Barber proposes eating way to better food system

Dan Barber tells his story in the United States. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Dan Barber tells his story in the United States. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
World renowned chef, author and voice of the farm-to-table movement Dan Barber spoke to the Eat New Zealand’s annual hui recently. Rebecca Fox reports on his vision of the future of food.

The old saying goes "The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach" but one of the world’s best chefs, Dan Barber believes dropping the "a" might just be the key to the future of the food system.

He believes people will pay for delicious food, so not only does it provide the perfect vehicle for getting important messages across, it has the ability to change the food system.

It also means chefs and restaurants have a key part to play, he says, as they are trusted and have the undivided attention of diners.

"We should be creating deliciousness out of rotation crops that encourage the right kind of agriculture and best ecological practices and they also happen to be delicious."

Barber, chef and co-owner of award-winning restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barn in New York state and its sister restaurant in Manhattan, Blue Hill, spoke with Eat New Zealand CEO Angela Clifford online at the organisation’s annual Food Hui in Christchurch.

He says the colonisation-based extractive food systems of the United States and New Zealand are at the root of both countries’ food system problems.

"It is so misguided. It is lunacy."

Indigenous food cultures, on the other hand, are based in replenishing the land or seas they take from and that is the approach people need to get back to.

"What we eat and how we eat supports the world we want to live in — that is very powerful and complex."

"Encourage as many people to be passionate about issues as you can and we will win the day and I think it will be much sooner that imagine," he told hui attendees.

It can be as simple as people taking a "anticolonial" stance by eating a diverse diet such as their choice of breakfast cereal.

"Support grains that are undersupported, and undervalued.

"What need to do think about is an eating culture that encourages rotation that were pre-colonial, pre-extractive agriculture."

People exercising their right of choice has a power that Barber thinks is not exercised enough.

"You put your middle finger up to that ideal and create a market that fights against that idea."

The abundance in America and New Zealand has led to the corporatisation of their food systems, he believes.

"It’s the kind of ecologies that are rich and have great depth that allow for monocultures. Those areas of the world, that are difficult to grow food in have some of the most interesting food traditions surrounding them."

Japan is an example where buckwheat and barley are essential rotation crops which break disease cycles and create nitrogen and allow the natural biological community to flourish, so rice can grow.

"So they make soba noodles. They eat rice twice a day but also eat soba in order to support rice culture.

"In India you eat wheat but you[’d] better eat your lentils ’cause lentils as a rotation crop is only way to get nitrogen to grow wheat."

He finds that give and take fascinating.

"From an eating culture standpoint I think that shows negotiation going on from what land produces and what culture supports."

However America, with all of its richness, is hobbled by the fact it is so rich in food as it has never been forced into those negotiations.

"We’ve always been able to live high on the hog and introduce technology, fertilisers and pesticides and ... our agriculture has not only become bread basket to world but has overfed our population without any kind of dictates of cuisine."

Instead, a sustainable food culture should look at the landscape in a holistic way by making use of those crops needed to grow the "star" crop such as wheat or rice.

Dan Barber's restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, north of New York. PHOTO: JONATHAN YOUNG
Dan Barber's restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, north of New York. PHOTO: JONATHAN YOUNG
"In America we talk about nose to tail in an animal but we don’t often talk about nose to tail in a landscape — what does a farmer need to grow in those rotations to make soil healthy and create abundance in their ecology?

"Those are the kind of things as chefs we work into our menus and popularise because if we don’t we are just cherry-picking, it isn’t organic and it is very short-sighted."

Barber, who is a big fan of New Zealand’s grass-fed animal system, says the food world is being up-ended and is coming to a fork in the road. In one direction is fake meat and technology and the other is good clean agriculture, he says.

"My sense is we cut through the ... [nonsense] and go with something more real, in part because it’s more delicious and pleasant and hedonistic.

"In America, hedonism works and they’re willing to pay more for it, so I’m quite hopeful about future."

His take is that will support farming and in turn an "eating climate that is much more dynamic and interesting and delicious."

The most recent endeavour of Michelin-starred Barber, an early adopter of the farm to table movement, is Row 7 Seeds, a collaboration between the kitchen and growers to develop seeds that produce "the most delicious food".

He says seeds are under-appreciated and if attention is not paid to them then the world is never going to circle out of a food system that commodifies a few ingredients, reaches very few people and puts the power in the hands of multinational corporations "which at end of day have no interest in feeding us good food".

"My goal now is to bring light and attention to the fact seeds determine the food system and if we don’t change the seeds we don’t change the food system."

Barber, who featured on Netflix series Chef’s Table, is a strong proponent of change being driven by the public, not politicians.

"Encourage as many people to be passionate about issues as you can and we will win the day and I think it will be much sooner that imagine," he told hui attendees.

It can be as simple as people taking a "anticolonial" stance by eating a diverse diet such as their choice of breakfast cereal.

"Support grains that are undersupported, and undervalued.

"What need to do think about is an eating culture that encourages rotation that were pre-colonial, pre-extractive agriculture."

People exercising their right of choice has a power that Barber thinks is not exercised enough.

"You put your middle finger up to that ideal and create a market that fights against that idea."

The abundance in America and New Zealand has led to the corporatisation of their food systems, he believes.

"It’s the kind of ecologies that are rich and have great depth that allow for monocultures. Those areas of the world, that are difficult to grow food in have some of the most interesting food traditions surrounding them."

Japan is an example where buckwheat and barley are essential rotation crops which break disease cycles and create nitrogen and allow the natural biological community to flourish, so rice can grow.

"So they make soba noodles. They eat rice twice a day but also eat soba in order to support rice culture.

"In India you eat wheat but you[’d] better eat your lentils ’cause lentils as a rotation crop is only way to get nitrogen to grow wheat."

He finds that give and take fascinating.

"From an eating culture standpoint I think that shows negotiation going on from what land produces and what culture supports."

However America, with all of its richness, is hobbled by the fact it is so rich in food as it has never been forced into those negotiations.

"We’ve always been able to live high on the hog and introduce technology, fertilisers and pesticides and ... our agriculture has not only become bread basket to world but has overfed our population without any kind of dictates of cuisine."

Instead, a sustainable food culture should look at the landscape in a holistic way by making use of those crops needed to grow the "star" crop such as wheat or rice.

"In America we talk about nose to tail in an animal but we don’t often talk about nose to tail in a landscape — what does a farmer need to grow in those rotations to make soil healthy and create abundance in their ecology?

"Those are the kind of things as chefs we work into our menus and popularise because if we don’t we are just cherry-picking, it isn’t organic and it is very short-sighted."

Barber, who is a big fan of New Zealand’s grass-fed animal system, says the food world is being up-ended and is coming to a fork in the road. In one direction is fake meat and technology and the other is good clean agriculture, he says.

"My sense is we cut through the ... [nonsense] and go with something more real, in part because it’s more delicious and pleasant and hedonistic.

"In America, hedonism works and they’re willing to pay more for it, so I’m quite hopeful about future."

His take is that will support farming and in turn an "eating climate that is much more dynamic and interesting and delicious."