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Securing A Beautiful Future for Food

The Remarkable ‘Blue Hill’ Farm-to-Table Collaboration

The Earth & I Interviews Chef Dan Barber*


Locally farmed food offered at Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Tarrytown, NY.  ©Elena-Wolfe/Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Locally farmed food offered at Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Tarrytown, NY. ©Elena-Wolfe/Blue Hill at Stone Barns

In a hidden oasis nestled in the idyllic suburban town of Tarrytown, New York, lies the renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant and nonprofit farm and education center, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture—the shared dreamchild of two families passionate about sustainable food systems.


This one-of-a-kind partnership of sizable means, sustainable education, and culinary-gold-with-a-conscience was pioneered by chef extraordinaire and author Dan Barber, and late banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller and his visionary daughter Margaret “Peggy” Dulany Rockefeller.


The founders transformed eighty-plus acres of the former dairy farm on Pocantico Hills—a landmark Rockefeller estate about thirty miles from New York City—into a regional incubator and disseminator of natural food innovations. Their passion and commitment attracted a dedicated team of farmers, cooks, agronomists, interns, and sustainable food devotees to join their ambitious quest—to build a prototype of a sustainable, circular food economy that could one day nourish all life on the planet.


Blue Hill staff and Stone Barns Center farm staff guide visitors on a tour of the combined greenhouses, fields, restaurant, and kitchens.  ©The Earth &I
Blue Hill staff and Stone Barns Center farm staff guide visitors on a tour of the combined greenhouses, fields, restaurant, and kitchens. ©The Earth &I

In 2004, the Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant opened serving contemporary cuisine with ingredients sourced from the center’s innovative research farm as well as meat and eggs from the Barber family’s Blue Hill Farm and other local farmers.


Dan Barber is the nationally acclaimed chef and co-owner—with brother David Barber and David’s wife, Laureen—of the original Blue Hill restaurant in New York City. This Greenwich Village bistro is where diner (and famed banker and philanthropist) David Rockefeller first pitched Dan Barber on his idea for the Stone Barns property.


Chef Dan Barber draws beautiful, nourishing cuisine out of the interconnected world of sustainable farming, cooking, and food.

Barber is also the author of the best-selling book, The Third Plate—Field Notes on the Future of Food. His ability to draw beautiful, nourishing cuisine out of the interconnected world of sustainable farming, cooking, and food has turned Blue Hill at Stone Barns into one of the most coveted dining reservations in the world.

Recently, Chef Dan Barber agreed to tell the Blue Hill story in an Earth & I interview.


E&I: Chef Barber, you see nature through the lens of what Dr. Lisa Miller of Columbia University calls “unitive awareness.” You describe in your book how “a bowl of polenta … speaks to something beyond the crop, the cook, or the farmer—to the entirety of the landscape and how it fits together.” How did aesthetics and wholeness come to be important to you, and how do you plan to pursue or explore their expression going forward?


Chef Dan Barber.  ©Richard Boll/Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Chef Dan Barber. ©Richard Boll/Blue Hill at Stone Barns

I grew up spending summers on my grandmother’s farm—Blue Hill Farm—and I think that, quietly, it gave me a sense of responsibility about the land, and a sense of the importance of preserving open spaces. It gave me a sense of how much of an impact the experience of a place in its entirety can be.


Since the beginning of Blue Hill, our hope has been that when people eat at the restaurant, they’re not just thinking about the food on their plates—they’re seeing the whole story behind it. An impossibly juicy and delicious leg of lamb? It’s impossibly delicious not because of the manipulations from a great chef—marinade, cook time, or accompaniments—but because of a great farmer who understands how to pasture animals according to the prescriptions of the land. By connecting to where their food comes from, the diner becomes not just a consumer but might gain some of that awareness that you’re describing.


E&I: Collaboration seems to be key to the impact of your work. Your collaborators range from celebrities and scientists to like-minded chefs, farmers, friends, and family members.


Grass-fed bone China soil charger place setting.  ©Alice Gao Boll/Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Grass-fed bone China soil charger place setting. ©Alice Gao Boll/Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Blue Hill and our nonprofit partner, Stone Barns Center, together are very much a synergistic community of cooks, farmers, scientists, producers, artists, and others. Whether it's collaboration with university plant breeders on how to breed for flavor, or with artists like Gregg Moore on how to turn bone ash from the kitchen into bone China plates for the restaurant, those direct conversations across disciplines are the cornerstone of our work.


One of our collaborators, a microbiologist, recently told me that research is too often siloed: Everyone is focused on their specific concern, rather than looking at the connections between parts of the whole. As Blue Hill moves towards acting as even more of a research institution, this cross-disciplinary approach is our goal. To do that, we’re redefining what it means to operate a restaurant: the space that we’re working toward is something like 60% restaurant, 40% education and research community.


E&I: Could you share briefly about the history of Blue Hill at Stone Barns?


A year after opening Blue Hill bistro in the city, David Rockefeller came in for dinner. After the meal, he told us about his vision for the Stone Barns property—which had been the Rockefeller family dairy farm back in the 1930s—and invited us to put in a proposal for the space. I don’t think we even fully understood who we were at that point, so it was really an exercise in imagining what we could be.


Entrance to the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center restaurant.  ©Alice Gao/Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Entrance to the Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center restaurant. ©Alice Gao/Blue Hill at Stone Barns

We worked closely with Peggy Dulany and David Rockefeller to create what Stone Barns has become today, helping to start the foundation and recruit staff. At the end of this process in 2004, I opened Blue Hill at Stone Barns the very same day that the Stone Barns Center opened to the public. The fact that we opened together, on the same day, speaks to how central our partnership is to the identity of both organizations. Our mission of developing a regional food culture reflective of time and place informs the work both in the kitchen and on the farm.


E&I: In earlier years you spoke of the coming reckoning of the unsustainable American food and agricultural system. Where is it today and where would you like it to go?


Unfortunately, the current reality is that the food that comes from the farm next door is sometimes more inconvenient than the food that’s ground thousands of miles away—that’s the irony of our food system today. I could get on the phone tonight and have a fresh batch of beautiful produce from California or South America arrive at the doorstep tomorrow morning.


“Buying directly from a farmer means you get produce that’s chosen for your locality and picked at the optimal time.”

Chef Barber instructs Blue Hill cooks and kitchen staff.  ©Elena Wolfe/Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Chef Barber instructs Blue Hill cooks and kitchen staff. ©Elena Wolfe/Blue Hill at Stone Barns

But buying directly from a farmer means you get produce that’s chosen for your locality and picked at the optimal time. So, nothing is lost in nutrition or flavor—or spent on the environment—during storage and transportation. Our food system is broken, but the good news is, it never produced anything truly delicious anyway. Chefs are leading the way in opting out of the big food system, and by supporting good farming—biodiverse, chemical free, holistic—they can ensure they get the freshest and tastiest foods.


It’s easy to adopt a pessimistic attitude when addressing issues related to our current food system—the incredible costs to our environment, to our communities, and to our health. But rather than approach sustainable foods with that sense of necessity or burden, I hope that people will also have the insight to recognize the advantages of this movement and where it’s headed. The basic tenets of sustainable agriculture—biodiverse, chemical-free, holistic—produce the most delicious results, and I think more people are starting to demand that from their food: better flavor, and a better story behind it.

 

*For more information about Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center please visit Home | Blue Hill Farm.


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