If you read only one book about food this year, let it be this one. The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin Press, 2014, $32.00) by Dan Barber takes the discussion about food to a new level. As soon as I closed the back cover, I turned to the first page and started again because Barber’s writing style is so compelling and his subjects so intriguing. Amid discourses about the ecology of natural food systems and the revival of ancient seeds, Barber writes about everything that impacts the end goal of all chefs – the flavour of food.
As a chef, Barber has come to realize that “truly flavourful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in the kitchen.” And it starts on the farm. The land imparts flavour to everything: plants get their flavour from the soil, which in turn feed the animals. Barber argues that flavour has diminished because of changes in farming practices that deteriorate the health of the soil, like decreasing crop rotation and increasing chemical use.
Barber is a perfect guide for this next level of food education. He grew up on a family farm and his two Blue Hill restaurants in New York are linked to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a research foundation doing innovative things in the culinary world. Not the least of these is spreading the word about the third plate – “an integrated system of vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is fully supported – in fact, dictated – by what we choose to cook for dinner. The third plate is where good farming and good food intersect.”
Barber sees it as a logical progression to replace the previous two plates, which he describes as a traditional steak meal with a side of vegetables (the first plate), followed by the farm-to-table meal with the same meat, but grass-fed, and heirloom vegetables produced more organically (the second plate). Barber is slightly critical of the traditional farm-to-table plate when saying, “Farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” The distinction he makes between the second and third plate is that even with organic, sustainable products, for the second plate they are being grown according to an agenda. He feels that food the land provides most naturally should be the driving force, not the chefs designing a menu and then demanding the food required for it.
His Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, set on a farm surrounded by the land that provides the crops and livestock, started as a farm-to-table restaurant, but has evolved into much more. There is a symbiotic relationship at work with the farm’s morning harvest arriving in the kitchen’s coolers and being used by the end of dinner service. Chefs have a vested interest in what farmers are producing, thus Barber’s reason for this close association. Barber writes that “a chef’s worth is largely determined by his interpretation of great ingredients.” This is why his restaurant has no menu. He takes what comes in from his farmers and creates the meals out of the day’s bounty.
His investigations into organic farming highlight the importance of soil health, insect control, and crop diversity, and he seeks out farmers that model these practices to breed crops and animals for flavour, rather than volume. Barber’s popularity draws people like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills who passes off specialty seeds to chefs to get exposure for grains that are not well known, but are unique and flavourful. When Roberts came calling with special corn seeds, Barber saw it as “a chance to work with an ingredient no other restaurant could offer on its menu.”
Choosing what goes on a menu is an important decision; Barber learned the hard way by serving Bluefin tuna with his farm fresh yield and getting called out on it for using a fish nearing depletion. This led him to Chef Angel Leon from Spain who has convinced fishermen to sell him the types of seafood that become detritus on fishing boats. This initiative has lessened waste in the industry, and broadened the fish options on his menu.
Barber tackles other controversial menu items, like foie gras and Iberico ham. The system that harvests Iberico ham is so natural it seems odd to call it farming. Iberian pigs live on the dehesa tracts of land in Spain and gorge themselves on acorns from November to March each year. There is an art to raising these pigs and curing the ham they provide, and a line of dedicated farmers keep the process going by nurturing the natural systems to ensure long-term sustainability, knowing that any negative impacts to the ecosystem are detrimental to the ham’s flavour.
The third plate is still an idea on the fringes of the culinary world, but Barber wants it to evolve it into an overriding philosophy of cooking that focuses on the whole farm, the whole animal, and by-products usually thrown aside. Barber is an eloquent and engaging writer who provides an entertaining book of creative ideas, the same way he cooks creative cuisine, for all of us to think about and hopefully realize.
DARIN COOK is a freelance writer who works and plays in Chatham-Kent, and keeps himself well-read and well-fed by visiting the bookstores and restaurants of London.