Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Stone Barns on Sustainable Practices and Farming Technology

At the recent meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective at New York University, Dan Barber, chef of Blue Hill restaurant in New York City and at Stone Barns, and creative director of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture spoke about the future of Blue Hill and farming technology and sustainable practices currently in use or soon to be implemented at Stone Barns. Barber began by announcing the recent opening of a new test kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in partnership with Cornell AgroScience for the testing of the relationship between food and flavor. It will test how field, pasture, and garden affect the flavor of food with the aim of proving that the best ecological practices create the best flavor in food. So far no one has studied food through what Barber calls the vector of flavor.

Barber went on to talk about new projects at Stone Barns, which has recently begun to follow the methods of Dr. Temple Grandin, the autistic woman who revolutionized animal welfare in the cattle industry. Barber said that there is a direct correlation between good animal husbandry and the pursuit of flavor. As an example, barber spoke in depth about his recent visit to Spain, where he met a man whom he calls the Jesus Christ of foie gras.

Eduardo Sousa, a fourth generation geese farmer, produces foie gras that is not the result of gavage or force-feeding. Sousa runs his farm Pateria de Sousa in the Badajoz province of Spain and claims that his geese are entirely content with their existence on the farm. They feel protected and do not migrate because they are provided for in every way including protection from predators by a fenced in area that is electrified from the outside. After they have swelled to the appropriate size following their natural gavage, the geese are slaughtered all at once. In 2006 the Paris International Food Salon awarded Sousa the Coup de Coeur for innovation, which created an immediate controversy among the French, who believe that his free-range-feeding method does not create real foie gras. Sousa claims that traditional force-feeding with a metal tube is an insult to history. Foie gras production dates back to Egyptian times when the Jews would use goose liver as an alternative to schmaltz, because it was suitable for the kosher diet. The Egyptians loved the liver so much that they demanded greater production and thus force-feeding was developed.

Soon after Barber returned from Spain, he was contacted by Tom Brock, a Californian farmer who, like Sousa, raises geese for the production of foie gras. Brock disagrees with Sousa’s method of geese raising and claims that the resulting product is not real foie gras but Spanish spam. He instead relies on the traditional force-feeding method, but in lieu of using a metal tube he uses rubber, which he claims the geese enjoy. According to Barber, in his experience with both products, the result from either method produces delicious and indistinguishable foie gras. Stone Barns has purchased 70 geese to be raised for meat in the first year. Barber hopes to implement and test the two methods for producing foie gras in the future.

The future of Stone Barns is about sustainable practices. A good example of this is the farm's way of grazing its animals. Stone Barns has about 40 different varieties of indigenous grasses in one square foot varying in height from four to six inches (alfalfa is not used because it is not indigenous), which is ideal for the free-ranging sheep and chicken. The chickens follow the sheep and eat the shorter grasses along with bugs while also providing sanitary cleanup by pecking at the manure left by the sheep. The broken-down manure serves as fertilizer, but if left untended would burn the grass. The farm also uses fiberglass fencing to keep the animals in certain areas so that the fields are not over grazed. The hens are privy to what Barber calls egg-laying hotels, where each hen lays approximately five eggs per week. Currently Stone Barns has 1,100 laying hens which produce 13,000 eggs per month. Due to the hens’ omnivorous diet, which also includes kitchen scraps, the eggs are high in omega-3 fatty acids. The hens benefit from the scraps, which otherwise would go to waste because it is against the law to feed pigs kitchen scraps that have been touched by humans.

Barber spoke of a revolutionary method for producing beef of the highest quality in which a sonogram is used to identify grade (intramuscular fat percentage) by scanning the area between the 13th and 14th rib. Traditionally this area could only be graded after the cattle were slaughtered. In general only 10 percent of 10,000 cattle produce high-grade meat. With the information from the ultrasound the cattle’s diet can be altered or the cattle can be removed from the breeding cycle. Other than the sonogram method there is a method that was in practice as early as the 1860s in which the cattle hair and hair oil content indicate the marbling score.

The cattle at Stone Barns are fed a diet of grass with the exception of hay in winter. Currently the farm has 70 cows with more to come. The rumen converts the grass into protein and then into fat. A conventional all-grain diet blows out the rumen and creates milk very high in unsaturated fat. Moreover, milk from grass-fed cows has five times the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than conventional milk. The farm produces ricotta, milk, butter, and ice cream for use in the restaurant. Whey, the byproduct of the dairy operations, is given to the pigs. This addition to their diet produces exceptional charcuterie with larger specs of fat, unlike grain-only-fed pigs whose fat smears. Barber mentioned that many chefs prefer to purchase meat from pigs that have been confined, because the meat is soft, easy to cut, and highly flavorful (all due to low muscle oxygenation), but he believes that the meat can be just as good from pigs that get adequate exercise along with a diverse diet, both of which yields a diversely flavored product.

With the goal of creating best-flavored products, Stone Barns has also turned toward corn with funding from Cornell to test the heirloom flint corn variety, which has not been grown in North America since the time of the American Indians. The farm uses the American Indian practice of the three sisters, where the corn is planted in 100 percent manure (providing its abundant need for nitrogen) along with beans and winter squash. In this practice the beans use the corn stalk in lieu of a pole while the large leaves of the winter squash provide shade. The planting of flint corn was very successful with 99 percent germination. The corn was tested at different times before harvesting for optimal sugar content using a refractometer, a device that is commonly used in wine making to test the brix level (sugar content). The corn that was produced was exceptional in its high flavenoids and nutrient density due to both the precise harvesting and the fact that the cold Northeast provides the ideal condition for growing sweet corn. The harvested corn is then ground for polenta. Interestingly the Italians have been growing flint corn specifically for use in their polenta production. In traditional polenta making, the germ inside the corn kernel is removed to increase shelf life, but in this instance, the restaurant grinds the corn to order, producing polenta of the highest quality of taste.

Stone Barns continues to explore farming technology of the future. Barber gave genetics as an example: scientists at the USDA believe that plants are not expressing certain dormant genes, which could affect flavor. Its aim is to test the possibilities of bringing out flavors through genetic transmitters that turn on the dormant gene, so that, for example, the strawberry tomato variety can actually taste like strawberries.

Barber finished his presentation by announcing a partnership with the French Culinary Institute, the Four Seasons Chef Program, with the goal of educating chefs in sustainable farming practices. Barber reminded everyone that it is up to eaters and chefs to follow flavor and demand products of the highest quality. In many kitchens there is a disconnect between the chef and the product, but the chefs at Blue Hill participate in farm chores, underscoring the farm’s mission to teach the methodology of farm to table cooking. Barber said that the goal at the restaurant and the farm has always been to have chefs wear white coats and overalls.