Dan Barber on How Seeds Will Revolutionize Our Food System
In 2010, chef Dan Barber was talking to vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek, who told Barber an open secret that blew his mind: Mazourek had never been asked to breed food for flavor. Instead, Barber learned, the largest food companies ask breeders to select for other characteristics in fruits and vegetables—including the ability to endure long-distance travel, produce high yields, and take on water to increase their weight—that serve the interests of those companies, not those of the people growing, preparing, or eating their products. So Barber challenged Mazourek to breed the ideal butternut squash: a nutrient-rich version that would eliminate the need for the brown sugar and butter he usually added to make it more palatable. The profound result, the honeynut squash, is now grown coast to coast and sold at mainstream supermarkets. In the years since, Barber has used his cooking to raise awareness about the vital roles seeds can play in our food system, and the beneficial impacts they can have not only on taste buds, but also communities and the planet. He is on a mission to quite literally plant seeds for a better future.
Whole foods have played a constant role in Barber’s practice. The native New Yorker’s cooking style—honed at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and stints at restaurants including Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California—favors minimal ingredients as a way of celebrating their individual flavors. That sensibility shines through at Blue Hill, the Greenwich Village restaurant Barber co-founded with his brother and sister-in-law in 2000, and the two-Michelin-starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, opened in 2004 by the same team. The latter sits on the same property as the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit operation that includes a regenerative farm and robust educational programming.
Last fall, after the pandemic exposed major shortcomings in the global food system and forced both Blue Hills to temporarily shift to pick-up and delivery services, Barber decided to change how his upstate establishment operates. He reduced the number of sittings and days of service, and now his kitchen staff, during the extra time, collaborate with Stone Barns to develop new ideas around food and farming. Together with Stone Barns, Barber also launched an ongoing residency program, in which chefs from various backgrounds work with Stone Barns and Blue Hill staff to create a menu informed by their own cuisines and personal histories—a way of reimagining the farm’s food, and of encouraging greater interdisciplinary collaboration.
Barber also applies his passion to work outside his establishments’ walls. With Mazourek, he co-founded the seed company Row 7 to breed other foods for flavor and nutrition, and to make their seeds—which include marvels such as citrusy Patchwork Peppers and nutty Upstate Abundance Potatoes—available to the public. He also hosts educational programs, such as WastED, a pop-up that took place inside Manhattan’s Blue Hill in 2015 and served delicious dishes made from ingredients most of us would consider garbage.
On this episode, Barber talks with Andrew about the distinctive role that restaurants can play in supporting social movements, food scraps as part of a chef’s DNA, and why producing more food won’t solve food insecurity.
Barber speaks about navigating the early months of the pandemic, including starting the community-sourced agriculture outfit ResourcED, and how the calamity revealed serious cracks in the food system.
Barber discusses why he restructured his staff’s time at Blue Hill at Stone Barns to allow for more R&D of the future of food. He also recalls the words of wisdom given to him by Barack Obama.
Barber details how Row 7 came about, and the problem with the global food system’s largest four companies.
Barber talks about his experiences with food growing up in New York City. He also describes his time in college, at the French Culinary Institute, and during his first job as a chef.
Barber talks about the enduring impact that farmer, researcher, and author Eliot Coleman has had on his cooking. He also describes how he uses storytelling in his meals.
Barber discusses the WastED pop-up he mounted in 2015. He also expands on the roles seeds can play in food systems, and on the need for getting them into the hands of farmers and of consumers in regional, disenfranchised, and Indigenous communities.
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ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Dan. Thanks so much for joining us today.
You once said, “Tension is the area where the most excitement is created in cooking.” And I’ve thought about this quote a lot in reading about you, and thinking about where you’re at now, and the amount of tension that must have happened in the last three years with everything. Did you find that you were thriving in a crisis? How did you respond so quickly, stand up so many programs, pivot so quickly in early 2020?
DAN BARBER: Well, thank you for the compliment. I am lucky enough to be partnered with a not-for-profit [the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture] that is very supportive. That makes it a lot easier to be free-thinking, and also have the ability to allow you to act on those thoughts. So, I’m very blessed.
But I do do good thinking when I feel pressured. A chef named David Bouley, who was very instrumental to me, once told me in the heat of service, in the heat of cooking, that if my back wasn’t against the wall, I wasn’t really cooking. He loved to be on the edge. I don’t love it. I don’t feel emotionally attached to that in a way that I run to, but I do see, more and more as I get older, I see the brilliance of that. He said, “If you’re not kicking the soccer ball around, you’re not really cooking.”
AZ: So when things hit in January, February, 2020—
DB: Yeah, but that’s a different kind of tension. Because what he was specifically talking about is, “You’re in the scrum.” So now, you’re in a different kind of scrum. And, I don’t know. I haven’t had experience with that, at least as acutely as we all did in March of 2020.
AZ: But you very quickly stood up this program, ResourcED—
AZ: Which was built to support small independent farms. Why did you feel at that moment, that’s where you should be putting your efforts, and how did you look at the problem, and solve it?
DB: That was just fear. Fear, fear, fear. Fear of failure. It drives—I mean, I don’t know about you. I’m driven…. I had a big failure. I always say that I think the determining factor for how I approach almost every situation—restaurant-, cooking-, career-wise—stems from my having been a part of a restaurant that closed. The first restaurant [La Cigale] that I was a chef at went out of business. The feeling of that is so a part of my DNA now, the fear of it is so a part of my DNA that, just the stench of it, I just—ugh. I do whatever. I scramble. I’m a pit bull to attach to something so I don’t feel that ever again in my life. That was an awful time.
And that wasn’t even my restaurant, and I wasn’t even responsible for closing it. The owner was a coke addict; I had nothing to do with it. But still, the feeling of that, of the people losing their jobs, of the doors closing…. I just remember, it stays with me. When I started Blue [Hill at Stone Barns], I really felt like that was the secret sauce to success. It’s that if you’ve felt that before, and it had the kind of effect it had on me, you would do anything not to have that happen again.
So here I was in 2020. I was right back in the fear, up at night, thinking, This is it.
AZ: But you were not just scared of your own failure. You were also scared of your distributors’, your growers’—everyone you were connected to.
DB: Oh yeah. Me, personal failures wrapped into that. What’s the difference for me? My employees.
AZ: So how did you come to this, operationalizing this? How did you come to figuring this out? This was a very successful program, and very few people were that pointed, and that quick, at figuring out how to fix the problems.
DB: The reason I was quick and pointed in the explanation of it and in the follow through is because I had to raise money to fund it. And what you start to realize, which I never knew, was when you go out to fundraise, you’ve got a moment to articulate your vision with the kind of people who give money—and nobody listens. Nobody listens in general, but people who give money really don’t listen. You’ve got the tagline, and that’s it. So I got good at that, quick. But again, I got good at it quick because I was like, “This is my path out of not failing.”
AZ: Right. And what were the results of that program? Did you see results immediately? Was it effective?
DB: Yes, it was effective because—well, look, we had two hundred and thirty-eight employees or something, and we had to fire, or terminate, one hundred eighty of them. We ended up hiring a lot back, but at the moment, it was very hard, obviously. The ones that we kept had been with me for a long time, so that added more fuel to the fire. I wanted to make sure that we made it.
DB: The way to make it was to partner with a not-for-profit, raise money. A lot of people credit me with this huge success of the program, and I love to take credit for everything, so I don’t have a problem with that. But the truth is, there were two things at work. One was, I had a not-for-profit to raise money for. And secondly, I had a team that was willing to pivot from cooking to packing boxes. They were earning a twenty percent reduction in their pay, and some of them minimum wage, to do that. Most groups, restaurant groups with employees, would just go on unemployment, because they know the unemployment, plus the benefits they were giving, were much, much more, and so they took a big salary cut to do that.
So I get a lot of the credit for being very inspirational and creative in thought. The truth is, if you don’t have the team there, forget it. That doesn’t happen. And secondly, we had to raise the money because the thing didn’t—
AZ: Yeah. But I imagine people don’t go to you for a paycheck. They go to work with you because of the experience.
