2013 American Chef Of The Year: Dan Barber

"There's a connection between great food and statements about the world," said chef Dan Barber, adding, "It's a course of thought and action that's one in the same, and one that quickly becomes political. It's actually not even complicated. Being a good chef means being all of the things I mentioned. And it all very quickly becomes political."

Read: The Daily Meal's Chefs of the Year for 2013
Read: 2013 International Chef of the Year: Albert Adrià

Slender, serious, and thoughtful in demeanor, Barber is often hailed as one of America's most thoughtful chefs, and one who has long been a passionate and influential advocate of responsible, farm-fresh, ingredient-driven cuisine — at both Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York's Westchester County. Dan Barber is an advocate, a teacher, and an inspiration, as well as being a very good cook. He was even named a "god of food" by TIME magazine.

For these reasons, we're pleased to announce that chef Dan Barber was singled out by The Daily Meal and its past honorees as 2013's American Chef of the Year (joined this year by The Daily Meal's 2013 International Chef of the Year Albert Adrià).[pullquote:right]

We reached out to the chefs to discover where they, and along with them the state of food, may be heading. In this interview with Dan Barber, the chef discusses whether chefs should be socially and politically active, anticipates some of the issues that may take center stage at the G9 summit in Brazil next year, the different menu approaches he takes at Blue Hill New York and Stone Barns, his upcoming book, and the attempt made by the farmers at Stone Barns to create great foie gras without using the controversial gavage technique. We also asked him 12 Actor's Studio-type questions about his first food memories, his heroes and villains, and what qualities he looks for when he's hiring a chef, among other things.

Should chefs be socially and politically active, or should they just cook good food, responsibly produced?
I don't know what the difference is if you're cooking good food. I don't even know the difference. If you're cooking good food responsibly... it has to be responsibly produced. It goes to it all being connected. If it's good food, for the most part, it's being produced in a way that's environmentally sound. Or at least in a way that's not denuding a landscape. I've yet to find an example of something that's raised in a way that's beneficial that's not delicious, and I'd be interested to come across it. To answer the question in a holistic way, there's no difference between those two. My first response would be that there's not really any difference between a chef cooking good food, or to answer the second part of your question, there's no dichotomy between a chef that's just cooking, and a chef making a political statement. Whether you like it or not you're making a political statement. You're responsible to an environment. If you connect all those things, there really is no difference. And I don't know that a chef has to choose, because our pursuits are great flavors. We are by definition politically active. We're environmentalists because of it. We're nutritionists because of it. We're community activists because of it. For the most part, those things are raised in local environments or in environments where people are actually doing the work versus a denuded environment. There's a connection between great food and statements about the world. It's a course of thought and action that's one in the same and one that quickly becomes political. It's actually not even complicated. Being a good chef means being all of the things I mentioned. And it all very quickly becomes political.

What is the G9 summit and why is it important?
The G9 summit is a group of chefs who come together every year in a different host country and talk about issues related to being a chef. And why is it important? I don't know that it's any more important than any other gathering of chefs that come together to meet, whether it's at a congress or even more informally in some ways, it's just that there are not enough opportunities to engage with each other in part because we are so trapped in our turbulent little worlds that we spend very little time interacting with each other as chefs. And when that happens, for me anyway, and I don't have a lot of examples of it because it doesn't happen often, but when it does it seems to me like a very good opportunity to get together and talk about what's going on in other parts of the country and other parts of the world around food and not gastronomy.

The G9 summit will be taking place in Brazil in 2014, right?
Yeah. How did you know that?

I read it while doing research on you. So what issues do you anticipate taking center stage and what if anything do you think people should know more about Brazil and its cuisine?
It's a great question, and the answer is: I don't know. And that's part of the problem. That's one of the reasons we're going to Brazil. You know, South America from a culinary perspective and gastronomic perspective, it's one of the more exciting places in the world. There are exciting things happening everywhere, but the South American contribution to moving food forward has yet to be well-documented and understood. And so now you're getting a couple of chefs now who are changing that, and so I think that it's just going to be an exciting opportunity.

