Chef Dan Barber challenges Connecticut College audience to cook, eat from whole farm, including waste

New London — If your mission as a chef, home cook or eater is to enjoy good food in an environmentally and socially responsible way, farm-to-table doesn’t go far enough.

“As a farm-to-table chef, you cherry pick, and that doesn’t actually work when you look at the whole system,” said Dan Barber, chef and keynote speaker at the “Feeding the Future” conference at Connecticut College this weekend. “I started thinking about a way to celebrate the whole farm, and that drastically changed the way I cook.”

Credited as the creator of kale chips and "king of kale" for popularizing a once-overlooked vegetable, Barber co-owns two New York restaurants with his brother David, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and is also the author of “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” published in 2014. The conference, which concluded Saturday after a day of talks about soil, the trendy “Paleo Diet,” agricultural trade policy and tastings of local foods, was sponsored by the college’s Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment.

In his talk Friday evening, Barber described experiencing an epiphany when, after years as a renowned chef in the farm-to-table movement, insisting on using the best locally grown ingredients, he met an upstate New York farmer.

Speaking to an audience of about 200 students, faculty and others with an oversized image of a loaf of brown bread projected behind him, Barber told how learning about the main ingredient of the bread took him on a journey to a new level of enlightenment about food.

The farmer, Klaas Martens, grew the emmer wheat — also known as farro — on his 2,000-acre spread that gave the simple bread recipe a flavor diners at Barber’s restaurants rave about. When pesticides started making him sick, Martens stopped using them, and adopted a complicated rotation system to produce the premium grain Barber purchased for his restaurant.

The system cycled through plantings of barley, millet, buckwheat, clover, kidney beans, spelt, mustard, oats, rye and broccoli to boost the soil with good structure, nitrogen, carbon and other nutrients needed to grow the emmer and confound pests, along the way including a crop of organic feed corn to produce the only significant income-generating product other than the wheat, Barber said.

“The nuts and bolts of farming, the nuts and bolts of rotations is something we’re so removed from, and it’s enabled us to eat in a certain way that’s divorced from the reality,” said Barber, a wiry figure dressed in jeans and black jacket who eschewed the lectern to deliver his message in a conversational, spontaneous style. “What I was looking at was a very complex system, and I’m not supporting the farm if I’m just supporting one crop in the rotation. Farming, when it’s done right, supports the ecology.”

Inspired, Barber went back to his restaurant to create “rotation risotto,” for his menu. The dish incorporates the barley, oats, beans and other soil-supporting crops grown at Martens’ farm. Barber’s new awareness then caused him to take his disdain for the industrialized agriculture that is “so deplorable and so destructive” a step further, beyond the way food is produced to the way it is too often wasted, especially, he said, by Americans.

He developed a newfound appreciation for the way other cultures have incorporated secondary crops and waste into their cuisine, instead of throwing them away. In the rice culture of Japan, the buckwheat grown between rice plantings becomes soba noodles. In Italy, the whey from Parmesan cheese production is fed to the pigs butchered for prosciutto de Parma. French country cooking is well known for inventive ways of repurposing leftovers. But in this country, the recent popularity of Greek yogurt has led to “a whey problem,” he said, as the pasty product creates excess liquid that should be put to use.

For Barber, using waste became his new challenge as a chef. This month his Greenwich Village restaurant has been converted into “wastED,” where the menu offers diners $15-a-plate dishes made from discarded vegetable peelings, smashed pulp from juice making, stale bread, fish bones and meat scraps normally destined for dog food.

Instead of creating recipes around specific premium ingredients obtained on demand, Barber now advocates cooks find creative ways to use the whole plant or animal, and let “the land tell us what it wants to grow and figure out how to make it delicious.

“It’s not about single ingredients,” he said.

In response to questions after his talk, Barber urged the audience to diversify their diets and to “eat less meat, but be more satisfied with it, because it’s meat that was raised in the right way.” He sees hopeful signs that American dietary habits are improving.

“Americans are very good at being greedy for pleasure,” he said, citing the rise of the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants as a positive replacement for foundering fast food burger chains.

“I don’t think we’re going back to McDonald’s,” he said.

As a chef, he said, his purpose is as much to inspire people to get into their own kitchens as it is to serve creative foods in his restaurants.

“I take issue with people who say there’s no time for cooking,” he said. “Because really, there’s time for a whole lot of other…” he said, emphasizing his passion with an expletive, “…like surfing the Internet.”

Twitter: @BensonJudy


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