DB: I recognize that a lot of the reason I had that kind of allegiance was because of years and years of good stewardships. I’m not being falsely modest. But a lot of them have families now, and mortgages, and it was an interesting, difficult time.
Anyway, I’m glad that I was lucky enough to be around an ecosystem of people that would support that, including the Stone Barns Center, which is not-for-profit, like I said. What I realized is that a not-for-profit and a restaurant could be quite interesting partners, which I had always thought of in a transactional situation, which is what we had been. Stone Barns Center is a nonprofit, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a tenant of that landlord. We have a very close relationship in that we buy everything that the farm produces, and we’re good partners. But again, that was transactional. Now, we were joined at the hip, and we were raising money as if it was one program. It was very interesting.
I think what’s come out of it is kind of a model, maybe, for the future of restaurants. Restaurants are in trouble. That’s what’s not being written about. What’s being written about is like, the food waste movement. They talk about the bruised vegetables and pears. That’s the stuff you can see. Restaurants close, or nobody can get work so they’re not open for lunches anymore. The bigger, I think, systemic change is that creative restaurants are bringing about a new food culture, and an excitement around food. In one aspect, we will never go back. I think that it’s gone for a long time. The economics of it don’t work, and in a world where very few people want to work in the restaurant business anymore, for the moment anyway—
DB: And the world where rents [make it] just impossible to do anything creative, I do not feel good about the next few years. I think the powerful brands, and the powerful multi-restaurant chains, will do quite well, because there’s going to be a real opportunity.
AZ: Room for them.
DB: Yeah, room.
AZ: The quote that you had said from back then that I saw is, This “shattering of restaurant culture, this culture that defined a moment, and that’s going to be forever changed.” On one hand, we’re beginning to see QR codes going away and paper menus coming back, little signals of coming back. But what do you think—beyond just the artisanal or creative projects that are happening in the food world—what else is changing in the restaurants that sat through it? Restaurant culture, people going to restaurants?
DB: I think people will continue to go to restaurants because, especially post-Covid, if there is a post-Covid—that culture’s not going to shift, is it? That train left the station. The question is, will people recognize the lack of service, the quality of the food, the decline in quality of food, decline in the overall experience? I think we’re going to be dumbed down to that, because we’re going to be so excited. People are going to be so excited to be eating out, and there’s going to be not a lot of choice. It’s just that the overall definition of what it means to go out and have that experience is changed, and will continue to, I think, be degraded.
You could say, “Well, there are a lot of problems in the world. Let’s not rank that as the top one.” It’s tough to argue. I’m only suggesting that I think restaurants serve a purpose and a cultural importance that happened so quickly over these last ten or twenty years in ways that I don’t think were well understood. And maybe, on reflection, we’ll look back on that and understand it better now.
But I think there’s a lot of potential for restaurants to play a role in a shift of food culture, which is…. Look, if we’re coming out of Covid with an understanding of anything, it is that we’re a very sick population, and very inequitable, but very sick. And the inequity is not only in, as we talked about before, in Covid, in health-care access. It’s just in literal food access. What we’re seeing with death from Covid, ninety-two percent of deaths have underlying conditions. And the underlying conditions are [primarily] obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Three factors, and all three of those are food[-related].
DB: All three are food. Diabetes, adult-onset diabetes, obesity, hypertension—that’s all food. One way to say what I just said is, There is a vaccine that’s not being poked in your arm. It’s food. We are going to come out of this, I think, with a general consciousness about that that we’ve never had before.
I was just on the phone with a Rockefeller University scientist. He said to me, “You take just one of those”—those three that I mentioned, diabetes, hypertension, obesity. They’re often comorbidities, obviously, so it’s hard to [separate them]. But if you could just isolate for diabetes … because that’s the big one. That is the biggest of the three, it seems like. He said, “We took a study of deaths from Covid now, and we related it to numbers in 1975.” He said, “If Covid had hit in 1975, just with the fact that there were so few type 2 diabetes in the United States, Covid would’ve been a bad flu season.” That’s 1975. It’s not 1865.
DB: It’s like, it’s not long ago. And look at our eating culture, and the way we think about food and produce food, what that’s done to us.
AZ: And how cheap food has so much to do with that.
DB: Yeah, for sure. But cheap at the checkout aisle. Very expensive if you take health care into—
AZ: On the health-care side?
DB: Yeah, the health-care side, if you take that into account. It’s extraordinary.
AZ: So you recently stepped down from the kitchen at Blue Hill—
DB: That’s another statistic that I just came across. Sorry to interrupt you, but it just reminded me that, in 1982, we were paying fourteen percent, or almost fifteen percent—fourteen point eight percent—of our disposable income on food, and about eight percent on health care. And today, we spend about sixteen percent on health care and about eight percent on food. It’s totally reversed. The question is like, “Are you ending up paying more?” And the answer, in Covid, anyway, for sure, is, “Man, it’s costing a lot of money.”
DB: That’s very unfortunate, as I said, inequitable, but a very unfortunate American problem. I say, “American problem” because, if you look at our statistics next to other countries that don’t have this kind of propensity to produce food in the way that we do, the numbers are much different.
AZ: But to unwind that, you’re going through a whole political system of lobbyists, of where money’s going and where it’s going to keep us unhealthy, basically, and where it’s not going to keep us healthy.
DB: That’s right. That’s why, in some senses, when we started Blue Hill, we were called the farm-to-table, defining farm-to-table. And twenty years ago, I believe that was very important to demonstrate. Even though it was not a new idea, it was an idea that could be demonstrated in a way that was deeper. And that’s what Blue Hill’s named after—my family farm, and the connection to that for my brother [David Barber] and I, who started the restaurant together [along with my sister-in-law, Laureen Barber]. And we did dig deep into that idea, but I think—maybe it’s Covid, and maybe it’s just my state of mind—but I would suggest that that kind of thinking, for which I wrote a book [The Third Plate] and I spent my life devoted to this farm-to-table idea, is not enough now.
People always say, “Well, what can you do? What can you do to fight this?” And I always talked about.… Michael Pollan has this great quote: “We vote with our forks and we vote three times a day.” And that’s a very strong way to advocate for food. You know, I don’t believe that anymore. I just don’t believe it. We are now in a world where the corporate interests and consolidation is such that that’s just not true anymore. You don’t stand a chance, and especially in the inequities and access. But even without that, the system needs an absolute reset. And if Covid isn’t the moment where we start to understand that and see that, I don’t know what is.
AZ: Because it was so visible.
DB: So visible. It’s so visible on our health, and it’s so now visible on our environment, which it was for a long time, but it seems like that’s now entered our consciousness. So this is a real inflection point. Where do you go?
Everyone’s recognizing that we cannot produce food this way. We can’t eat this way. So now there’s a whole slew of opportunities for people to invest in alternate food systems. It’s a very interesting time to be in this world, actually, because I think a lot that’s being…. The food’s going to change more in the next ten years than the last thousand years, I think. And what direction that goes is going to be very important for your three children.
AZ: Yeah. So, you reopened Blue Hill at Stone Barns about two years after lockdown. But you changed it. There’s a new program. You kind of reset. You stepped down from the kitchen.
DB: I stepped down for those two years. During that interim, we did this box program. We brought in other voices, other chefs, to take over the restaurant, and I just learned. I did a lot of learning.
AZ: Yeah. I’m curious about how you spent that time, and what that sabbatical gave you.
DB: My memory of it is very nice, that I had that time, but also filled with regret that I didn’t take more advantage of it. I spent a lot of time fundraising. It was a lot of time. I was a very inefficient fundraiser, I think.
AZ: You’re new to it.
DB: Yeah, that’s my excuse. I was. I actually ended up being okay at it, but I was inefficient. It reminds me of that…. I don’t know if you ever saw the Cheers episode where Norm, the big drinker, was hired for a firm that fires employees. His first day on the job, he has to fire this middle-aged man. He sits down with him and he goes to fire him, and he starts breaking down crying. The guy who he is firing is comforting him, and he is saying, “I’m so sorry, I have to fire you.” And he says, “Oh, please. Don’t worry about it.” The next day, he comes in to hand in his resignation, and says, of course, “I cannot do this job.” And his boss says, “Are you kidding me? You’re unbelievable. The guy called me this morning to check in to see how you were doing. He wanted to make sure you were okay.”