Have you been before?

Do you have any places that you're hoping to hit up besides D.O.M.?
No, no. That's all decided every year. And I didn't know that we were going to go to Brazil until we ended this conference.

You've been quoted as saying that you're a very "angry cook in your kitchen," that you yell a lot and are "very disciplining with your cooks, even to the point of being abusive." Is that true, and if so is it a conscious decision? If so, why?
Well, the way you quote me makes me, first of all, makes me sound like I'm proud of it, and I don't know the context of the quote or where that's coming from, but I can't deny that that's true. And I'm not proud of it.

I'm sorry, chef. Just to be clear, this was from an interview reported on by Grub Street that you gave at the Beth-El Zedeck synagogue in Indianapolis during a conversation with Krista Tippett three years ago.
I've spoken about this before, but not often. When I do... I think that people assume that I'm a very sort of thoughtful and cerebral kind of guy — not cerebral, but thoughtful and calm in the kitchen — and I don't take the, what do you call it, Gordon Ramsay route, I don't know. And I'd like to think I don't, but the truth is it's not where I want to be. And I am the kind of chef who... I wish that I reacted to and conducted myself in a different way when I'm under pressure. I'm trying to change that, I'm trying to look at that, but it's not great. And abusive, it's like there's a big range of abusive behavior. I would just call it undermining the whole goal of what we're doing. The teams work so hard and for such long hours, and I tend to do the easy thing, which is to get loud and, you know, let's say inappropriate in certain respects because that's the easy thing to do, you know, it's just like when there are problems you do that and it just makes everyone wake up.

So, not to belabor this, and easier said than done, but why do it?
There's certain logic to it, it's just that I don't know that it's how I want to keep conducting myself. I was trained unfortunately, and this isn't an excuse, though it sounds like it but it's true, but I was just trained under a lot of old-school men with tempers and that became my language, unfortunately. But that's no excuse, either. David Bouley, who I worked with for a little while, he worked under some really abusive people, some old-school French guys, and I never saw him really yell in the kitchen. You know, really rarely. And I remember asking him about it. And people say he watched one chef who I won't name, but a really famous old-school French chef yell at somebody, and he said, "That night I went home and I realized I don't ever want to be that kind of chef." And that was that [laughs]. And I thought that was brilliant. And you know, unfortunately, I don't just have that power.

Well, is it the urgency of the moment that sets you off?
Well, yeah, every chef has the urgency of the moment, so I can't use that as an excuse. But for me it's a little bit of, and this again sounds like an excuse but it definitely adds to it, we don't have any menus here so we write menus for each table depending on the day and the kind of table, and the time of the evening so things are in flux in ways that every kitchen is in flux, there's no question about it, and every kitchen is a bit of a madhouse and I think that there are some good things about that, too, but with us sometimes, you get too close. It's like Icarus, you're flying too close to the sun, and we're almost at the point where we're going to fall off the face of the Earth, it feels that way. Where so many things are being done on the fly and off the cuff. And it's exhilarating, but when it's going well it's really exhilarating, but when it doesn't go well, it's very, very difficult. So I find myself reacting in ways that I'm not quite proud of. Anyway, the point is I had a daughter and I'm trying to change. I don't know why I just said I had a daughter, but I did pick that moment as the one that if she was ever in the kitchen, I would never want her to see that kind of display.

I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you're talking about dealing with the management of people, which can perhaps be like nurturing children. it's part of maybe what you're getting to here?
Yeah, you know, it's a good point. I'm sure in my life with [my daughter], there are going to be moments of challenge and of frustration, and my question is, how do you handle that? And I keep going back to the idea that the idea that the easy thing to do is to yell. And this is so easy. You know, it vents, and there's a certain kind of a gratification, certain kind at that moment, but in the long run it just makes no sense. And I know that. So you know, it's a work in progress.

