The Third Plate and Me

Let’s talk about The Third PlateField Notes on the Future of Food by chef Dan Barber.  This book, with surprisingly observant descriptions of a wide-ranging cast of characters (“…his eyes were like black holes, devouring everything in sight.”), humor that moves into deep seriousness, self-effacing and dogged inquisitiveness beset by exhaustive research, affirms for chefs like me that we’re thinking about and doing the right things in our kitchens. I don’t think there are many of us out there yet…at least not many with opportunities to do the kind of ecological cooking that Barber and I are doing. Still, things are happening…and a really good chef is actually stepping off the kitchen floor for once to write about it. That’s pretty freakin’ inspiring.

The thoughts Barber shares in this book stretch how we think about the ways our food is produced, how we eat food (Wtf does that mean? Think about it), why we eat what we eat, and how much the planet is getting shanked by our food systems right now. But it’s not all doom and gloom.  Actually very little is bleak or stark in this book. Highlighted are many chefs and food producers world wide who are waking up and stepping up. I am one of those chefs. Barber cooks at Blue Hill in Manhattan and at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  I cook at a small college in Northeast Vermont called Sterling College.

Cooks Taking Action

Some chefs are cooking everyday cuisine for everyday folks–folks looking to get back out to the fields, or head home to the family, or jet back to class, or all three as is the case at Sterling.  Some, like Barber and his driven and talented crew, are cooking for people paying hundreds for a meal. Yet the purpose is the same. To promote the call for an ecological way of thinking in cooking. As he writes, “A growing number of chefs have joined the ranks of activists advancing the agenda of changing our food system.” The topics explored in The Third Plate are topics of daily conversation among staff, faculty, and students at Sterling College, the agricultural college where I am executive chef.

We cooks, whether making puffed quinoa breaded salsify with smoked black sesame spread or a simple fall harvest minestrone (with some wild ramp pesto from the freezer), need each other for ideas and inspiration. The Third Plate has been that for me. You can tell by the dozens of marks I’ve put all over my copy. I mean check this sentence….”The curse is that, without a golden age in farming, and with a history that lacks a strong model for good eating, the values of true sustainability don’t penetrate our food culture.” Bam!

Why Read? Why Learn?

The subject and practice of what I call “forever food” has guided me through my cooking career…that and adrenaline, caffeine, a hunger to get more inventive with the craft, and an unexplainable feeling of deep peace whenever I step into a kitchen.  Yet I divest(get it?). Forever food is my philosophy that if the food produced is intended to be grown or raised indefinitely, and everything in the world is interconnected, then one needs to think about the entire system…not just the final product.  And aside from practicing what we preach, which trumps lofty theory any day of the week, the only way to continue having an informed view from which one can develop these kinds of ideas is to read books. Books like The Third Plate.

From the tough restaurants in Boston, to the fancy vegetarian spots in the Bay Area, to the serene Zen garden kitchens, to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, to my current job at Sterling in Northern Vermont, I’ve always pursued the purest, most delicious ingredients grown in the most responsible way. I’ve watched my chefs closely, I’ve learned from the “farm-to-table” restaurants I cooked at and restos I wished I cooked at (Chez Panisse in the 80’s musta been siiiick!) and have followed organizations like Chefs Collaborative.  I’ve taken my own Field Notes on the Future of Food.

Not having that much to do with reading per se, I worked a few times at Blue Hill at Stone Barns while I was in culinary school.  See my old post that touches on it.  That restaurant, to me, was the highlight of fine cuisine the world over.  Totally inventive, totally clean, super disciplined, incredibly fresh, infused with the right values.  I literally worked until I puked one night.  More on that in another post some other time.

Putting it into Practice for Reals

Sure, I’ve stumbled along the way, making uninformed choices…like when I threw out 100 pounds of Sterling grown cabbage because it was slightly moldy on the outside when I could’ve peeled those layers away and made a giant batch of kimchi or kraut… but that’s part of the process of becoming a purposeful chef. Even Barber has made errors. Like when he served endangered blue fin tuna and got called on it. And while Barber is certainly ahead of me in his knowledge and experience, I am close behind, learning from the farmers around me who plant with the entire ecosystem in mind, re-thinking menu design to revolve around what’s coming straight from the soil, getting deep with faculty over a meal in the dining hall, and listening to and cooking for the leaders in this movement when they visit the Sterling campus.

