Carrot Steaks and the Enlightened Palate

In his new book, chef Dan Barber, A92, challenges cooks and consumers to think outside the plate

Dan Barber with plate with writing on it

Like an alchemist in search of the philosopher’s stone, chef Dan Barber, A92, was once preoccupied with the idea of discovering the secret—and science—of what creates great-tasting ingredients.

His innovative and artfully executed fare had made him a leader in the culinary farm-to-table movement, where he championed the use of seasonal, locally produced food and helped shepherd a change in the way Americans cook and eat. Under the influence of Barber and chefs like him, people were learning to appreciate the difference between the creamy richness of a golden-yolked egg laid yesterday by a free-range chicken and the blandness of an egg laid two weeks ago by a hen incarcerated in a mammoth poultry factory, or to rediscover apples of various shapes, sizes and hues that once filled nearby orchards before mass-market Red Delicious took over.

In his quest to unravel the chemistry of taste, Barber used the produce and livestock grown and raised at the Stone Barns Center, a nonprofit agricultural complex that surrounds the Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant in Westchester County, New York. That tender piece of lamb he was about to send out to the dining room—what made it taste the way it did? Was it the type of grass the lamb had been eating a couple of weeks ago? Was it the age of the animal?

Using a log he had been keeping of the Stone Barns animals, Barber was able to tell when the lamb had been born, who its mother was, whether it was a twin or a triple or a single, what grass it had eaten, when and how it had been rotated among fields for grazing, what diseases it had had, if any.

“I’d like to break the data down and evaluate it and understand it,” Barber said during a 2008 interview with Tufts Magazine. But as he sought to unearth the key to deliciousness in his data, he realized he’d been going about it the wrong way.

“Things changed. I realized I was asking only about the lamb,” he said recently, reflecting on his gradual change in perspective. “I wasn’t asking about the crop rotation that supported the lamb’s diet. I wasn’t asking about all the different forages that the lamb was eating. I wasn’t asking about the other animals on the farm. I wasn’t asking about any of the in-between crops that also supported the farmer.”

The recipe for delicious lamb, he learned, starts long before the lamb is even born. “Connections begin before the plate and extend beyond it,” he writes in his recently published book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin Press). “They are more than the sum of their parts.”

Barber’s writing on food and agriculture policy has appeared in numerous outlets, including the New York Times and Gourmet magazine, but this is his first book. He intentionally avoided the “celebrity chef cookbook” format, and, instead, spent several years refining his ideas for The Third Plate, a thoughtful and crisply written examination of the shortcomings of our current food-production system, with a vision for a more sustainable future.

Past, Present, Future

The title comes from Barber’s idea that three plates symbolize the past, present and future of cooking and eating in America. The first is the era of standard 20th-century American cooking. The second is the farm-to-table style popularized by food writers and chefs like Barber—dishes that are seasonal, artisanal, local, but that are often modeled on their conventional predecessors. So the first plate holds a 7-ounce steak with a small side of carrots; the second plate holds a 7-ounce grass-fed steak with organic heirloom baby carrots.

On the third plate—the one Barber is experimenting with in his kitchen and the one he sees as vital for preserving the environment, our health and truly delicious food—is a “carrot steak” embellished with a sauce containing braised bits of beef.

Importantly, the book is not a screed against Big Ag, factory farming and processed food—those are obvious targets. Rather, Barber catches the blind spots of the farm-to-table movement. Through a series of engaging stories about farmers and scientists who are pushing the frontiers of sustainable agriculture, he offers a new framework for conscientious chefs and home cooks to consider. He promotes a system in which cooks and consumers, rather than building menus around a handful of celebrated ingredients, choose foods in a more holistic way, with an eye toward maximizing the fertility and future viability of land and sea.

So, Barber notes, if you want those heirloom Brandywine tomatoes at the height of summer, you also need to cook with kidney beans, millet and mustard greens. Growing only water-hogging tomatoes will deplete the soil, while the beans, millet and mustard plants will replenish nitrogen, build soil structure and keep plant diseases at bay.

“You’ve heard the phrase nose-to-tail eating?” he asks, referring to the practice of creating dishes from all parts of an animal, not just the prime cuts. “This is nose-to-tail eating of the farm. We need to be more attuned to the nuts and bolts of farming, because it’s the nuts and bolts that provide true sustainability.”

Farmers who cultivate the less-glamorous, soil-building crops usually sell them for animal feed and lose money, Barber says. Others simply won’t grow them, at the expense of soil health. “That’s very dangerous from an ecological point of view, and economically, from the farmer’s point of view. It points to a system that is not sustainable,” he says.

Hail Mary Pass

Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, New York. (The restaurants are named for his grandmother’s Massachusetts farm.) He has received several James Beard awards, the food world’s equivalent of the Oscars. 

He began his career shortly after graduating Tufts, as an apprentice at La Brea bakery in Los Angeles. In fact, he says, it was a brief conversation with Sol Gittleman—former provost, German professor and inspiration to decades of Tufts students—that cemented his decision to go into the kitchen.

In the spring of Barber’s senior year, Gittleman asked the soon-to-be graduate what his plans were. Barber offered up a vaguely conceived confession: he wanted to bake bread. To which Gittleman responded with an unexpected whoop of delight.

“I’ll never forget it,” says Barber. “He raised his arms like I had just caught a Hail Mary pass for the winning touchdown, and said, ‘That’s the greatest thing I ever heard.’ ” The next day, Gittleman momentarily put aside the lecture on German literature he was about to deliver to an auditorium full of students to remind them of the necessity of following their passion in life. “I have a guy here who wants to be a baker!” he declared.

“And all of a sudden, I became a baker,” says Barber. “I was so encouraged. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t let him down.”

At Tufts, Barber says, he learned to see the world with a “liberal arts mind”—a questioning and analytical way of looking at things that allows you to make connections that you otherwise wouldn’t see.

“Luckily for me, food is a great place to see connections,” he says. “It’s a liberal arts craft in many ways. To be good at it, and to understand it, you need to be able to expand your mind beyond cooking. And that’s what The Third Plate is all about.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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