PROFILE: Tufts Alum, Chef-Scholar Dan Barber
Both in the kitchen and in the talks he gives, Dan Barber is a force to be reckoned with. Check the story out below:
Penning menus for two award-winning restaurants, writing opinion pieces for The New York Times, giving talks for innovation group TED and lecturing at a Harvard University food-science course are not typically activities of a celebrity chef. But Dan Barber (LA ’92) is unlike your everyday Bobby Flay or Ming Tsai.
As chef-owner of two Blue Hill restaurants in New York, 42-year-old Barber has championed the culinary world with both his inventive cuisine and his influential thinking in the field of sustainable agriculture, which earned him the James Beard Foundation’s coveted Outstanding Chef Award in 2009 and a spot on Time Magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people in the same year.
Barber’s path into culinary superstardom is a far cry from what he set out to do after graduating from Tufts nearly 20 years ago.
“My plan was to get a Fulbright [to study in China], but it got canceled a month before I was leaving,” Barber told the Daily. “So I ended up having no place to go and no plans.”
Barber decided to travel across the country to California and abroad to Spain with a few of his Tufts friends as they backpacked to a new culinary destination every couple days. Though his food tour was one of the factors that drew him to the life of a chef, Barber also credits his childhood experiences both in and outside of New York City as his first and most significant initial foray into the culinary world.
“My father was always taking me out, so I was introduced to different cuisines and cultures,” Barber said.
His time spent at his grandmother’s farm in the Berkshires was just as influential.
“That’s where I spent a lot of time farming and haying the lands,” he said. “I think whatever we do in our lives we tend to want to recreate happiness from when [we were] younger.”
Barber carried on that passion at Tufts, where he started an on-campus catering business with his friend Gene Choi (LA ’92).
“We started up this catering deal to have people invited to these different homes depending on whose house was available and cooked really extravagant meals. We cooked pastas, used cast-iron kitchen equipment and nice silverware,” Barber said.
More than a profitable business venture, Barber’s vision was about spreading the art of good cooking, which was lacking on campus at the time. As they had hoped, the catering business soon achieved campus-wide acclaim.
“We never really earned much money, but it was a lot of fun and social,” Barber said. “It was a small collection of [a] dozen when we first started out, then at the last party it felt like there were a million people there.”
Intent on pursuing cooking further, Barber sought advice from University Professor Sol Gittleman, who served as provost at the time and taught his German literature course.
“I used to go to [Gittleman’s] office to talk to him about what I was going to do with my life,” Barber said. “His eyes instantly lit up when I told him about my consideration to become a chef, and without his encouragement I don’t know whether I would have been what I am today.”
Despite his culinary experience and his advice from Gittleman, going into cooking was still more of an accident than a conscious plan.
“I always thought of cooking as a way to earn some money and move from there,” he said.
Upon concluding his food tour, Barber’s career only went upward. He worked at La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles with pastry chef Nancy Silverton before enrolling in culinary school at the French Culinary Institute in New York. He left for France shortly after graduating and returned to New York a year later to work for famed chef David Bouley before finally opening the first Blue Hill outpost in 2000 with his brother and sister-in-law.
Less than two years after opening the restaurant, Food & Wine Magazine named Barber one of America’s best new chefs, and Blue Hill subsequently earned commendation by online restaurant reviewer Gayot as one of the 40 best restaurants in the country. After opening Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills in New York’s Westchester County, Barber was inducted into Food & Wine’s Hall of Fame.
The accolades are still coming, and Barber cites a single reason: The restaurant’s food — including vegetables, herbs and meats — comes directly from Barber’s farm, even at his Manhattan eatery in Greenwich Village. Barber also embraces a farm-to-table foraging concept, whereby the dish attempts to reflect how the ingredient was grown or raised, a notion that has been in the forefront of Barber’s written work.
“In a recipe for braised lamb, for example, it’s a look in how you raise that lamb before you cook it — it’s a recipe of a recipe,” Barber said. “The meaning of that recipe is critical for the future of our ecological health, and the future [of our] ecological health is critical for the future of our human health.”
Seasonality is an even more radical factor in his flagship Stone Barns outlet. Because of the limited availability of much of what is in stock, there is rarely a dish that remains on the menu all year.
“Part of the challenge and excitement of a chef is embracing the four seasons,” Barber said. “We don’t have a dish that stays on for [more than] a couple nights — maybe even an hour.”
In fact, Blue Hill at Stone Barns doesn’t offer a specified menu for this very reason.
“[Each menu] was made up that way because of the harvest of the day. It’s the nature of nature, but not the nature of cooking,” he said.
According to Barber, four- to eight-course menu options, priced at $85 to $135, are wholly based on what is available during the month. Last month, that was based around 22 ingredients, including Hakurei Turnips, African geese, cosmic carrots and Peruvian ‘altitude’ potatoes, among others.
Ingredients aside, Barber experiments heavily with novel farming techniques. One innovative example is the process of flavoring charcoal out of biochar, a process he briefly covered in his Harvard lecture last fall.
“After we slaughter a pig, we use the bones, carbonize them and make a biochar out of the bones … like how it’s used to season or stock a soup,” Barber said. “It’s been interesting and very flavorful.”
Barber’s expertise with innovative culinary procedures has shaped his strong views about sustainable agriculture. He has expressed his views through his New York Times op-eds, his TED talks and his involvement in the World Economic Forum in Switzerland two years ago. One problem, Barber said, is the harmful effect of the food world’s evolution.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the world of food has changed dramatically from the kinds of foods that our parents and grandparents enjoyed,” he said.
Although environmentalists and Barber share concern for the revolution in agriculture, Barber’s focus pertains specifically to its effect on the flavor of food.
“We had all these dramatic changes, but the biggest interest for me has been about the effect on how food tastes,” Barber said. “In a world that increasingly looks to produce food cheaply and quasi-efficiently, we get worse-tasting food and degradation on our environment and our health.”
One way of bringing about collective action against this evolution — or, rather, devolution — of food is to be involved in the process. Barber has recently been chosen as an advisory board member to Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. President Barack Obama, who dined at Blue Hill on a date with his wife last year, has also appointed Barber to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.
“The job entails speaking about and being an activist for some of the things that Michelle Obama has been advocating, like the Let’s Move campaign that calls for better eating for kids,” Barber said.
Barber foresees the council having long-term effects on the American diet.
“We have not just famous athletes advocating exercise, but pediatricians and lawyers on the council that advocate childhood-eating patterns,” Barber said. “That’s an awesome realization, so hopefully, as a council, we can do some quality reforms, [but] it’s too early to tell.”
“Too early” may come quicker than he expects, and the council may take its next steps as early as this spring.
“I’m meeting in May with [Vice President Joe Biden], and there is a lot of strategizing. So we’ll see how it goes from there.”
– Jon Cheng
Recipe | from the kitchen of dan barber
Balsamic-glazed Brussels sprouts
2 cups of Brussels sprouts, cut in half lengthwise
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil or canola oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Pour oil into a pan and heat.
3. Add Brussels sprouts to the pan face down.
4. Let the Brussels sprouts cook until they become brown and crusty.
5. Put the pan in the preheated oven and let it sit until the sprouts are roasted.
6. Remove the pan from the oven and flip the sprouts over. Then drizzle balsamic vinegar while lightly tossing, until no extra vinegar remains.
7. Add salt and pepper and serve.
Serves two people as a side dish