In many ways–with variations on the theme–the work at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is very similar to the work we’re doing at Sterling.  Both organizations focus on experiential learning. Both of us are trying out new ecological ideas.  Both are serving awesome food.  Sterling is like the humble quiet guy in the “education to farm-to food” room.  Stone Barns and Barber are the jubilant, center of attention types. But we could definitely hang together for a while.

Also similar to Barber’s work is the role I have put myself into at Sterling to constantly re-assess the food we wish to serve, always asking pertinent questions about what is the most sustainable way to create and serve carefully prepared food focused on being super delicious. Further, the farmers, faculty, students and I are trying to create a food system that feeds off of itself, that produces the best, freshest, and most eye-opening food possible, and most importantly is ecologically solid. Barber is bringing people together at Stone Barns–gardeners, livestock stewards, food scientists, farmers from all over the frickin’ place, aspiring chefs, food writers, and many other valuable people–to help him create a place of food system study, but most importantly to him I suspect, he wishes to make slammin food with the best possible flavors.  As he writes, “Truly great flavor–the kind that produces plain old jaw-dropping wonder–is a powerful lens into the natural world because taste buds break through the delicate things we can’t see or perceive.”  And “it[taste] can be a guide in reimagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.”

My week always begins with a walking tour of the gardens with the garden manager.  Also on Mondays we have a meeting with the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems team to discuss vegetables, animals, coursework, gab about our weekend, focus where we’re going with all of this, and everything in between.

At the college there’s a class called Food and Culture.  The class follows along with The Third Plate, generating assignments, discussion, field trips, experiential learning exercises, and guest speakers on a variety of topics highlighted in the book. I was invited to speak to the class, probably one of the most exciting things I’ve been asked to do in my career so far.  I showed up with beets.  Yes, beets.  Sweet and burgundy Red Cylindra beets.  Prepared in a variety of ways. I demonstrated that differing cooking techniques and the occasional help from scraps of meat and other staple vegetables can break the monotony of getting through the winter on storage crops alone. I spoke about my learning curve, coming into a food scene that made it possible for me to source most product locally and with the seasons and how this affected my menu design and my creativity.

It Ain’t Always Easy

Just as Barber realizes the benefits and challenges of using the infinitely interesting array of veggies and plants not in the chef’s usual repertoire, I often need to figure out how to work with certain ingredients the farm grows that are not on your “garden-variety” menus.  Some vegetables are good to grow for reasons having to do with beneficial farming techniques, or because Gwyneth, the garden manager, simply thought it would be good experience for her team of student farmers, or because they have interesting texture and flavor. And the use of entire pigs that we’ve raised, for instance, also becomes a challenge.  Two main reasons for this: How the flip do you make pig kidneys taste good to a college kid?  And how do you create a solid, rotating menu when you only have 3 pigs worth of ribs and 125 students who want ribs once a week all year round?  Barber might answer these questions by saying “make the kidneys taste absolutely amazing,” and “do away with menus.”

And I might agree…mostly.  I can create flexible, vague sorts of menus that allow for substitutions and specifics later, like “pork night with seasonal garden veggies.” But to eliminate menus altogether would create a nightmare with ordering. It would also most likely leave my cooks flustered–they would essentially be preparing meals on the fly, which means the food would not be as great as it could be given enough time for the team to fully think things through. Hopefully, one day I’ll look back at this paragraph and eat my words.  I know there is more thinking to do, more action to take, until we come up with the best flow for Sterling’s food systems.

It’s exciting to feel like part of a movement of chefs, farmers, authors, educators, students, that is not just re-connecting with old ways of cultivation and cooking(a worthy cause for sure), but forging forward with farming and food preparation in very natural, intuitive, and collaborative ways that have been intentionally kiboshed by big ag business, over-use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the ever present challenge of the way Americans eat.

Barber rhetorically asks “How do we eat?” And he answers “Mostly with a heavy hand,” which is to say that we demand alot from our ecosystem in our desire for specific cuts of steak, our boneless and skinless chicken breast, and our itty sides of veggies and grains. Yet what becomes of the other parts of the beef and chicken that required so many natural resources to rear? What if, for example, the veggies and grains were more important to us? Or we more deeply embraced other parts of the animals we consume?  How would that shift what was on our plates? Could that bring about a shift from the dire condition of our current environment?

I really enjoyed The Third Plate.  It gets me thinking, and it makes me realize that I’m connected to something good.  It’s not just about how good of a chef I can be, and what signature dish I can create.

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