Chef Dan Barber, Author of The Third Plate, On Must-Read Books For Chefs and The Next Frontier of The Farm-To-Table Movement

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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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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria