My Night with Dan Barber

The Third Plate

Cookbooks and food essays 2

“The future belongs to people who care about food.” — Dan Barber, Mountain View, CA, March 9, 2015

On Monday night, after attending his brilliant lecture, I added Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate to my cookbook and food essay collection pictured above.

The Third Plate

When I first came across Barber’s book last year and read the inside cover, I was a bit, well, miffed:

“At the heart of today’s optimistic farm-to-table food culture is a dark secret: the local food movement has failed to change how we eat. It has also offered a false promise for the future of food. Our concern over factory farms and chemically grown crops might have sparked a social movement but chef Dan Barber reveals that even the most enlightened eating of today is ultimately detrimental to the environment and to individual health. And it doesn’t involve truly delicious food.”

Huh? Aren’t we supposed to eat local and shop at the farmer’s market?

The fact is, today’s farm-to-table dinner plate looks an awful lot like yesterday’s dinner plate—protein centric and made with the cherry-picked ingredients we demand. Rather than dictate what the soil produces for our dinner, Barber recommends we let the soil dictate what we eat. This represents a complete mind-shift in the way most of us eat and cook (if we cook, which many do not).

Barber used the bread he serves in his New York City restaurant, Blue Hill, to explain his line of thinking. To bake his delicious bread, the kind of bread for which he said customers would sell their first-born to get another slice, he uses emmer wheat. To grow emmer wheat, his local farmer, Klaas, sows a lot of other rotational crops first in order to enrich and prepare the soil for the emmer wheat: clover, mustard seed, millet, barley, kidney beans, oats, rye and others, depending on conditions and what Klaas divines the soil needs.

On most farms, these rotational crops either go back into the soil or into animal feed. Barber asked, why eat only the final emmer wheat? Why cherry pick our ingredients and waste the others? He offered a more sustainable method of growing, preparing and eating food, represented by a dish served at Blue Hill called “Rotational Risotto.” Barber creates this dish with the grains that support the emmer wheat that makes his bread possible.

I think you can apply this same logic to cooking at home. How often do you ask yourself in a panic around, say, four in the afternoon, “What’s for dinner?” Do you search online for a recipe before leaving the office, scribble out a list of ingredients, rush to the store, rush home, cook your dinner and eat late? (Just typing that stresses me out…)

How about this? On the weekend—or whatever day works for you—you decide on a few meals for the week. You buy the main ingredients you need for those, cook one or two of the meals, look at what’s leftover food- and ingredients-wise, cook something from that and so forth. Your pantry and refrigerator will tell you what’s for dinner rather than the other way around.

Forgo the recipes. Learn to master the basics—roasts; soups, stews and broths; braises; risotto; fermentations; sourdough bread. And of course, don’t waste a thing.

Dan Barber and me
Here I am with Barber after the lecture!

27 Comment

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do lately–cook from my pantry. I realized I had the leavings of so many past recipes clogging up my cupboards and not going anywhere! Getting creative and improvising with recipes has been really fun.

    1. I think that’s the most efficient way to cook. It saves time, money and cuts down on waste. Perhaps one of the (many) reasons people cook less now than ever is they feel they have to follow a different, difficult, impressive recipe every night. Who has the time or money for that? And as you say, getting creative is so much fun.

  2. I guess i have been or rather we have been kinda lucky in this regard because we live outa town and lets face it town is a village of 400 people so get the picture very rural and then a bigger town of 4000 people = more shops is 1 hour away so when we ‘do’ a shop or markets that does us for as long as we can stretch it and we eat from what we have in house. days past there was a sizeable vege and orchard garden but now we grow wildlife …
    what shall we have we say ? – Oh I got a couple of lovely leeks out of theas garden what about that or there is already adzuki beans soaking or there is soup stock in the coolroom or 101 other possibilities that are not the least bit frightening because we are interested in eating and delivering beautiful food to our table. mostly meals are an evolving creative event sometimes with 3 or 4 family members contributing and not much need for recipes.
    Dan is right tho I really feel we will need to change what we eat and what we grow … we are in the midst of change…!!!!!!

    1. I think you certainly are lucky, Sandra! Your home sounds like a little Utopia. Family participation is so important with cooking. I have to figure out how to do that better. And I think you’re right, we are in the midst of change. We really have no other choice!

