Introducing The Daily Meal Council: Dan Barber

Editor
Ten questions for the New York-based chef, restaurateur, and food and agricultural policy activist

Susie Cushner

Barber is executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, part of the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.

The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.

Dan Barber grew up in New York City’s Upper East Side, and started farming and cooking as a young man with family and friends at his grandparents' Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Mass. He studied English and political science at Tufts University, traveled to California for a stint working at Chez Panisse, and then attended the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York City. After a stage at the celebrated Michel Rostang in Paris, he went to work at Bouley back in New York. In 1996, he launched his own catering business, and four years later, in partnership with his brother David, he opened Blue Hill Restaurant in Greenwich Village. His cooking and regard for raw materials there caught the eye of David Rockefeller, who hired him to help revitalize his 3,500-acre farm estate in Westchester County, and to open a restaurant there. Today, Barber is executive chef and co-owner of the original Blue Hill and of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, part of the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. He has won many accolades, including James Beard Awards as Best Chef: New York City (2006) and America's Outstanding Chef (2009). Barber has become an eloquent spokesman on matters of food and agricultural policy, and in 2009, he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. He is also a member of the President’s council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

The Daily Meal: What's your earliest food memory?
Dan Barber: My father's scrambled eggs. They were rubbery, at best -- more often dry and flakey. I ate them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a chef?
August of 1978 — my first omelet from my aunt.

What was your first cooking job?
After a scholarship fell through at the end of my senior year of college, I turned to bread baking. I thought that it would give me time to figure things out. I mostly figured out that I was terrible at bread baking.

Who was your most important culinary influence and why?
Michel Rostang in Paris. I spent a year in his restaurant after culinary school, and I felt like he took me under his wing. He’s a brilliant chef from a whole line of brilliant chefs.

What's the most important lesson that culinary influence taught you?
There’s a discipline in French kitchens that you won’t find in other places. And I think that prepared me, more than anything else, for the rigors — mental and physical — of cooking professionally. 

What advice would you give to a young would-be chef just starting out?
I remember telling my dad, reluctantly, I want to be a chef. There was a long pause and then he said, “Son....why?” And I said the only thing that came to mind: “You know, I love food.” There was another pause and he said, “I love books, but I don't read for a living.” I think there’s some good advice in there somewhere. There is a lot that’s punishing about this job; loving food isn’t enough. 

How do you think America stacks up against other countries around the world today in the quality of its restaurants — and the quality of its diners?
America is sort of a culinary anomaly, because we lack the kind of distinct cuisines you find in France or Italy or China. On the one hand, it’s made our restaurant landscape incredibly varied and interesting. On the other, the food culture can feel a little incoherent. But increasingly we’re seeing restaurants that embrace a sense of place. I think that’s making us more enlightened as both chefs and eaters.  

Is it more important to source local products, or to use the best possible ingredients wherever they may come from?
I’m not a purist, but I will say I lead with local. Working within those constraints tends to produce results that are more delicious, and more interesting.

Do chefs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
The role of the chef is a big subject of debate now: Should we remain only in the kitchen? Or are we ambassadors for something much larger? It’s hard to argue either side, because when you say a chef can save the world, you sound ridiculous. And if you say we should just be in the kitchen, you’re selling us short. I will say, unequivocally, that the choices we make as chefs affect the way the world is used. I started cooking in the era of Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish — a recipe so popular and so ubiquitous it nearly exhausted an entire species. That one example is irrefutable evidence of the chef’s influence, a responsibility that we need to be mindful of.

What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?
My book [The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food], seven years in the making, is coming out this May from Penguin. That feels both real and imagined. 

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