood place and shouldn’t be treated as a splurge despite entrees hovering in the $30 range.

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