He's been named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World, and if you want to know why, all you have to do is pick up a copy of The Third Plate. In the 2014 book, James Beard Award-winning chef Dan Barber explores limitations of the farm-to-table movement as it stands today -- and challenges chefs to push for a truly sustainable food system.
The book, which took Barber more than 10 years to research, takes readers to the Spanish dehesa and back, going into the fields and farms that are slowly revolutionizing the way we eat. By taking a critical look at the current farm-to-table concept, Barber finds a way to unite ethical eating with great tasting food.
His solution is "the third plate," a new, integrated system of farming and eating that's both better for the earth and better tasting.
On Tuesday, April 14, Barber will come to Phoenix for a dinner and book-signing event at Southern Rail and Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix. Phoenix chef Justin Beckett will prepare a three-course, all-Arizona dinner inspired by The Third Plate, followed by a meet and greet and book talk/signing with Barber.
Earlier this week, we chatted with Barber before his upcoming visit to Phoenix.
NT: As a diner, consumer, or home cook, where can we start to help make the changes you discuss in the book?
DB: Well, shopping at the farmers market is definitely a start. I just take issue with, you know, shopping at the farmers market and then wearing that on our sleeve as the answer to the whole change in the food system. So I think, first of all, cooking would be the first thing. To cook is to enact a lot of things that are positive for change. By cooking, we're not allowing other people to cook for us, which is probably healthier and more delicious.
But in terms of going beyond that I think cooking with diversity is the best thing. I cook with lots of diversity, and it really helps change the agricultural landscape. Especially if you cook [with] locally [grown produce] because then farmers -- good farmers, the best farmers -- are forced into growing with lots of diversity, which is the best way to improve the soil and the flavor of vegetables. So if we eat with a lot of diversity we tend to encourage the right kind of agriculture.
Would you say that's the same advice you'd give to a chef?
You know in the book I ask chefs to shoulder a lot of this because they can create these menus and they have the scale to be able to put some of the pieces together that really create a pattern of eating. If people enjoy a certain menu or a certain style from a restaurant that tends to bleed into the culture eventually, and that's, I think, really important for change. I don't know if the homecook can do that as readily.
So yeah, I put a lot of pressure on chefs to take local to another level, which is to really take advantage of locality by expressing what the locality says about the environment, [and] what the food says about the environment. Then you create a plate, or more often, a menu, and a delicious meal and use that to help create a framework for a cuisine that takes full advantage of the landscape. But that's a lot of...that's hard work.
In the book you talked about how it all started with heirloom tomatoes, people finally starting to understand vegetables, and sourcing better vegetables. Then it spread to meat, and now, there's a lot of awareness about grains. Do you see another family of ingredients or type of food that will be the next benefit from raised awareness?
I mean, I think breeding is the next frontier of this. As we continue to diversify our plates and put the pieces together, we can really breed for those menus and create new varieties of grains and vegetables that respond better to a changing environment, which means they end up being more pest resistant or they end up being water tolerable or they end up having greater fruit per vine. They end up making the farmer more money and they end up tasting more delicious.
And all of that's really possible thanks to the advancements in breeding -- and I'm not talking about genetic modification. I'm talking about Old World breeding, but doing it in a modern context. I think that's the next frontier of the movement.
The idea of "the third plate" was obviously -- not, maybe, where you started -- but led to a lot of the questions answered in the book. And in the end of the book you talked about what it would look like. But is that something you see ten years away from becoming the norm? Or fifty years? How far off do you see that future?
You know, that's a tough question. I don't know. One of the great things about American food culture is that we tend to adopt new trends and habits very quickly. So that's a positive possibility for the adaptation of these new ideas. On the other hand, there's a problem with our food culture, that we don't have any culture. So we're not tied to the landscape in a way that traditional cuisines are, or even modern cultures that have, at their base, traditional cuisines. I mean, they might adhere to them in modern ways, but they're tethered to something. We're really not.
So how long does that take to work our way through that and create patterns? I think it's generations. And I think chefs are pretty uniquely positioned at this point to help create that culture. Because restaurants, increasingly, are places of celebration and places where my messages get broadcast, of social issues and change. And that's for better or for worse. Some people think that's not a good development, and I'm not here to -- I'm only stating the reality, which is chefs have this possibility, with menus, to broadcast a very large message. And the message I think is being broadcast the most, and most effectively, is the sense of place.
