Hi again! After a couple of weeks of travelling with rather poor internet access, I’m back in a semi-routine, albeit in Spain (hola!) which will hopefully allow me to contribute more again over the summer. The upside was that during the trip, I had the chance to review and reflect on a truly extraordinary book – Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, published by Penguin Press.
In a time where we already have a number of journalists and writers tackling the question of what future we should seek for our food system, Barber’s contribution is unique from the very start due to his profession: he’s a chef. And as such, the quality of the food he cooks with – and, relatedly, the quality of the food system it stems from – is of uttermost importance to him.
I am reminded that truly flavorful food involves a recipe more complex than anything I can conceive in the kitchen. A bowl of polenta that warms your senses and lingers in your memory becomes as straightforward as a mound of corn and as complex as the system that makes it run. It speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer – to the entirety of the landscape, and how it fits together. It can best be expressed in places where good farming and delicious food are inseparable. This book is about these stories.
As Chef of the restaurant Blue Hills in Manhattan, and Blue Hills at Stone Barns, which is situated within the nonprofit farm and education center, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, Barber sought to present a truly sustainable farm-to-table dining experience. But after the farm he collaborated with carefully raised a handful of grass-fed lambs over weeks, only for the lamb chops to sell out within minutes of their appearance on the menu, he realized that farm-to-table, or sustainable eating in general, defies simplistic approaches:
Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day (and I should know, since I do it often), but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. Which is really about an expected way of eating. It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops, because if they don’t, the chef, or even the enlightened shopper, will simply buy from another farmer.
Through this insightful analysis of the economic and social complexity connected to farming choices, Barber thus sets out to find out what our future dinner plate should look like. His thesis at the start is that it cannot look like the ‘first plate’ of the industrial food system, heavy on protein and starches produced in intensive monocultures, but also not like the ‘second plate’ en vogue now, where we replace all elements by organic, grass-fed or fair-trade equivalents, but still oblige farmers to grow ecologically demanding and expensive crops. But what then?
This question first leads him to the vegetable garden of his very own restaurant, where the resident farmer is coaxing the sweetest, most flavorful carrots from the soil by truly understanding soil chemistry and the importance of working with nature, rather than against it (this is the ‘Earth’ part). Then, for his ‘Land’ section’, we travel with Barber to the Spanish region of Extremadura (funnily enough, I read this just a couple of days before my departure to the bordering Andalusia). Here, he visits a colorful character that uses the traditional dehesa system (well-known for producing jamon iberico) to produce non-force-fed foie gras. This, again, is done by understanding the urges and habits of the animals (geese in this case) and carefully modifying their environment in order to get the result (aka that they eat a lot right before slaughter).
For the ‘Sea’ section, we stay in Spain, this time trying to understand whether sustainable aquaculture is possible, by visiting a fish farm with exactly that claim. And finally, the ‘Seed’ section leads us back to the United States and to a collaboration with seed breeders, where I finally learned in detail the difference between breeding and genetically modifying seeds, as well as gaining a great insight in the recent developments in this field.
Although I am tempted to keep you on your toes so that you read the book, Barber’s insights are too important not to be shared – spoilers ahead!
What we refer to as the beginning and end of the food chain – a field on a farm at one end, a plate of food at the other – isn’t really a chain at all. The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together. Which is how I came to understand that the right kind of cooking and the right kind of farming are one and the same. Our belief that we can create a sustainable diet for ourselves by cherry-picking great ingredients is wrong. Because it’s too narrow-minded. We can’t think about changing parts of our system. We need to think about redesigning the system.
How does such a redesign look in practice? For example, Barber encourages chefs and eaters alike to broaden their palates and devise more recipes with the rotation crops that organic farmers plant to improve soil health. If these plants are only used as fodder or biofuel, they are basically throwing money out of the window by deciding to be more sustainable. However, if they had a market for these crops, the calculation would change. The same goes for fish – almost all the popular fish varieties are desperately overfished, but there are other varieties lower on the food chain that are important for the ecosystem as well as being abundant. Creating a demand for that fish contribute to a better balance between supply and demand, at least in the short term.
In addition to being blown away by its skillful writing style and awesomely interesting insights in the life of a sustainable chef, I enjoyed this book very much for its balanced approach. Even for the solutions he suggests, Barber provides counterarguments stemming from influential people in the field, and he highlights various times that there is no one panacea, but rather a whole toolbox of – old and new, traditional and advanced – possible approaches that do not necessary stand in opposition to one another. Furthermore, he has a clear but very detailed approach to presenting facts and history, be it the background to his own restaurant, the measurement of sugar content in a carrot, or the establishment of land grant universities, which allows you to learn very much in passing even if you are already very well-read in the topic. Finally, it was fascinating to follow how he led every single insight or new production method he discovered back to where he started – the table, his palate, and the taste of good food.
Conclusion: Five stars out of five, I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone interested in our future food system (which I assume you all are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog) – so go for it!