Dan Barber: Rags and riches. Can the two coexist?
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When I fell in love with Dan Barber's way of cooking it was when 'Rotation Risotto' appeared on his menu.
Award winning chef of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and among the 100 most influential men in the world according to Times Magazine in 2009, Barber concentrates on flavor and relies on sustainable and ethical farming techniques to fulfil an ever changing menu according to what the farm yields.
It was not the first time I had heard of feeding chicken red peppers to make the yolk red. My husband's Russian grandfather did the same until he was 95 and it was often just because that was what he had to feed the chickens. However, Barber consciously created this colour and taste and unlike our beloved Russian farmer, Barber made it trendy and makes a small fortune from it.
Once I explain the concept of 'Rotation Risotto' it will clarify Barber's approach which is a beautiful but quite a paradoxical mix of organic, ethical and basic farming techniques with gastronomy and wealth. Do the two go together? How do the rags and riches coexist?
Having grown up on Blue Hill Farm in New York State, Barber continues to work with and rely on farmed produce. One particular organic farmer, from whom Barber buys wheat, plants crops such as buckwheat, barley and millet as rotation crops in order to keep the soil fertile, healthy and pest free. These rotation crops do not sell well and usually end up in bags for animal feed. Barber, concerned for the waste and total negligence given to these potentially tasty grains, took them and created a recipe using them called 'Rotation Risotto'. Otherwise a loss for the farmer, these crops were used and generated a supplementary income.
Barber also engineered a way to optimize dairy farming and at the same time veal consumption. More than half of the calves born on any given farm are females which means the male counterpart are essentially useless for milk production. On conventional farms these calves are taken away from their mother almost immediately and bred, often in bad conditions, for veal (and not a particularly tasty one). Barber, being a more ethical farmer and of course greatly concerned with taste and quality, worked with a dairy farm so that the male calves stayed with their mother drinking her milk and were reared on the farm. Obviously, they ended up as veal but at least their short life was a happier one. This veal, according to Barber, is in a different world taste wise and helped diversify and sustain the farmers livelihood.
These are just two examples of how Barber and his team at Blue Hill take the rags (surplus grain and unwanted farm animals and convert them into riches (gastronomic dishes). At $88 - 98 a menu, Barber definitely makes a good living on converting wholesome raw materials into expensive, minimalist but famously mouth-watering dishes.
Can we berate Barber for this? Is a piece of bread the size of a biscuit really worth the money and effort involved? Some will say no and some will say yes. It is much the same as some people prefer organic over non-organic produce. If the ethical values override the cost then it will sell.
Barber has created a market for great tasting food through ecological and sustainable farming. The proof is in the pudding and for as long as his two restaurants remain popular, his concept is a success and proves that rags and riches can coexist.