TORONTO — What does the future of food look like? Just ask Dan Barber. The award-winning American chef answers that question, and many more, in a 452-page book that examines what sustainable food really means, challenging many of today’s accepted beliefs about farm to fork.
Barber, who was voted one of 2009’s most influential people by Time magazine, was in Toronto yesterday to promote his book, The Third Plate, and to speak to Alison Fryer, who interviewed him in front of an audience of students, foodies and media at George Brown College. His impassioned and compelling Q&A with Fryer’s challenged the audience to look at food differently.
At the heart of his philosophy is the belief that the local-food movement hasn’t changed the way we eat. As promotional materials for his book state, “It’s also offered a false promise for the future of food.” He adds: “Farm to table may sound right — it’s direct and connected — but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.”
Barber believes that ultimately even local foods are detrimental to the environment and to personal health. The title of his book, Third Plate, refers to a new approach to eating. In the past we tended to eat a “first plate” — a classic meal centered on a large cut of meat with few vegetables, over the past decade, the local-food movement has promoted a “second-plate” approach, featuring free-range animals and locally sourced veggies. Barber maintains that while the second plate is better tasting and better for the planet, its architecture is similar to the first. The solution, according to Barber, is the third plate, which includes vegetable, grain and livestock supported and dictated by what we choose to cook for dinner.
For a time, as an experiment, Barber got rid of his restaurant’s menus. “Instead diners were presented with a list of ingredients,” explained the author. “Some vegetables, like peas, made multiple appearances throughout the meal. Others, such as rare varieties of lettuce, became part of a shared course for the table…. The list was evidence that the farmers dictated the menu. I was thrilled.” But, Barber realized that abandoning the menu wasn’t enough. He was more interested in an organizing principle — a collection of dishes (or cuisine) instead of a list of ingredients, reflecting a whole system of agriculture. He argues that the third plate is where good farming and good food intersect.
The toque implores his peers to advance the notion of truly sustainable food. “Chefs are at the forefront of the movement. We shouldn’t say we can’t make it better. We can translate the natural world through great flavour and technique. We need chefs to create a culture around certain foods,” he said. “What if we look at restaurants as connectors — a place to connect and experience truly delicious bread and butter, for example.”
In addition to running Blue Hill restaurant, in New York’s West Village, Barber runs Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located within the non-profit farm Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in upstate New York.