Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill is famous for the care he takes in sourcing seasonal, local ingredients for his restaurants, using ingredients from his own family farm. We asked Chef Barber for his inspirations, his approach to ingredients and cooking, and his favorite go-to meal.
Describe your food philosophy.
Great flavor begins in the field.
Who or what inspired you to start cooking? Who are your culinary influences?
Growing up my brother and I spent summers on Blue Hill Farm, our grandmother’s farm in the Berkshires. I think that, quietly, it gave us a sense of responsibility about the land, and about preserving open spaces. It’s also what inspired me to cook in the first place. Great cooking comes out of great farming — they are one in the same.
You’ve been an advocate for a long time of eating locally and seasonally. What have you learned by eating this way? How has it changed your approach to food?
It’s taught me to look for the recipe behind the recipe — how each ingredient is shaped in the field and pasture. That kind of ecological thinking is a necessary ingredient in the kitchen.
You use ingredients grown at Stone Barns Center, Blue Hill Farm and many others. How is cooking different with produce grown in your backyard?
Aside from the obvious — it’s inevitably more delicious — it gives me a whole new set of criteria as a chef. Will a new variety of carrot taste good? That’s important, of course, but first you have to consider other questions. Will it thrive in our locale? Will it be profitable in the greenhouse? The needs of the farm dictate the restaurant’s menu.
What tips do you have for people who are trying to eat more locally? What are the most important foods to start with?
Ask questions about your food, and your farmer. Not just about where an ingredient comes from, or whether or not chemicals were used— but what varieties are being grown? What breeds of animals? What kind of diversity is there on the farm? Those kinds of questions are usually a much better indicator of how good the food will taste.
What are your favorite ingredients to cook with in your restaurants? What inspires the dishes on the menu?
It depends entirely on the time of year — sometimes even the day. Last week Jack Algiere, the vegetable farmer at Stone Barns Center, brought me into the greenhouse to show off his “purple wonder” strawberries – an experimental (and yes, purple) variety that he got from Cornell University. So suddenly my mind is on purple strawberries.
What are 3 ingredients you always have on hand?
Milk from grass-fed cows on Blue Hill Farm, freshly milled flour and pastured eggs.
The dishes at Blue Hill at Stone Barns center around the day’s harvest – there’s no traditional menu. Why did you decide to structure it that way?
Our system gives us the flexibility to use all of our ingredients (even the unexpected ones, like a last-minute harvest of snow peas) efficiently, and to their best advantage. We create menus to suit each table – both based on the day’s best ingredients, and on the diners. So it’s an opportunity for more creativity as well.
How do customers react and how does it affect their experience?
I think they tend to have a more exciting meal — in part, because it’s more exciting to cook for them, but also because they’re able to get a true taste of the farm.
Do you cook at home? If so, what’s your simplest go-to meal?
I cook at home about twice a year (and only on major holidays), so my best go-to meals end up being the simplest, like pasta and tomato sauce.
Image of Dan Barber courtesy of Susie Cushner.