So you mentioned that the menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns aren't planned, but there is a menu at your restaurant in the city. Why the different approaches?
To do a no-menu restaurant, I can speak for myself, our no-menu restaurant is a challenge in a way that I don't think you can meet the challenge with a smaller staff, or a new restaurant, and that doesn't translate in a restaurant that doesn't allow for a longer investment of time, and to a certain extent, money. At Blue Hill New York there's a kind of energy and a kind of focus, and there's the whole culture to the place that doesn't lend itself to creating menus for each table. It would just be impossible because of the size of the kitchen, the staff — everything. But when it comes to Stone Barns, the place just kind of evolved into a place where people come for a unique experience. And they drive from, usually, a long way, and they come from all over, and that helps because there's a culture attached to that, too. And the other side that's driving us is Blue Hill Farms and some other farms that we work really closely with. And we tend to get either, because we're buying whole animals, we tend to utilize cuts of meat, certain cuts of meat very quickly, and other cuts of meat take longer to use in the course of a traditional menu.

How do you mean?
So for example, if we get a lamb in from Blue Hill Farms, or a goat, I'm staring at a goat right now, a goat from Blue Hill Farms, if I were to put goat chops on the menu, I'd sell out as an à la carte-option in about 10 minutes tonight. If I put goat leg and chop on the menu, I'll probably sell out in about a half an hour. But if I can give cuts from the entire animal to 10 tables, I can have someone really experience a grass-fed goat, a very special flavor, and concentrate on those plates, and introduce those 10 tables to what are those goats doing as part of the agricultural system there? They're Blue Hill Farm because they're eating the bramble, and the outskirts of the pasture fields, and they're essentially holding back the forest from encroaching on the pasture, and they're eating the less-desired growth of grass, and they do very well in that, that's what they've evolved to do. So we need them as part of our agricultural system at Blue Hill Farm, and we need to support them as part of the menu at Blue Hill restaurant. Now you've come to the restaurant, and there's the whole animal, and like I said, you can't write an à la carte menu because you're sold out before your five-o'clock-special is done [laughs], before the second seating you're all gone. So we try and take that goat and cook with all the parts for that evening, but we try and gear it toward these 10 tables that have come and have the time to listen to the story of the goat.

And what is the story of the goat?
What is this story all about? What are we doing with it? What is the breed? What's special about them? And we serve it to those tables.

And the other tables?
The other tables get pigs! So if you take that concept that I just fleshed out, and you do that for the endive that I'm looking at right now, which is from a farmer who we're experimenting with for the winter and this is his first batch, so he gave me 15 endive. So what am I supposed to do with 15 endives? I mean, that's gone. So that will become a dish tonight for 15 people. So this style tends to create a lot of work for a lot of people, so I have about 30 cooks in the kitchen, but that's part of the challenge of this type of cooking. But I don't know that it's for every restaurant. I think it's quite, quite difficult.

So almost every year it seems, one of the evergreen stories ends up being the demise of the tasting menu. Should it be the end of the tasting menu? But also just what do you think is the secret to a successful tasting menu?
What's behind a successful tasting menu? I think it's diversity. You know, the key is... there are so many things to a tasting menu. I look to diversity because I think the thing that we can all agree on is that we need more diversity in a good agriculture system. In a good community of agriculture we need a good diversity. Increasingly, we need diversity more than ever because so many things are in jeopardy with our weather patterns and our ecological resources that are creating jeopardy for so much of what we rely on, so much of our diet that we rely on. And so diversity is the key to the future. It has to be.

