Chef presents his vision of the future of food

Dab Barber by a greenhouse

Dan Barber (in chef's apron) at a greenhouse and farm operated by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. [Photo by Jerry DeWitt]

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“It was like I was the Emperor with no clothes.”

That’s how farm-to-table chef Dan Barber describes his visit to an upstate New York farm, where he had been sourcing wheat for bread that was getting rave reviews from customersat his accliamed Blue Hill restaurant. He was curious to find out what made the wheat so delicious.

Instead, organic farmer Klaas Martens became the star of Barber’s best-selling book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. Barber talked about his book and the essential connection between soil and food when he presented the Shivvers Memorial Lecture on April 8 at Iowa State University. An estimated 580 people attended the event, a record number for this annual lecture hosted by the Leopold Center.

On the New York organic farm, Barber expected to see vast wheat fields rather than an assortment of crops – from clover, corn and millet to kidney beans, broccoli and buckwheat – and very little wheat. The other crops were part of a complicated rotation that Martens used to increase fertility and structure of the soil and disrupt disease cycles. While there were good markets for wheat, corn and soybeans, Barber said Martens wasn’t able to sell some of the other crops; some were plowed back into the soil.

“Here I was, a poster child for the farm-to-table movement and I wasn’t using any of those other crops in my menus, just the wheat. I wasn’t investing in the entire system,” he said. “It was a gastronomic revelation and an agricultural one.”

The visit provided the basis for Barber’s theory that sustainable cuisines historically have included all products from a region. Those products vary widely, depending on what the local landscape, farming community and ecology can support. Usually out of necessity, certain ingredients are used in new ways or become substitutes for others.

Likewise, he said future food systems need to make better use of all products in that system. “Eating from the whole farm” is a concept that needs to be adopted by the local foods movement.

“We need to figure out what a farmer needs to grow so he can raise the food that we covet,” Barber said. “We shouldn’t be able to just cherry-pick from the farm, buy our tomatoes and zucchini and go home. We need to make use of all the parts of the system.”

His Blue Hill restaurant serves Rotation Risotto, a dish that combines foods from many of the crops in Martens’ rotation. It includes sprouted or malted grains, a puree of cowpea shoots and mustard greens, what one of his waiters describes as a “nose-to-tail approach to the farm.”

Barber says this approach will provide numerous opportunities, especially in regions that specialize in crops well-suited to the local soils and climate.

“A good plate of food that is delicious is an expression of good agriculture,” he said.


More about the annual Shivvers Lecture

Interview with Barber on Iowa Public Radio's Talk of Iowa