That’s kind of like the way I was with raising money. I was like, “Please don’t give us money.” I felt so guilty asking. What ended up happening—and this was not a conscious plan, this just was an accident—is that people felt they weren’t being taken advantage of, because they weren’t. I was laying out a vision for what a restaurant could be for the future.
Anyway, I didn’t do the bold ask. I did the very, “Why don’t you sit back and watch us? I promise you, in six months, I’ll bring you back….” And people were like, “No, no, no. I want to support now.” It’s great.
DB: It was a very good, big learning experience on how one would do that. Not that I ever want to go into professional fundraising, but that was interesting.
AZ: And coming out of that, what changed? What is the new version?
DB: The new version is, I like to say, sixty percent restaurant. We’re not a hundred percent. We’re a sixty-percent restaurant. So what are we doing with the other forty percent of the time? Well, first of all, we’re not going back to the days when our cooks came in at ten o’clock in the morning and we prepped all day. We had meetings and prepped all day for service, and then did service at five o’clock, did the first seating, which would end at nine, and then do the second seating, which was about ten to about one in the morning.
Cooks would clean up, and be out of the restaurant by two, be back by nine-thirty. We did that Wednesday through Sunday. On Sunday, we worked a double, where you’d leave Saturday night at two in the morning and you’d be back at eight in the morning, and then you’d work all the way till one in the morning. It was a very, very difficult service, or week, and I’ll never go back to that again. I have no interest in that. I don’t know that people would want to do that anymore.
So, we’ve changed it completely. Now it’s four days a week instead of five, and we do one seating. So we sit at five o’clock, and we stop seating at seven, and that’s it. Cooks are, for the most part, out by eleven-thirty or twelve. They’re home by twelve, which is how I wanted it. And with the extra time in the day that we have, because we’re only doing forty diners a night instead of a hundred diners a night, we’ve become an education center around gastronomy, around culinary. We’ve become an R & D laboratory for ideas related to good farming.
We have increasing language for what good agriculture should look like. We know that cover crops are important; we know that regenerative crops are important. We know that diversity is critical, critically important. Different families of vegetables on an organic farm have always been critical. But for an ecosystem functioning, you have to have diversity, otherwise you run to all sorts of problems. The only way to do it is to prop it up with chemicals, which we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. I think that’s become a mainstream idea. What hasn’t become a mainstream idea is that, in order for farmers to farm regeneratively—everything I just said is regenerative—
DB: You have to eat it. You have to figure out a way to inculcate that into the everyday habits of people who eat. Otherwise, what are you talking about? Seriously. Regenerative farming by making degenerative food products? Well, that’s not going to work for very long. If we don’t figure out a way to eat with the kind of diversity that truly supports the landscape, then, well, there really is no hope.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people, smart people, who don’t buy into that idea, and are going in a different direction, which is technological, which is, you know, hydroponic farming or Impossible Burger kind of ideas that seem like catnip for people who have a lot of money, and you can then see a future and investment and feel good about it. But I don’t buy into it. So, I wanted to devote a portion of our intellectual capital in not just producing more dinners—largely for rich white people—and instead produce the kind of ingredients that our local ecology demands us to grow, and then figure out, How do we create ideas around food, and popularize them?
And that is a collaboration with Stone Barns, again. So that’s why I said the seed of what we’re doing now really started in that desperation moment, which is why I think when your back’s against the wall, you come up with ideas that you would not have thought of.
So now, here I am again, raising money. I said I’d never do it again, but I really am. To cover the forty percent of our sixty-percent restaurant, I’ve got to raise money. The center is paying us to do this research and development and to run these education programs to the public, and to partners, and to disenfranchised communities who are partaking in all this research and education. But I’ve got to raise money, so I’m out there fundraising, which is—
DB: Storytelling. Storytelling. That’s all there is. I just got through telling about facts, but fact is, we’re in a post-truth world, aren’t we? Facts don’t matter. There’s only stories, that’s it. So that’s what I do. That’s my donor pitch. It’s just storytelling, telling a story. Luckily, we’re in a moment where there’s a very good story to tell. Because like I said, I really do believe there’s an inflection point. Where are we going here? And what have we learned coming out of this horrific moment? I think food is at the center of all this.
AZ: Well, we were talking about how Covid just made the cracks in these systems so visible: issues around commercialized food, supply chains. We understood that very early in the pandemic. And then food insecurity, which came a little bit later, but became very, very important. So, for real change to occur, back to what we started with, at the local level, doesn’t it have to really just start federally? How are these big shifts going to happen? How are we going to solve these? You model it, and you show, “This is possible, this is how we should be thinking about it.” But where is the real shift going to come from?
DB: Do you think politicians are going to take the lead on this, really?
AZ: No, I don’t. I’m saying the storytellers have to model it. What’s going to need to happen in politics?
DB: It’s going to have to get a groundswell of support.
AZ: Public support.
DB: Yeah. Oh yeah. And that’s the culture. It needs to be demanded. I’ll never forget when I had the chance to cook for Barack Obama and Michelle. It was the night before their inauguration, the last night they were in their Chicago home, and it was just me and them and this guy named Sam Kass, who ended up being the White House chef, and also instrumental in some of the food policies that the Obamas adopted and put forth. So he had me come and cook for them, this last night they were in their Chicago home. It was an amazing night, and a lot of talking about agriculture, and farming, and ideas around what the future could look like. This was 2008, remember. So it’s like, the Middle Ages. These ideas that we’re talking about now were not mainstream. They were pretty on the fringe. We had this good-spirited conversation. I got pretty exercised. I thought it was my one moment to make my case. How many times are you going to cook for Barack Obama before his inauguration now?
Anyway, I left, and I got in the car, and I realized I left my keys. I don’t know what happened. I went to the bathroom at some point, and I remember hearing something drop out of my pocket. For some reason, in the car, I just remembered, Oh, my god. I dropped my keys by the toilet in Obama’s house. So I went through the Secret Service. I was like, “I’m sorry, I dropped my keys.” I walk into the house again to go grab my keys. There’s Obama in his pajamas, drinking a glass of orange juice. It was probably like one in the morning or whatever. I get my keys, and he comes over to me. He puts his hand on my shoulder and he said, “What you were talking about, with change in agricultural policy, those guys”—and when he said “those guys,” he was talking about these Senators in red states who really controlled, back then, still today, pretty much control the whole food system. And he’s like, “Those guys scare me. I’m not getting near them.”
I remember right at that moment thinking, Your popularity right now is like ninety-nine point nine-nine percent. You’re more popular than Jesus Christ, and yet you’re saying that you can’t touch those guys? That was a big revelation. The second thing he said to me as I was leaving was, “But you can create the kind of groundswell that will make me do the things that you’re talking about. Don’t wait for me to do it. Make me do it.”
That was a big moment for me. Because what he was saying, which was obvious, is that politics move when there’s a groundswell of democratic expression. And that’s a big lesson for an idealist who believes that politicians, even ones like Barack Obama, will move mountains. What he was saying is, at his height-of-height of powers, “I know that I can’t do it. And so much so that they even scare me. I don’t want to go near it. So you do your work. Don’t be lazy. Do your work, and then I will follow, but you have to give me the reason to follow.” Okay. He’s right. And that’s what needs to happen. One could argue that during the eight years that Obama was president, we—meaning anybody who was involved in activism—didn’t do a good enough job. We didn’t.
AZ: But you were invited. You were there, you were part of the—
DB: I had a sort of whatever seat at the table. But I would even say that was sort of meaningless in the sense of…. Personally, it was very enjoyable, or flattering, but if you now look back on it, you realize what he said that night, it was like, “Go into your kitchen, and do the kind of activism that needs to be done.” He wasn’t just talking to me. He was talking about everybody who works on this.
DB: Not just white-tablecloth restaurants, obviously, everybody, bottom up and top down. My point is, I think now, here we are twelve years later, and the very issues we were talking about then have just come to fruition, the kind of predictions that one was making about health, and processed food, and the strength of multinational food companies, and the influence-peddling, and all that stuff. It is so ranked up now compared to…. It was like baby steps back then.