But you don't think of this as something new, do you?
It always has been, but even more than ever. And I think chefs can play a role in helping to support diversity. And so a tasting menu should reflect a lot of diversity. And what you tend to not get in an à la carte version, and this is not to slight à la carte plating, because as you just recognized my restaurant in New York City is à la carte plating, but what you tend to not get in à la carte plating is a whole host of diversity. What you get is a Westernized conception of a plate of food, which generally speaking — and of course, there are exceptions to this — but generally speaking, it's protein-centric, so that there's a 7-ounce piece of meat, or piece of fish or poultry with vegetable as a condiment or garnish, and that can be delicious, and for certain times of the year and for certain environments, that is the right plating and the correct proportions. But it's very rare and It's not a cuisine, and it's not an underpinning of good food for the future. It's also not particularly delicious as most chefs know. A 7-ounce protein is not as exciting as multiple tastes throughout the course of a meal.

So how does the tasting menu change the game then?
I think the tasting menu allows you to rethink proportions, and rethink the amount of diversity you can accomplish in the course of a day — the course of a meal. So I like that thing about how the diversity in our agriculture gets mimicked in the diversity on our plate. That's a good way to balance both needs. I think we have a human need for diversity, too. Just as we say those protein-centric plates of food, the Westernized conception of what an entrée is, that can get boring pretty quickly. I think it's nice to look at that because that's the way it should be. We shouldn't be yearning for a dumbed-down diversity on our plate of food. We want to explore what is available to us in a good way. And that also seems to be hand-in-hand with nutrition. The more diversity we get in our diets, the more nutritious it ultimately is. So that's a good way to look at it: a good gastronomy, good ecology, and good nutrition sort of all work in the same realm and that's in the realm of diversity. And so you ask, what's the goal of a tasting menu, and it's to push the diversity.

Is there a feeling that writers are bringing up evergreen subjects like tasting menus in ways that don't really address or give due to what you're doing in a way that you just have to throw up your hands?
Right, so I think Corby Kummer wrote something that somebody sent me. I mean, "throw up my hands," well, I mean I don't think I throw up my hands. But I don't know that we're going to look at tasting menus as a fad [laughs] and that in the future, we're going to go back to what we consider what, classical, or what you even call à la carte dining anymore? There are so many different variations to put a finger on it. But it seems to me that chefs aren't really going to be listening to... you know, I think chefs are going to continue to push forward, and I think "push forward" in the terms of serving more diversity and more courses. I think!

You think?
That's my prediction only because unless there's a real backlash... but it seems to me that what's going to happen is that we're going to get better at making tasting menus. And it seems to me that... and a lot of the complaints that I hear, and I don't remember all the details of Corby's piece, but it wasn't a condemnation on diversity, you know, "Tasting menus tend to be long and drawn out, and they take too long between courses, and then you take a bite, and then you have to wait to clear, and set," and all that, and I think every chef would agree that that's not right. That doesn't work. And you need to do something about that. And we think about that here every day. We think about that all the time. And to that extent there are some complaints within the tasting menus that I think most chefs would say, "That's something we think about," and most chefs, well, we will. But that doesn't mean that the concept of a menu that has multiple courses is a fad. And I hope so. I mean, I have a vested interest in saying that. By the way, if you said that and you agreed with it you'd have to be saying that Asian cuisine, Indian cuisine, Vietnamese cuisine — that all these cuisines are all fads, and I don't get that. Those cuisines have figured out how to hold people's interests with incredible nutrition and incredible culinary wisdom, and they've accomplished that during some incredibly fraught circumstances through peasant cultures, and that seems to have worked for thousands of years. So I can't imagine that American chefs aren't going to figure this out and figure it out really well.

Spanish farmer Eduardo Sousa's success with his foie gras was said to inspire your own attempts to create great foie without using the controversial gavage technique. How's it going? Is it working and what are your current challenges?
Well first of all, the farmers at Stone Barns set out to create a non-gavage foie gras. So it wasn't me. I wasn't doing the farming. I brought the idea. Just because to be frank, there are some people who would be sensitive about that and rightly so about that — they've been working on it for five years or so now. So has it happened? No. But this is what my book is about, and I just handed that in. So that's coming out in a couple of months here, so I kind of have to let my book tell the story of this, because I think it's a good lesson. But the short of it is, we didn't succeed. And Craig Haney is the livestock farmer here, and he's an amazing farmer, but no, it did not succeed, but I don't know that we failed [laughs] I guess is my larger statement, I guess I just have to leave that for the book, I guess you have to read it — it tells the story up to date. It's a bit of a learning curve for me, but I'm getting there.

