The farm-to-table concept is one of the most foundational in contemporary American restaurants, and one of its most prominent champions fears it could become extinct.
Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of critically acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, is trying to enlist cooks from some of the world’s top kitchens to join what he calls the Kitchen Farming Project. It’s primarily meant to highlight the plight of a special class of small farms that have lost their restaurant customers.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which is set on a 400-plus-acre former Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., has been the epitome of farm-to-table cuisine for two decades. While it’s always used the produce from its own farmland, Blue Hill has also relied on smaller enterprises in the region for a catalog of flavorful, playful if sometimes eccentric, agricultural products (the habanero pepper that’s all sweetness and no heat, for example). “You can’t allow the relationship between chefs and farms to disappear, for however long this moment is going to be,” Barber says.
He sent messages to chefs around the world—“the big names, the 50 best”—asking them if they had a cook they’d allow to participate. Barner made it clear he didn’t want the chefs, but rather the younger disciples in their kitchens, to start the gardens. “This is not about us. This crisis effects the next generation.” The response? “They said, yeah, I want to get my chefs off the couch, too.”Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York was a fast yes, as was Christian Pugliese, who has several restaurants including Relae, in Copenhagen, as well as Ana Ros in Slovenia. Barber now has 104 cooks around the world who’ve started digging and planting, and the number grows every day.
The chefs who become part of his movement will set up 12-by-15-foot gardens to supply themselves and, possibly, their restaurants. These won’t directly benefit small farms but will, according to Barber, demonstrate the importance of diversified and rotating crops on one piece of land. These farmers preserve artisanal and legacy vegetables and grains as well as breed exciting new variants, all on relatively small parcels of property. Barber says farms that focus on just one crop, like corn, or even heirloom tomatoes, are depleting the land and are putting less popular vegetables and fruits crops at risk of eventually going out of circulation.
He says it’s crucial to come to the aid of small, diverse operations at a moment when big farmsare getting major support from the government. “It’s symbolic to start a conversation about what’s being lost,” he says. “Cooks don’t want to return to a world that’s serviced by megafarms in California, Arizona, and Texas. That’s what this comes down to. Chefs have been part of this exciting social movement called farm-to-table, and now this is a real inflection point,” he adds.
A survey of 500 farms in the Hudson Valley and across the country conducted by resourcED, a Stone Barns Center initiative that supports independent farmers during the pandemic, found that one-third of them were in danger of going out of business as a result of fallout from the Covid-19 crisis. Says Barber: “All these restaurants that support this network of incredible farms and diversity aren’t open now and might not be open again. Simultaneously, Big Farm is taking over.” The chef-owner of Blue Hill describes the findings as “standing on the shore watching the tsunami coming. It will be a slow burn. In the next year or two, a lot of them will take on more debt and realize they don’t have the resources to plant another season.”
Barber’s brother David, a co-owner of Blue Hill, adds that it’s not just restaurant closures that imperil small farms. “Companies like Google that source food in an eco-friendly manner buy large quantities of product from farms that promote regenerative agriculture. Now that Google isn’t running their cafeterias, it’s brought that demand to a halt, hobbling those farms,” David says.
Stone Barns Center farm director Jack Algiere created a “recipe” for all participating cooks. That includes one for ‘Garden Design’ (apart from the 12-by-15-foot patch of lawn, the ‘ingredients’ include one notebook, one pencil, a plan for finding seed, seedlings, and compost). The plot is divided into six suggested families of vegetables, including nightshades such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and brasiccas like kale and cabbage.
A highly visible example of Dan’s Kitchen Farming Project will soon be on display in lower Manhattan. He’s gotten permission from the Battery Conservancy to take over land in Battery Park. Barber is planning to tap cooks from around the five boroughs of New York City to farm the multiple plots on the land. “I told Warrie [Price, president of the conservancy] that I was coming in to start a guerrilla garden project and did I need to worry about getting arrested? And she said, ‘take an acre.’”
The famously demanding Barber jokes that all this frenetic garden building isn’t just to highlight the work of small farmers. It’s also to engage his idle kitchen hands. “My cooks were all spending all their time on You Tube and Instagram. I said ‘get off the couch!’” They’re now tending their own gardens in Stone Barns. In her small plot, line cook Pruitt Kerdchoochuen is growing Napa cabbage, mustard greens, arugula, and badger flame beets. “It sounded like not a lot of space, but there’s so much you can do,” she says. She’s also planting several pepper varieties including some from her native Thailand. And these pack heat.“I love hot sauce,” she says. “I might start my own little operation with my peppers.”
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