As a travel writer, I get invited to a lot of events by Parisian hotels promoting their latest renovations or awards or new restaurants (I know, life is tough). I rarely have time to go to them all, but when I received an email from the Plaza Athénée inviting me to a lunch prepared by American chef Dan Barber, I cleared my entire day.
If you don’t already know about Dan Barber’s Manhattan restaurant Blue Hill, or his family’s Upstate New York farm, or his TED Talks on natural foie gras (made without force feeding the geese) and how he fell in love with a fish (sustainable and tasty), or even how he was named one of Time Magazine’s World’s 100 Most Influencial People in 2009, know this:
Dan Barber is on a crusade to bring flavor back to the table. Not just to the tables of Michelin-starred restaurants, but to YOUR table.
Alain Ducasse, who has enough Michelin stars in his restaurants around the world, is one of Dan’s greatest supporters, which is why he brought him to the Plaza Athénée, to showcase not only his cooking skills, but also his culinary philosophy.
Dan Barber, with Alain Ducasse in the background, at the Plaza Athénée.
To put it simply, Dan Barber believes that it’s not enough to be a good chef if you’re not cooking with the best products. And to find the best products, you have to go further than the shop or market, further than the farmers and growers. According to Dan, you have to reach the breeders.The breeders are the ones who are deciding which seeds will be available for the farmers to plant. They can breed for longevity on the supermarket shelves. They can breed for strength so they look pretty even after getting shipped across several continents. Or they could be bred for flavor. “And the most interesting thing we’ve discovered,” says Dan, “is that when you breed for flavor, you also happen to be breeding for nutrition. The healthiest produce with the highest concentration of nutrients also happen to be those with the best flavor. We’re genetically-programmed ourselves to eat what tastes best, because it’s better for us.”
Dan isn’t against genetically-modified foods if those foods are better tasting and better for us. “Farmers markers are great, and they’re an exploding niche in American, but they’re still a niche. Only 2% of our food in the US comes from farmers markets.” He explained that if a country as large as the United States wants to get healthy, flavorful food to the majority of the population, and remain sustainable, that we’d have to be producing and distributing it at the industrial level. We need to find a way to make industrialization work for us, instead of against us.
The menu, featuring Dan Barber’s specially-bred produce and pork (and Ducasse Champagne).
So Dan and his family and colleagues at Blue Hill Farm are on a crusade to convince breeders to move into the 21st century and put all of our knowledge about modern breeding and genetics to start making produce that not only looks good and withstands shipping, but also tastes great and gives us the nutrients we need.
But Dan is amazingly humble for an internationally-acclaimed chef, let alone a crusader. When I sat down with him for an interview the day before the lunch, he seemed honestly amazed that Alain Ducasse had invited him to his restaurant.”I’m not sure why I’m here,” he said in a way that made me wonder if perhaps there was a little country rat named Rémy hiding under his toque.
As it turns out, he’s not a slick self-promoter full of bravado and pithy sound bites. But he knows how to combine engaging story-telling with a perfectly prepared gourmet meal, and that is what really gets everyone’s attention these days.
Some photos that don’t do the meal justice at all, including the Barber Wheat Brioche, top left. And yes, that’s an actual pig on the bottom left.
At lunch, Dan presented the food writers, journalists, and VIP guests with his family’s own breed of wheat they helped develop with breeders, the appropriately-named Barber Wheat, which was used to make the Brioche we’d be eating as part of our meal.
“I’ve been working with breeders to create new varieties of wheat that will be grown on the East Coast of the United States that are completely new. They are varieties marry heirloom genetics with new, more recent genes to produce fantastic flavor. The hope is to work with other vegetables, and also with animals and animal husbandry, to create flavors that respect the past but also use the wisdom of modern breeding and genetics to create new possibilities for the farmer, and for the chef.”
So what’s the takeaway of this meal, other than a full tummy?
The knowledge that good food doesn’t just have to be something you only get to enjoy in fancy restaurants or if you’re one of the 2% with access to excellent products or farmers markets. As consumers, we need to start asking for better food from our supermarkets, too, so that they demand it from the farmers, and they in turn demand it from the breeders. Keep an eye on Dan Barber and what he’s doing, spread the word, and support those — chefs, markets, farmers, breeders — who are fighting to make healthy, flavorful food available to the masses, not just the lucky few.