Anything more about this and the book that you can talk about?
In terms of that, I would just say that I don't know that the foie gras failed. What Craig ended up doing was making an absolutely delicious liver that doesn't fit within the construct of what we call a "foie gras," what we call a "fattened liver." But that doesn't mean he didn't do it. He did something very great, which was raise geese and fatten their liver, and to do that naturally. You know, that we didn't get to foie gras, it's important to admit that and to recognize it. And I don't know that it won't — it's happening now, we're about to slaughter in two weeks. We're about to do our geese slaughter for this year, but going on our last five years, I would say that we probably don't have incredibly fatty livers. But I don't know that that means that the foie gras has been a failure. In some ways it means that we've had to adapt in the kitchens and do something with it that ends up showing off how delicious these livers are, but without the benefit or without the paradigm of foie gras in the way that we think of foie gras, which is this huge, fatty liver. We have to change the game. And that's been the lesson for me.

What's that?
The lesson for me in the end wasn't about raising foie gras without gavage and how hard that is to do. The lesson is the true lesson from Eduardo, which is that you have to listen to the goose and what the goose is telling you that it wants to be. I think Craig's kind of liver is absolutely delicious, but it made me rethink this idea that we're in the pursuit of mimicking foie gras because that's the wrong pursuit. That's the lesson, but that was the larger arc.

Would you ever open another restaurant? If not, do you have any other upcoming new plans you can share?
Yeah, you know, I get asked this all the time...

Sorry chef, but you know I have to ask...
No, no, no, it's OK. I don't mind being asked at all. My brother and I have two restaurants and we have a café at Stone Barns. And my brother just launched a yogurt business, called Blue Hill Yogurts, which is 100 percent grass-fed yogurts. And then my brother does quite a bit of consulting and I've got my hands in other things in terms of writing this book, and so would we ever open up another restaurant? I mean, sure, I don't know. We didn't think we would open another restaurant here besides Blue Hill New York before and then we did. So I don't know, it could happen, but it's not something that we're out there seeking even though we're asked a lot. But there's quite a bit to figure out. Like that whole foie gras thing that I just told you about, I mean, that's my whole book and that took six years to figure out, and I would like to pursue those kinds of projects within the realm of what's here and not open up restaurants. But I really admire chefs who can continue to open up multiple restaurants. And I think that that's a real skill, but I don't know if it's something that we thrive at. So the short answer is no plans to make plans.

And for those who don't know, the name of the book is...?
It's The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.

So how important are reviews to you? Are you anticipating, for instance, that Pete Wells will re-review one or both of your restaurants in the near future?
How important are restaurant reviews to me? You're talking formalized reviews? I mean they seem to be very important [laughs]. It's a hard question to answer because they're very important except... listen, they're really important, and I would love for Pete Wells to visit anytime he wants to make a reservation.

Is there a chef who challenges you? Who inspires you to greater things?
Man, there are so many. It's like everywhere I look. I don't know. I don't know. There's a chef, Ángel León in Cadiz, in southern Spain — he's a big part of my book. He's fascinating. I see a brilliant chef. That's just to name one. It's just amazing; the breadth of talent and it's not even the breadth of talent. It's the breadth of talent that's been able to express themselves now all over the world. The global South is one area that I just know a little bit about just from going to Peru and knowing a couple of chefs in Mexico, but it's just incredible what's going on in good cooking and this idea that really great food, what 25 years ago when I was a line cook, when "great food" was haute food, was as we know European-focused, but even more than that it was expensive and had a kind of pomp and circumstance, and that's really just, that's just ancient history now. For a very good deal economically speaking, you can experience great cooking and great cuisine, and that's an amazing opportunity, and just an amazing development that we tend to lose light of. I'm just inspired by the idea you can go to these very informal restaurants and get stunning food. So Mads Refslund at Acme, is just one of those guys who not a lot of people have heard about, but I find him to be so inspiring and brilliant, and he was halfway around the world and now he's a block from Blue Hill New York, and I think he's doing some incredibly exciting impressive food. Just to name two off the cuff.