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There are several ways to interact with the natural world. As more and more people live in urban settings, we all want the pleasures and the beauty and experience of the natural world. We can actually do that though a plate of food because a delicious plate of food has a direct connection to how the world was used, in a good way. The argument in the book is that you can taste that and it's a very powerful phenomenon, actually. It's serendipitous, for people who like to eat, anyway. So training ourselves to be better acquainted with really good flavor is smart. It's smart in the environmental sense, and then figuring out a way to connect the pieces so that we're really supporting what the landscape can produce -- and produce effectively --for the future is key. You know, again, I don't know that the homecook can set those patterns, but I think that the homecook can help push that along.
Restaurants can set a tone, and chefs can create this template. We already do. I mean, look at Applebee's menu and California Pizza Kitchen, or any of these places. I just did this the other day just as a weird exercise. I just ended up going through the menu and almost all the dishes are directly related to something that a fine dining chef had introduced in the 80s or 90s. It takes that long to bleed into the everyday food culture. They get dumbed down or transmutated, but ultimately, those ideas flow from the top. So that's not to say this is a top down movement; although, the culture, the impregnating of ideas, I think that comes from up high.
Looking around today in 2015, would you say you see signs that we're changing the food culture in the ways you want to see it changed?
Yeah, I think so. Look at fine dining restaurants today. Five years ago -- ten years ago, for sure, but even five years ago-- to have a fine dining restaurant meant that you put lobster, foie gras, and caviar on the menu without question. It wasn't even an issue. Well, today very few restaurants have those ingredients, and more and more often, menus are exploitive and illustrative of place, of region. Because that's what diners want. They want to come to a place and experience it. They come to the restaurant, Blue Hill, and they want to experience the Husdon Valley. They go to Michigan, and they want to experience, well, what it is about this place that is unique.
That's the opposite of where we were ten or fifteen years ago. You know, you didn't necessarily want uniqueness when you were traveling. You wanted something that you were familiar with. Well, that's not happening and that's because chefs have demanded to break out of that mold. It might not be necessarily because chefs are environmentalist, or nutritionists, or any of those. But we're sort of all of them because we're so fixed on pursuing great flavor. And that generally comes down to, when we're talking about great food, it generally means expressing a local context - a local agriculture, a local farming context. Those are things that are becoming more celebrated because chefs are putting them on the table.
For chefs who have read The Third Plate, but are looking to expand their knowledge of what it means to re-build the food system, what would you say are required readings?
For chefs I think Rene Redzepi's two books on his cooking are really phenomenal. They talk about this issue in the context of his not wanting to follow the line of high-end restaurants. He's really turned the notion of fine dining on its head, single-handedly. He's become quite famous for doing it, and rightfully so. And he has a nice articulation of what that means, and how it plays out on a menu.
And it's a beautiful cookbook.
Yeah, it is. But I think it's even more. I would say that's a great place for a young chef to start out with these ideas because you see it in action. You know, in The Third Plate you see it in action too, but it adds a much more philosophical bent.
I know you've talked about how "farm-to-table" is not perfect, but do you have a phrase you wish was used in place of that?
Well, you know, that's a good question I've been asked....I mean, maybe. But I think more than that it's sort questioning how it's being practiced. I don't know if it needs a name change. It just needs a definition that goes beyond just cherry-picking ingredients. So, no, I wouldn't go for a name change, I would go for what it really means to be a farm-to-table advocate or practitioner.
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It's the same way that organic isn't practiced the way organic was meant, but I'm not an advocate for changing the word. We should look at what organic really stands for, wholeness. Organic as an organism, the whole thing. We've dumbed it down to a farming method. No pesticides and no fertilizers. But it obviously means much more than that and so, I think that's a good place to start. To stick with the definition, but to make it more complicated, and in that way, deeper. Which is really what we need to do with a lot of definitions that end up getting co-opted and dumbed down.
Dan Barber will appear at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Tuesday, April 14. Tickets to the three-course dinner cost $79 per person. Reservations are required and can be made online. Tickets to the meet and greet/book talk, which admit two, are free when you purchase The Third Plate from Changing Hands Bookstore.
For more information check the Changing Hands Bookstore website.