AZ: Totally. And you track that all the way through seeds. When the beginning of lockdown happened, many of us, who were fortunate, had their first gardens. It’s not something a lot of people did, but all of a sudden…. It came with sourdough, right? People started gardening.
AZ: Row 7 is a seed company you have that you started with Michael Mazourek. Some would say now, it’s like seed-to-table movement, not farm to table, in a way. How did Row 7 come together? Why did you get interested in seeds? And what did you find when you opened up that Pandora’s box?
DB: Yeah. Well, that Pandora’s box is a box that.… It’s a rich Pandora’s box. It’s one that I’m never getting out of. I got into it because my … this is something that takes a second to unpack. But maybe just to simply say that my food’s very simple, that’s all. It’s just very simple. I’m looking at a guitar, so I’ll just say it’s “unplugged.” If there’s more than three ingredients on my plates, I get itchy. I don’t like that stuff. That never appealed to me. And I’m not good at marrying multiple layers of ingredients. What I am good at is getting to a moment, and it’s a fleeting moment where broccoli is at its perfect thing. And if it’s grown right, it can really be jaw-dropping in its impact.
But you have to control a lot of variables, and you have to make sure that you’re not marrying too much or layering too much. Because that is my cooking philosophy. I really started with getting the freshest broccoli, let’s say. But then it led to, “Well, which farmer is growing the broccoli that I actually liked last night?” And then, “What kind of soil was that broccoli from?” Because man, you could really, really tell the difference. And by the way, if that soil—you could tell the difference—was it organic or not? It was always organic. Always, always, always. It’s like peeling an onion. Well, the next layer and the layer which opens the box is, “What’s the seed?” Because the seed was also the determining factor. The farmer was important, when the farmer picked it was important, how I cooked it was very important. But if you have the wrong seed, you are cooked. You are cooked from the beginning, to capture what I’m talking about. That’s what I was after.
As I said, chefs are pit bulls. For flavor, especially, we’ll do anything. And since I couldn’t hide.… I’m just saying, that’s the way I express my art. I’m not saying it as a proud thing. I am in awe of chefs that can do complicated calculus on dishes. I’m in awe of it. Especially when it works—it’s a genius I don’t have. So I went and I recognized that, and if I did anything smart, it’s that I went very dogged in making sure that when I present my simple plates, that they really sing. And part of that was to go into seeds.
So I started just getting to know breeders, and then I invited this guy, Michael Mazourek, who you mentioned and became my partner of the seed company, for dinner. At the end of the meal, I invited him back to the kitchen. We were standing there, and one of my cooks was preparing a butternut squash in a regular, workaday [way]…. Butternut squash is, like, eighty-five percent of the squash market. I was like, “If you’re such a great breeder”—I’d heard he was very talented—“why don’t you breed a butternut squash that actually tastes good? Why are we told to add brown sugar, and maple syrup, and butter, and all this stuff to make the squash taste like squash? Why don’t you just breed the thing if you’re so good?”
And he got all serious on me. I remember he adjusted his glasses, he looked at my face. He’s like, “I’ve never bred a butternut squash that tastes good because I’ve never been asked to breed for flavor.” That was 2010, and at this time, it was in February of 2010, I think there’s a before-and-after moment for that for me. I can imagine the curtain coming down because that was like, “Well, who the hell are you talking to, dude?” And then of course you learn, well, breeders are talking to the industry, and in the industry, flavor’s not a determining factor, for sure. Long-distance travel is. Yield is. Those things, when you select for them at the expense of flavor, you get very dialed in, very consistent vegetables and grains, but you don’t get the kind of thing that chefs look for, and that chefs who plate simply really need.
So I started working with breeders, and Michael, and then three years later, with Michael, anyway, he brought this squash that was a shrunken butternut squash, which turned into the honeynut, which, today, is grown coast to coast. We trialed it in the kitchen and I was talking about it with everyone I knew, and a lot of chefs around the country started to be very excited about it. It’s a squash that’s one-third the size of a butternut squash, but it has like ten thousand times the flavor. It’s so jaw-droppingly delicious on its own. You just bake the thing. It’s a marvel.
A “marvel” sounds like there’s some kind of mystery or magic to it. And in fact, the truth is, it’s just about, What are you telling the breeder to breed for? If you’re telling the breeder, “I want this jaw-dropping flavor,” then the breeder will do that. The yield is a little bit less. Actually, it’s not that much less. This isn’t an elitist squash. This is a squash that’s now sold at Costco. So you’re not talking about a squash that’s just for Dan Barber and the white-tablecloth restaurant. You’re talking about squash that’s for everyday eaters. And by the way, not only will it change your opinion of squash—and it will—it has a nutrient density that is unparalleled. One spoonful of our squash has three hundred percent more beta carotene than a butternut squash. And you start to realize that—
AZ: And a third of the size.
DB: Third of the size. So it’s more money when you pick it up at the weight per pound, but it’s a lot more squash because it’s not filled with water. In some ways, that’s the secret of the breeding work. It’s that you’re not breeding for water, because that’s what vegetables are bred for. They’ve been bred to take on water because water’s weight, and weight is where they make the money. And you’re shipping cross-country. That’s a very profitable business, and which is how our food gets cheap. But you’re not farming for nutrients or quality. You’re farming for water, and that’s what a butternut squash is.
I want to remind you, and I’m sure you already know, butternut squash is a superfood. So imagine what this honeynut, which is now in Costco and grown across the country and people have access to, everyday people have access to. What do you call that? A super-duper-duper food. I don’t know.
So that’s why I started the seed company. I started to see there were dozens more breeders out there who had this kind of deliciousness in their desk drawers, literally, but the industry has said to them, “We don’t want that.” So, what’s the responsibility of chefs? It’s to champion the ignored—
DB: And the belittled. Which is what the industry does: it belittles. Flavor’s under siege. That’s just not a thing that anybody is interested in. Except, you’ve got a group of Gen Z-ers and millennials who, that’s what they want. They want food with a story. They want food with flavor. They want to know where the food comes from. Oh, shit—that’s a very big groundswell. So that’s interesting. And that’s why I say, “We’re at this crossroads,” because food companies recognize this, and that’s why there’s just a wholesale shift in what it means to be an agribusiness company, what it means to be a seed company.
Look, today, sixty-four percent of our food supply is in the hands of four companies, Sixty-four percent. Sixty-four percent of all seeds, which is our food supply around the world. I’m not just talking about America. Around the world, four companies. That’s more consolidation than anything close in the history of the world, in terms of seeds. There’s never been anything like it. Look, the first seed company was a hundred years ago, so let’s just remember that. There were no seed companies in the early 1900s.
AZ: It stayed within communities.
DB: Yeah, communities. You traded seeds. Seeds were free. Farmers collected seeds. You save your seed, and you give it to your neighbor. And the ones that are really good, you pass on for generations, and today, they’re called heirlooms. But that seed company is just a whole new megillah. Now, there’s four that control … it will be seventy percent of our food supply by the end of this decade, for sure, unless we do something dramatic.
AZ: There’s four companies, and then there’s Row 7.
DB: Yeah, there’s a handful of Row 7s out there that are the David versus the Goliath. But hey, the four companies aren’t seed companies. They’re chemical companies. Bayer, and ADM, these are not seed companies. These are chemical companies that own seed companies because they sell you the chemical. Let’s just say what it is.
It doesn’t make you hungry thinking that our world’s food supply is in the hands of four chemical companies, does it? No. And the seeds are the way in. It’s the Trojan horse. Because once you buy their seeds, you’re hooked on a chemical cocktail to support those seeds. That’s the problem. That’s why you say, “Well, you kept unpacking and got into seeds, from seed to table.” But if you don’t start with the seed, then you’re starting with a seed that’s dependent on a chemical environment, which is going to degrade the soil, degrade the health of the vegetable, degrade the flavor. And what hope do you have? So if you’re naked on the plate, as I am, you’ve got to start with seed, because otherwise, as I said, you’re cooked before it leaves the ground.
AZ: So you were born in New York City.
