Dan Barber is one of the food world’s rockstars, with the accolades to prove it. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of the Michelin-starred Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants; the author of The Third Plate, a treatise on the future of food; a contributor to the New York Times; an Obama appointee on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition; and a board member for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
He’s been honored with multiple James Beard Awards (including New York City’s Best Chef in 2006 and Outstanding Chef in 2009), and was even named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. To top it off, he plays a key role in my film Food for Thought, Food for Life. Here, he reveals how creativity in the kitchen—and changes in our culinary connection to agriculture—will help secure a healthy future for food.
What led you to become a chef?
After my senior year of college, I moved to California to bake bread. I thought it would give me time to figure things out.
What’s your first culinary memory?
My father’s scrambled eggs. They were always overcooked, but I ate them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
How does incorporating sustainable practices effect your creativity as a chef?
What I’ve realized over and over again is that you can’t look at a great ingredient without understanding the ecology it comes from. The same variety of carrot can express itself differently based not only on the climate, but also the specific makeup of the soil. So the question becomes: how can we influence that recipe? How can we ensure the most delicious outcome through our actions in the field? Those are complicated questions, but critical ones for any cook who cares what will make his or her dish taste the best.
What are a few simple changes we can make in the kitchen to help support the environment?
Cooking regularly is the simplest and most impactful thing you can do to support a better food system.
Your book, The Third Plate, offers a look at farming communities around the world. What were the most surprising things you discovered about current food culture and practices?
As I traveled between those farming communities, what struck me were the essential qualities they had in common: a sense of ethics surrounding the long-term health of the land; a disturbance of nature designed to add (rather than subtract) diversity; a style of farming that is deeply connected to and supported by the culture and cuisine of the place. Taken together, they’re a kind of recipe for a sustainable food system.
What are some exciting collaborations in the culinary landscape right now?
I think we’re beginning to see a dialogue take shape between chefs and plant breeders. In the last seven years, Blue Hill has been collaborating with land grant university plant breeders around the country on new vegetable and grain varieties, selecting for varieties that are the most successful on the farm and in the kitchen. It’s a new way to curate flavor, from the ground up.
What do you see for the future of food?
We’re going to see the revival of place-based cooking—diets that take shape around specific landscapes. That’s something that’s difficult to find in most of America, but it’s at the core of the world’s most enduring cuisines.