You've kind of already answered my next question, but what are the most interesting things happening in food today and where are they happening?
That wouldn't have been my answer that many years ago. I keep thinking about the South because it just seems like it's underreported, but that may be changing with the attention being given to Alex Atala and Gastón Acurio. Those guys are just unbelievable. But where are the most exciting things happening in the realm of like... boy, you got me there. It's hard to even put a top five list together on that. I think that chefs are opening up restaurants in places that are doing amazing things all over the world, and those are restaurants that are not requiring a ton of capital, and you're seeing great food. That's the frontier of the future of good eating, which is only going to grow.

Who would your choice for chef of the year be?
I don't know how to do that stuff, man. Sorry, that's hard for me.

A few quick, 12 Actor's Studio-type questions that we asked the chef to answer in as few words as possible:

What's your favorite flavor? [Laughs] Are you serious? I don't know.
What's your first food memory? My most significant food memory is actually a dual one. This isn't one word, but I just have an overall memory of my father cooking me scrambled eggs as a kid and they were pretty awful. And then I remember my aunt, that's the second memory, cooking scrambled eggs for me when I had strep throat when I was very, very young. And she cooked them over a double-boiler and they were soft and silky, and they slipped down my throat so gently. And I'll never forget the flavor of that — it was so soothing. But in part, it's because of father's bad cooking that got me to appreciate my aunt's cooking.
What one food can't you stand? I don't love over-manipulated food — lots of people's sweaty hands putting it together.
When did you first realize that you were going to be a chef? Was there one moment? No. But there have been many moments when I realized that I might never be a chef. I can name those for you.
What's your favorite tool in the kitchen besides your knife? Spoons. Not even knives. Spoon beats knife every time when we're playing rock, paper, scissors.
What qualities do you look for when you're hiring a chef? I'd go with two. I'd go with curiosity as one. And the second one is physicality. Are they ready to be quite physical, to really move? We downplay that a lot, but in our kitchens the physicality is the huge indicator, the huge determinant of a person's ability to succeed.
What's your favorite sandwich? Egg and cheese.
What's your favorite alcoholic drink? I like a cold beer.
What are you reading right now? [Laughs] I just finished writing my book. So now I'm catching up on reading my daughter's books to her. That's about it.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? I wanted to be a writer. I'd like to think that I would've been a writer. But who knows?
Who are your heroes? I don't know. I don't get asked that often enough, you know?
Who are your villains? Myself, man. I'm my own villain. I'm scared of me sometimes [laughs].

Chefs of the Year 2012

Interview with Chef of the Year, America: José Andrés — Chef Andrés talks about tasting menus, time-travel, social responsibility, working outside your comfort zone, the state of food in America, and why Spanish chefs love gin and tonic.

Interview with Chef of the Year, International: Massimo Bottura — Chef Bottura talks about the challenges of having some of the world's best ingredients, the importance of narrative, and the secret behind a successful tasting menu.

Chefs of the Year 2011

— The chef discusses whether Next is worth the work, chefs who blow him away, the possibility of a Next food truck, and reveals how Alinea might change, including the possibility of closing it in Chicago and going on the road.

Click for 2011 Chef of the Year, International: René Redzepi — The chef discusses refurbishing Noma; its homemade wine, beer, and schnapps program; weather as narrative; how to become a stagiare at Noma; and how his culinary philosophy can be applied outside Scandinavia.

Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Read more articles by Arthur, reach him by email, or click here to follow Arthur on Twitter.