AZ: And you grew up on the Upper East Side.
AZ: And you spent all this time at your family’s farm in Great Barrington?
AZ: Is this where you first touched this idea of farming and agriculture? When you think back, how did the farm shape the way you see it? Did you think of yourself as interested in these things at the time, or is it just what you were doing?
DB: I think it was a slow inculcation. No one was batting me over the head saying, “You’ve got to….” It was my grandmother’s farm. She didn’t even know anything about farming. It wasn’t farming. We had some people farm the land, which I worked with—this great family that taught me everything. But she was just interested in open space. She was interested in beauty and aesthetics. And cows are a great way to preserve open space. So we tended to cows.
AZ: You had this farm that you went to, but also this Upper East Side upbringing. Were you going to fine dining? Were you from a family that cared about food?
DB: My mother died when I was very young, and my dad was in the toy business, and he would entertain clients all the time. My dad loved food, too, and loved restaurants, but would often do deals, or end of deals, or beginning of deals, in restaurants. And I was always with him. So, yeah. My education was in fine dining.
AZ: And what were some of the restaurants that you went to all the time on the Upper East Side?
DB: Well, I was going to Le Cirque, [then helmed by] Daniel [Boulud], in the early, early days. LaCaravelle. This is about the eighties, and late seventies. My dad traveled a lot, so I was off in Europe. I don’t mean to depict a rarefied existence. My dad actually grew up in the Depression, and also lost—was fired—and started his own company, when he had three kids, and was really in very bad shape. But at the company’s expense, he was going out to these dinners. It was the best education possible. It’s like being a writer and reading a lot of books before you become a writer. I got this education and—
AZ: Which is unique to a New York upbringing, in many ways.
DB: For sure. And also, too, an upbringing where you’re at business dinners when you’re 9 years old.
AZ: Exactly. Yeah. On a corporate credit card. But was there a cooking culture in the house?
DB: No. My dad was a terrible cook. But he loved food. So is that … is it not a cooking culture? But it’s a food culture. He used to have someone come in once or twice a week, and cook some meals for us And food, like ordering in…. That was the start of, like, Chinese food, where you could order it in. So a love of food, but it was lowbrow and highbrow, too, very lowbrow and highbrow. Everything was very democratic.
AZ: Food and memory are so closely connected. Are there certain tastes that take you back to these early experiences with food?
DB: Well, my dad, him being an awful cook, he would try and cook, like, scrambled eggs for me in the mornings. Man, his eggs were so bad. Oh, my god. They were so overcooked and so dry. So that’s a memory for me. But it’s only a memory for me because my aunt Tobe was an amazing cook. She went to Le Cordon Bleu, and she was very French-influenced.
I remember being sick with strep throat when I was 12, and I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t swallow. But she made me scrambled eggs, whisking over a double boiler. You said, “What food memories?” I just remember the eggs sliding down my throat, and the transformational moment of seeing, feeling, understanding food is medicine. Food is power. Food is love. I can still taste the eggs going down my swollen throat.
In retrospect, I wouldn’t have appreciated Tobe’s eggs if it hadn’t been for my dad’s. I really have my dad to thank for that. So it’s the two things: Your understanding, appreciation, and perception of things is so determined [by] what you’re introduced to.
AZ: And the condition you come from, these forces.
DB: Yeah, sure.
AZ: The egg thing’s funny, because isn’t that what chefs—when you go to hire someone in your kitchen, isn’t it that you have them make an egg?
DB: You have them make an omelet.
AZ: An omelet.
DB: So it’s an egg, but it’s a very particular skill to make a great omelet. It’s considered necessary, and the sign of somebody who has a feeling for skill.
AZ: You’re so oriented to education and learning. This is kind of everything, whether it was food…. I feel like if you were doing anything, you would be really looking for where the upstream values were, where the education is. Were you a good student?
DB: I was okay. I did actually work hard. I was surrounded by some friends who were super smart, and I always felt like I struggled to…. They all went to very, very good colleges. I went to Tufts. I was fine, but I had to work very hard. And that doesn’t answer your question. Where does the curiosity come from? And maybe you’re right; maybe it would be that way for anything. But in food, it’s endless. It’s just endless. It’s culturally, historically, scientifically, agriculturally. It’s just, everywhere you look, there’s ways to think of and enrich yourself.
AZ: As a high school kid, though, were you particularly interested in something? Because you hadn’t really found food yet.
DB: Well, I had to cook for myself a lot, too, as I got into high school and my dad stopped going out as much, I guess. I don’t know. I felt like I was, actually, always, during all of those years, I was cooking a lot myself. So was I interested in food? I don’t know. In college I cooked a little bit for some extra money, and I dabbled in it from the beginning, in actual cooking. But I didn’t think I’d ever be a chef, if that’s what you’re—
AZ: And you went to Tufts, and you were studying literature?
DB: Yeah. English major, and political science. It wasn’t food.
AZ: And you thought you might be a novelist?
DB: Right. Yeah. You’ve done your research. I sat down, I left college to write a novel, and I was baking bread. You say that, and I just remembered: My thought was, because I needed to earn money, so I was like, Okay. I’m going to bake bread at night and I’ll write during the day. I literally never stopped to think, But when do you sleep? But that’s what happens when you’re in your early twenties. You’re just filled with whatever, and you’re like, Okay, here’s my plan: bake at night, earn a paycheck during the day. I think I did that for one day, and I was just like, “Oh, my God.”
AZ: But you worked at quite a famous place [Campanile].
DB: Yeah. I worked at a great bakery. I just walked in there and this woman, Nancy Silverton, let me come into her bakery for a year. It was great. As I’ve always said, she fired me. So I was a terrible baker, and I did not like working—
AZ: And you never got better at baking?
DB: No. I’ve gotten better than that, but not much. [Laughs] It was a pretty low floor, I’ve got to say. I was very confused. I don’t love measuring out things. I really don’t. I never have. The preciseness of it, I don’t love that.
AZ: Your cooking is about creating a space for this ingredient to come up.
DB: Yeah. For all my cooks. It’s very intense. It’s just different kind of intensity than locking into a recipe. We don’t really have recipes at Blue Hill. People always say to me, like, the other night I was in the kitchen, and somebody who I haven’t seen since 2010 or so, walked in the kitchen and was like, “The last time I saw you, you were standing right here at midnight, and here you are again.” I was like, “Eh, I don’t know. Yeah. I’m in the kitchen.”
AZ: It’s your life.
AZ: And there’s kitchen time that’s different from garden time, that’s different from fundraising time.
DB: Yeah. I’m talking about service. During the day, I’m always checking in with things, but it’s really when the first tickets come in that my day ends, and my new day starts, I guess, is all I’m saying.
AZ: Does time shift for you? I mean time in the kitchen, and your perspective on time, and perception of time?
DB: Sometimes I wonder…. One of the things that draws cooks to immerse themselves in the evening hours in a way that is comprehensive—you can’t duck out to check your cell phone; you can’t duck out to take a phone call. You’re in a zone for many hours and nothing enters that zone. I wonder if there’s an attraction to that that is addictive. And I wonder if some part of that isn’t just very healthy, too. How often do we get to have, in our day…. People meditate, so there’s that. I’m not suggesting that cooking is like meditating, because it’s very stressful meditation. That’s what it is. But there is something to say for blocking everything out and being focused on the issue at hand. And so, you don’t get that opportunity in life, these days, that much. So maybe there’s something to it that really appeals to me.
AZ: But you didn’t see that at that little bakery. You got fired, you left that, and then you somehow got to the French Culinary Institute?
DB: Well, I cooked in a bunch of restaurants, and I got pretty good.
AZ: This was the thing. Left the bakery, and then you were like, what do you work on next?
DB: Yeah. Even during the bakery, I had started to cook a little bit before I went to the bakery, because the writing wasn’t working out. But then I needed some more money, so I was doing some cooking, and I could see that…. I was very athletic, and cooking, if you’re an athlete, it’s a big advantage. Big, big one. I was pretty good at that. I was pretty mortified with being fired from the baking. I told all my friends, everyone, that I was a baker. And then the next day, I wasn’t a baker, and you’re like, “Well, what the hell am I?” And so now, I’m a cook, I guess. I don’t know. I could kind of do it, and I could see myself getting better. Then I went to France, and then it was all over, because I was just—
AZ: What brought you to France?
DB: I guess my wonderment of, like, Is this really something I want to do? Because if you go to France, and you cook, you’re serious, very serious. I think I was just like, “I’m going to immerse myself in this for a couple years.” And once that happened, there was no going back, I don’t think.
AZ: What was your first job where you had the actual position of chef?
DB: Of chef? Yeah, the restaurant that closed. That was my first.
AZ: Yeah. So what was that experience like?
DB: It was a small bistro in the East Village. In Nolita actually, which, now.… Nolita back then, Nolita was just beginning. The streets were just being taken over. It was Little Italy, which is what it was. But then, all of a sudden, gentrified. And so it was this small place called La Cigale. Very informal, but delicious food. I mean, I thought it was delicious. But like I said, the ownership wasn’t great, and it went under. I worked so hard, man. I was in there morning till night.
AZ: Because it was your first, like, it was yours.
DB: Yeah. I had my name on it, and I worked so hard. When it closed, I was looking for a place. Actually, I had a catering business at the time. I was really looking for a place to just have a catering business. But then this, where Blue Hill is now, just opened. The owner was looking to get out, and so I swooped in, and before I know it, I had a restaurant. It happened pretty fast.
AZ: So that’s how Blue Hill happened?
DB: Yeah. It was not a big plan to have a restaurant. It was a beautiful space. What I liked about it is that it was on a side street, Washington Place, which, back then, nobody could find. There was no Google.
AZ: You walked down steps to it, and—
DB: You walked down steps. Exactly. You walk down steps, you bow your head, and the ceilings were really low. And that was at a moment when, the nineties, the San Francisco restaurant architecture hit New York. For the first time, it had gone that way. Big ceilings and—
DB: Exactly. It was the age of…. It’s sort of gilded, but it was restaurant as experience, restaurant as theater. I just went in the opposite direction because, again, the space found me. I wasn’t looking for that, but what I liked about it was, low expectations. You walk in, you bow your head on this door, you walk down—it’s an old speakeasy—so you walk in, and then the ceiling is not much higher than your head.
To me, it was like, “Okay.” And I put paper on the tables, and the silverware was purposely not very nice, and the glassware was not very nice. And the idea was like, you’re going to come in with an expectation, and our food and our service is going to surpass the expectation. Maybe just a little bit, but that’s okay, because how often in life does your expectation and the value received [not] meet? Whenever you go to a movie, someone tells you it’s a great movie. How many times does it surpass…? Never. So that was a nice little trick. And I think people were like, “Wow, this Blue Hill. That was great.”
AZ: It was also a way for you to deal with this post-trauma of this huge failure.
DB: Definitely. Low expectations, maybe.
AZ: Like, “Don’t watch me.”
DB: Under-promise, over-deliver. Love it.
AZ: Totally. And that’s how it happened. It became, very quickly, massive. Then all of a sudden, Stone Barns happens. How did this occur?
DB: David Rockefeller walked into the restaurant.
AZ: Yes. So tell us the story.
DB: He walked into the restaurant to have a meal. Tim Zagat was a real fan of Blue Hill, and loved the low expectations, loved that it was jujitsuing the direction that restaurants were going. He was very savvy. He got a feel for a place and saw that it was filled with energy. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by some good people, and he could feel that.
Then when David Rockefeller said, “You know, I’m thinking of my old family farm [as] a place for meetings, because my home is next door, and there’s no place to eat in Westchester.” And so he said, “You should really meet this young chef and his brother, David,” who’s my business partner. And Mr. Rockefeller walks in. And I think he was taken by the food, and the experience, but I think he was taken by the family, my brother, my sister-in-law [Laureen Barber], the design [director]. I think he loved that ethos, and felt very comfortable, and then wanted to convert the farm into something that…. And I didn’t want another restaurant, but what I wanted was a farm. He was open to the idea of expanding the farm from the initial idea of what Stone Barns could be, because he was interested in having us as a partner. And we were interested in the farming part, and the restaurant came with it. And then, there it is.
AZ: How long after this did the new restaurant open? You had opened Blue Hill—
DB: We opened Blue Hill in , and we opened Stone Barns in 2004. So it was pretty quick, actually, to be honest with you.
AZ: I’m sure it didn’t feel that way in the moment.
DB: It felt all-consuming. It was all-consuming to open my little restaurant in the West Village. I just went and did it again, and I could never do that kind of thing now. I have a family now. But oh, god. That was hard. And also driving, back and forth. I’d drive an hour there, and drive an hour back, and to this day, twenty years later, I’m still doing it.
AZ: You’ve spoken in the past about how influential Eliot Coleman was, and has been, on your life and work. I was just curious about that. Who is he? Why have you mentioned him so much?
DB: Because I read Eliot Coleman in the library in college. I used to go to the library because I thought I couldn’t get anything done in my dorm room. I’d go to the library, and just pick books off the shelf, and just lie on the floor, and read books, and not do my work. And I happened to be in the environmental section, nature section, and there was Eliot Coleman’s book about four-season farming. I had a little bit of that experience from Blue Hill’s farm, so I was interested. For me, the farm shut down, partly because I was in school from October to May, but also partly, it shut down. It was wintering, literally.
But then here, he was saying, “Well, that doesn’t need to happen.” That there’s a way to farm actively, passionately, beautifully, in the dead of winter. And there he was on the cover, in the dead of winter, farming spinach and root vegetables, and I was just like, “God, this is so kooky.”
Reading, I started to see, Well, here’s a guy who moved from California to Maine to follow his dream of getting off the grid, but he was frustrated by the growing season. And in his frustration, he looked at a map and had an Isaac Newton moment. It hit him on his head, he was like, “Wait a minute. I’m on the same latitude as Southern France. That means I have the same amount of sunlight. I may have very differing temperatures, because of the jet stream and whatever, but I have the same number of hours of sunlight. If you can grow stuff in the South of France, you can grow stuff here.” That was the beginning of recognizing that vegetables that were light-determinant, not temperature-determinant, could grow, and grow well. I just thought it was fascinating. I was like, “Jesus, man. Why the hell isn’t anyone else talking about this?”
AZ: So the offer of having a farm, and this moment of having a restaurant in a farm—
DB: Well, it was an excuse to call Eliot. Here was my guru. I’d never met him. I’d read everything he’d ever written, I’d listened to every—back then it was cassette-tape talk—that he’d ever had. I thought the guy was a genius. Genius. He was a real foodie, too. So it really spoke to me. He loves food. Eliot, he’s just a gourmet and a gourmand. The guy’s amazing. Amazing taste, now that I know him well.
But that was my excuse to reach out to him. So I wrote him this note. I was like, “Dear Mr. Coleman: I’ve been approached by David Rockefeller. I don’t know what to do. And who else would I turn to but you, because you’re the reason that I’m thinking about this.” I thought, Okay, he is never going to write me back. And he wrote me right back. I was like, “Gee….” I couldn’t believe it. Because to me, he was a demigod. Luckily for me, he said, “Yes, of course. I will take this project on.” And he really helped us build the four-season philosophy of this farm that became the Stone Barns Center.
AZ: Wow. You were one of the first in this farm-to-table conversation. So ahead of all of this, I just want to reel back a little bit. What introduced you to the farm table? You were at Chez Panisse. You had experiences in this, correct?
DB: I wasn’t one of the first. I should be careful of that one. I maybe articulated it in a deeper way.
AZ: You were one of the first noticed, I think, in a way, as a storyteller.
DB: I think the answer to that just goes back to my simplicity, because it started with, like, “Things better be fresh. Because if they’re not, I’m naked on the plate, and it’s not hard to tell.” So, it started with that.
AZ: And how much does that connect to your original desire to become a novelist? These two things, to me, seem very clear.
DB: Tell me. Good.
AZ: You wanted fiction; you wanted to tell a story, and how do we set up novels? How do writers design stories? It’s similar to how you design your meals. There’s storytelling and beauty in all of it.
DB: I’ve never thought of it that way. That’s very interesting.
AZ: You never thought of the fact that your meals unravel in the way that—
DB: Yes, I’ve thought of it that way, but I never thought of the connection to storytelling as a novelist, and my original desire. That’s very interesting.
AZ: I thought that would be very clear to you. That’s funny. I mean, the service, the experience, the way you hold the space for the reader, or the eater, seems like it came from the space of a novelist. So do you think in essence—
DB: Never been told that. Have you eaten—I never even asked you. When was the last time you ate there?
AZ: Of course. I haven’t been to Stone Barns.
DB: Oh, you haven’t been to Stone Barns.
AZ: But I’ve been to Blue Hill in the West Village, several times.
DB: All right. We got to get you in Stone Barns.
AZ: In fact, we met. Many years ago, I had dinner there, when it was a tough table to get, with a band that was hot at the time, that I came in with friends of mine. You came out, and you knew one of the guys. You stopped to talk to one of us, and you explained what we were eating.
DB: Oh, okay. Oh really? Okay. Good.
AZ: Anyhow, in the way that you lose yourself in fiction—you talk about sitting on the library floor, you talk about losing yourself in this idea. Is that what you hope happens when people eat at your restaurants?
DB: Well, the story, the stuff is the end to a larger.… The vectors don’t point at me, but they point out. And that gives meaning to the experience of what’s going on there. That’s very powerful, and transformative, actually. It goes back to what I was saying before, which is, I didn’t recognize, when I started all this…. I don’t want it to sound like I had all the pieces put together in my mind—
AZ: No one does.
DB: No one does. What did Steve Jobs say? You do the stuff backwards. But if you do it backwards, you start to realize: What an opportunity to tell a story. What an opportunity. Because when do you get people’s attention for three hours? And that’s what I have at Stone Barns. It’s a three-hour meal. When you get people’s attention for three hours, around a table, in a context of delight and hedonism, pleasure, generally with people who love each other—not always the case, but mostly—in a beautiful surrounding without cell phone, email, text interruption, or cable TV interruption? Where? When does that happen? Never. And that opportunity, it increasingly is so precious and so powerful, and I’m taking advantage of it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m taking advantage of it. I’m digging into that.
And I think that’s why restaurants could play a role in being broadcasters for a larger message. It doesn’t have to be about agriculture, and farming, and health. It doesn’t have to be about that. It could be about any kind of social movement that’s happening. Look, it could be a restaurant connected to a nonprofit, to a museum, that’s having an exhibit on something. And food, community around the table, the storytelling of a meal, could be part of that experience. And I think that’s a viable future for us all.
AZ: There are so many people thinking that way. And I wonder—and maybe I’m projecting this out onto you—but this idea of when you set up the scenes of a meal, I imagine, as someone who wanted to be a novelist, that you think about this experience through time, how time is this factor of these scenes unraveling, because of how you’ve approached these massive multicourse meals. It’s like many, many scenes. Do you think of it that way?
DB: We do, actually, set up the menu with mini stories that I want to tell, but I’m always thinking, Well, what’s the arc? What do you come in with and what do you leave with where there’s a tying it together? Because if there’s not, you’re left with a bunch of nice memories, but not a cohesiveness. And isn’t that what a good novelist does?
There’s this famous story of Chekhov and the Three Sisters, where he did the last rehearsal for Three Sisters. And the reviewer wrote him a telegram in a hotel room and said, “Chek, this is the greatest play ever.” And the scene when the husband was asked, “Tell me about your wife.” “He said, ‘My wife is the moon and the stars. My wife, she’s my everything to me from soil….’ It is the most brilliant moment in the history of plays.” And Chekhov puts down the telegram, and goes to the script, and puts an X” through the whole scene. Then he tells the director, “Tomorrow, when he asks, ‘Tell me about your wife,’ I want him to say, ‘My wife is a wife.’” It was so memorable and so well-written, and he poured his heart into it, but he recognized that that would be the takeaway from the play. And if that was takeaway from play, you don’t get to the higher sense of it.
And that’s why I feel like when we do bells and whistles with dishes and courses. Like, “Careful, guys. We’re not trying to make the mark here.” Either it’s too early, or, it’s too distracting from an overall … whatever we’re doing. And it’s gimmicky. And those gimmicks are powerful, because people love them.
DB: But they don’t last. If you want something to last, there cannot be one dish, and there cannot be one scene that steals the show. Otherwise, it’s not real art. It rises to another level.
AZ: Totally. The best meals I’ve ever had when someone says, “What’d you eat?” I don’t know.
AZ: I have no idea.
DB: I was just about to say that. I was just about to say that my biggest compliment is, “Well, what’d you eat?” “I don’t know. But man, that was a great meal.” Good, good. You did it.
AZ: I want to get into one of these programs that you did, the WastED program, which I think is fascinating, and there’s a lot about story there. You used skate-wing cartilage, eggs without fully formed shells, bok choy that’s been attacked by flea beetles, cucumber butts, leftover vegetable pulp from juicers. Was this about finding the unexpected—discovering use in the discarded? What was this initiative about?
DB: The initiative was about people beginning to talk about food waste, and my frustration that restaurants were being taken to task as places of great waste. I thought that was ridiculous. Chefs—any chef, not just me, any chef—we do more for food waste than…. Our DNA is about utilizing the scraps, and making them into…. This is the history of food, for God’s sake, and that’s all cuisines. What’s a coq au vin? Coq au vin is a rooster that tastes like this chair that I’m sitting on, unless you braise it in white wine and vegetables and it becomes the most…. What’s bouillabaisse? Bouillabaisse is the discarded and ugly fish that no one would buy at the market, simmered together into a beautiful broth.
Now, they don’t call those things “food-waste soup.” You call it “bouillabaisse,” and it’s iconic, but that’s everything. So I just felt like we should wear this stuff on our sleeve, because every chef is making…. I mean, last night, I did a ravioli of scraps of lamb. I didn’t call it “scraps-of-lamb ravioli;” I called it “braised lamb ravioli, winter vegetables.” But that’s food waste. So I just wanted to call it, wear in on our sleeve, take it a step further, and then celebrate it, which turned into…. I think we hit the zeitgeist at that moment, because it was a crazy response.
AZ: You also served a group of world leaders.
DB: At the U.N. We served [thirty] presidents, leaders, everyone, except for Obama. But everybody was there. It was amazing. That was the apotheosis of this whole thing. It’s funny. I look back on that time…. We’ve had so many offers to do more around food waste, and I’ve said no to everything, because I feel like the message that I wanted to get across was that, If you do your jobs right as chefs, you end up not creating pop-ups and restaurants devoted to food waste. Because food waste is a part of everything you do, and it should be part of our food system. It should be soaking up all the food waste, and be part of our food culture.
When you advertise it as these gimmicky—well, exciting—skate-wing thing, and eggs that don’t have shells, and pulp burgers from juice pulp, it’s good, great stories. It’s a thousand stories. But at the end of the day, they add up to, like, if they aren’t inculcated to the everyday, then they just stay as ingenious ideas for the moment. And I just didn’t want to do that.
AZ: Seems like you say what you have to say. If you said it well, you move on.
DB: Yeah. Well, the moving on is, incorporate these into the everyday menus. Which I had always done, and maybe we double down a little bit harder now, because I expanded my mind, but I think every chef does. That’s why the WastED—it’s waste, E-D, capital E-D—is waste education. We invited a chef every night to come in and do dishes with us, and show what they do in their own restaurant.
AZ: Did you ever encounter a food item you couldn’t do anything with?
DB: Yeah, sure. We were pushing the envelope on stuff that was not dumpster-dive stuff, but stuff that … it was tough to…. I’m just trying to think of examples without the yuck factor. But people’s minds were open to things that they otherwise would not have been open to. Offal is wasted in the United States. Offal is the best part of the animal. Chefs go through hula hoops to hide offal in these dishes. And so we wore it on our sleeve.
But really, the best dish for me, of all the dishes—we probably did a hundred dishes—and the best thing we served was cow corn. Corn that’s fed to cows. We got some of that, and we actually made it into a cracker that was halfway edible, and added a lot of other stuff to make it delicious. It didn’t get enough play—to me, it was the most exciting story. It was like, There’s ninety million acres of this stuff. We don’t eat one ounce of it. It all gets fed to a cow, or it gets fed to our gas tanks. It is the single-greatest waste of natural resources in the history of the world. Ninety million acres. It’s the most elitist, most undemocratic, most unhealthy, most environmentally [degrading] food in the history of the world, and here it is for you to eat, and think about the ninety million acres. And what if we took this mediocre cracker, and made it into something like a grain, like buckwheat, or barley, or rye, or wheat, or anything that we could eat directly instead of feeding through a cow? That is cutting down on food waste. And that was the point.
In the end, that’s what I wanted to get across. If you think that the dumpster dive, the ugly fruits and vegetables, is the thing that we should be cutting down, you’re on the wrong thing. That’s nothing. That’s the red herring. That’s the thing that gets you down the wrong road. It’s minuscule. The food waste in this country is about how we feed animals. And if you have a protein-centric diet, which is what our diet is, and we’re exporting it on—unfortunately the rest of the world—it is the single most wasteful diet in the history of the world. And that’s what we need to fix. Protein, by the way, and fish, too.
That’s why my menu was filled with an alternate way to look at a plate of food, which is what all great restaurants do. You don’t go to a great restaurant today and find a six-ounce piece of protein on your plate, or multiple courses of that. That just doesn’t happen anymore. And that is the future, I think, of really sustainable eating. Anyway, WastED was another way to get into that subject. But I don’t think that really caught on. I think the dumpster-dive dishes and the ones that were shock-and-awe were the ones that really got the play in the media, unfortunately.
AZ: You’ve been telling a story about sustainability-driven, ecologically based hyper-local. These are things that you’ve been talking about for quite a while. In 2014, you did a very famous TED Talk that traveled far and wide. People still watch it. And you talk about how you hate getting this question: “Well, how are you going to feed the world?” And I just wanted to take a second while I have you here to ask about that: why you dislike the question so much, and why you think it’s probably just a totally misguided, wrong question?
DB: Well, it’s a question coming from interests that want you to think that way. So it gets very confusing when you ask that question, because you’re forced into answering, “How are you going to do that?” Instead of looking at the hard question: “Why are we taking a hundred and ninety million acres of some of the most blessed farm [and] soil resources in the world, and feeding it through a cow?” That is the most wasteful use of resources we could ever imagine. It’s also unhealthy. It’s also not that delicious. So I don’t like the question because it traps you.
DB: And the immediate answer to the question is, “We already produce enough calories on earth to feed two earths, now.” And we’re in a degraded moment. We already see that. What we have is a very undemocratic distribution system. That’s the problem. It isn’t tonnage, and it hasn’t been a tonnage problem for thirty years, but the industry will keep coming back to that, always. That’s why I bristle at the question. “If we just produce more food, one-third of Americans that are food insecure today would be food-secure.” Bullshit.
AZ: It doesn’t happen.
DB: Never. No. I think what you just said is a good point, in that, you let go of your responsibility to really advocate for a democratic system, and a political system, an educational system, a distribution system that is more equitable. And we do not do that. And it starts with seed, where four companies that are chemical companies control what you eat.
DB: That’s the problem. That’s why I went to seeds.
DB: So if you want to answer, “How are we going to feed the world?” You start with seeds. Because if we don’t get seeds out of corporate control and back into the hands of communities, Indigenous communities, disenfranchised communities, every kind of farming community there is, regional and otherwise, we are going to lose the fight.
AZ: So I have a ridiculous question. If we were to follow this, “The table should service the farm” idea, a quote from you.
DB: Yeah. Good one. Did I say that?
AZ: You did say that. If we modeled Big Ag on this bottom-up approach, which I know is absurd, what might the planet look like?
DB: Much more regional. Much more regional. Big Ag, it just takes advantage of an enormous distribution system. That’s Big Ag. That’s all it is. If we could invest our tax dollars into a regional infrastructure system, we could grow plenty of food in this region to feed this region. Plenty.
As a farmer said to me in upstate New York, “We could grow more grains, just in this region, that would bury New York City. Bury it. But we have very few mills. We have very few processors. We have very few distributors. We have no elevators to store grain. All that has been dismantled, and moved to the Midwest and the West.” And that’s where the food costs—that’s where more expensive food comes from. It’s not from farming. Everyone says, “Well, farming, you know, diversity is expensive.” No, it’s not! No, it’s not. If you eat the diversity it is not more expensive, and it’s not more inefficient. But the reason it’s inefficient now is because with taking that diversity, getting it from the farm to your plate, you don’t stand a chance in individual regional economies. You only can make it in the world of Big Ag distribution. And that is something that’s…. I said the seed world is a hundred years old. It always strikes me as crazy.
AZ: It’s shocking.
DB: It’s crazy. But our food system is only fifty years old. Before 1965, 1970, we were in a regional food economy. Like the Rockefeller scientist said, “Covid hits in 1975, you don’t have Covid. You have a flu season.” That’s what you have. And a lot of that has to do with how our food was grown. A lot. The cost of this Big Ag distribution system is very, very expensive. And I keep coming back to seed because seed is the enabler. You cannot have a big food distribution without seed, and seed is what controls it. So unfortunately, they control the game right now. We’ve gotta stop that.
AZ: Before we wrap up, and I’ll let you go, and I’ll let the listeners return to their lives—
AZ: They’re probably cooking right now, actually.
DB: I hope so. That’s one thing you can do, by the way. I said, “Vote with your fork,” but it’s so hard to do. But one thing to do for your own personal health, and I do think this is a democratic idea, is cook. I know you’re joking, but also it’s a very powerful move. It’s like, [when] you cook for yourself and your family, you are, by definition, cooking better food, healthier food, less wasteful food, food that’s less degrading on the environment.
AZ: I think a lot of people listen to our podcasts when they’re cooking. There’s this connection between the two things. But what I wanted to ask is, there’s a food critic I [read] that said your goal as a chef is “ultimately to change the world.”
DB: Did I say that?
AZ: You didn’t say that.
AZ: A food critic, Ruth Reichl, said that. She said your goal as a chef is “ultimately to change the world.”
DB: Me? She was talking about me?
AZ: But I’m wondering if you believe that the goal of a chef today should be to take part in this conversation, and ultimately shift how these things work?
DB: Yeah. I think we have a responsibility. I think that it was very important that you said “today.” But I don’t know that was true thirty years ago. We’re on some kind of pedestal. I don’t get it. I don’t get it. Do you? I think it’s weird. But—
AZ: That chefs are stars?
AZ: It happened in architecture. It’s happening in a lot of different industries.
DB: It happened in architecture. It’s interesting.
AZ: The starchitect.
DB: Yeah, okay.
AZ: The Frank Gehry of it all. This has happened in ultimate industries. The chef as cultural figure, whether it’s good or bad, or worthy or not…. I don’t know if an actor should have more than a chef should.
DB: Right. That’s what I’m saying. And yet, here we are. So I’d like to do something with it. That’s what I’m saying.
DB: Totally. I just read a survey that said the top professions, ranked in terms of public trust—politicians.… It was twenty. I don’t think politicians were in the twenty. But it was like, doctors were like, twelve. I was like, “Oh, my god.” Lawyers were nineteen, whatever. Chefs? Number one. Number one most-trusted industry. When chefs speak, it’s the number one most-trusted thing. It’s like, Well, that’s interesting.
AZ: So, what are you going to do with it?
DB: What are you going to do with it? What can you do with it? That should drive every chef. And not out of being an army of virtue, but merchants of happiness, because that’s where joy…. That’s a very powerful way to shift opinion, and shift consciousness, happiness, pleasure. That’s one thing Americans cleave to, and chefs are in the cockpit of driving that. Let’s do something with it. And I think there’s a real role for restaurants to play. That dials back to the beginning of our conversation. The loss of restaurants, and their potential to influence these conversations, I think, is profound, and hopefully, won’t be as bad as I’m predicting.
AZ: Thanks for coming in today, Dan.
DB: Thanks so much, man. Appreciate it.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on February 8, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer Johnny Simon.