      1. funny you should call it utopia today while we are here whining about a hazard reduction burn in the hills behind us and and living shrouded in thick smoke for the last 4 days. it feels like hell and we fear for all the wildlife that called that area home .we are not the least convinced that this policy does any thing other than destroy . there really is no way out … only in perhaps

      2. 🙁 Geez, how long will that go on for Sandra? I hope not much longer.

      3. quite honestly probably the rest of autumn though not all in our backyard – though smoke doe not respect air space. it is our fire management policy here to burn the forests so that they cannot burn us. depends who you talk to whether it is appropriate or not. I’ll blog my side of it one day …

      4. I’m sending you good vibes, Sandra. The controlled fires happen near me too but the ones I know about are small. California is so parched right now (4th year of severe drought), our wildfires this year will probably be pretty devastating again 🙁 I’m not sure if the controlled burns happen more or less frequently during drought years. I can’t imagine starting MORE fires in our state…Let me know when you do write that blog.

  3. Michelle Snarr says: Reply

    This ties is with the growing interest in foraging – more harmony with nature, more variety, less vulnerability to a crop failure, probably more micronutrients… plus more fun, less stress.

    1. Less stress as long as you pick the right mushrooms ;p I follow another blogger in Eastern Ontario who forages all sorts of stuff. I’m always amazed with what Hilda comes up with: https://alongthegrapevine.wordpress.com/

  4. Becky says: Reply

    I’ve cooked this way for years. I’m the only one who likes leftovers, so revamping them is a must. I’ll start dinner, realized I don’t have enough of something, so I improvise. I rarely meal plan – instead I go with what we’re in the mood for or what we have on hand or what needs to go in the fridge. Currently, I’m trying to empty the freezers out, so we are eating all kinds of improvised dinners. Some good, some definitely interesting…

    1. I’m not surprised to hear you already cook this way! You always have such great ideas about food and cooking. I too am the only one who appreciates leftovers. I think only the cook ever really does.

  5. This is a great reminder for me and I’ve got to get Dan Barber’s book now! Thanks for this awesome, inspiring post! 🙂

    1. Thank you 🙂 I’m only about 40 pages in but am loving the book. Barber makes so much sense. I’m so glad I decided to go hear him speak.

  6. I read The Third Plate last summer and loved it! The idea that farm to table is not enough is certainly challenging! But I think shifting away from a meat heavy diet is an incredibly important change that desperately needa to happen for the sake of both our health abd the environment. Great post!

    1. Thank you! I’ve just started the book and love it. I totally agree with you about moving away from the meat-centric diet. The continuing severe drought here in California has had me thinking more and more about that lately.

  7. Looks like fun Anne Marie!

    1. It was so fun, Karen!

      BTW, I’m just waiting on boxes to mail you E. I thought small jars would be difficult to find (they weren’t) and I would just pop in at the PO and grab boxes to mail them…You will have your SCOBY soon!

  8. Anne-Marie, have you seen the interview with Dan Barber & Krista Tippett?
    (On Being)
    It’s really great
    As is the produced (edited) interview

    How fortunate that you were able to hear him speak in person

    I love how you relate it to what’s already present in ones kitchen
    Less waste, more creativity

    1. Thank you for the comment and the link, Marney. I started watching it last night and hope to finish watching today. In the video and in his lecture, Barber points out that the ethical thing to do is also the most delicious. I think the food movement needs to get that message out more. It will get more people on board!

      I was so fortunate to hear Barber speak! I didn’t know he was coming to town until my boss asked me if I wanted to go. It was a great crowd (lots of farmers in the audience) and such a fun night.

      1. Marneymae says:

        You’re welcome & thank you for all that you share through your blog

        Wishing you all good things

      2. Thanks Marney. Likewise 🙂

  9. Sounds like a very inspiring and affirming experience! I have a lot of the same cookbooks that you do. I will check this book out. I am also captivated by “Stillroom Cookery”, I have never seen that, is it one of your favorites?

    1. Thanks Cynthia. (Sorry, I thought I had replied to this…sometimes my comments just vanish). I love the Barber book. He’s a wonderful writer and I highly recommend it. Stillroom Cookery is out of print but I bought my copy used from Powell’s. I only bought it recently. The writer makes everything from scratch and ferments lots of different things. Her description of a stillroom is fascinating.

      1. Cynthia says:

        Mine disappear too sometimes and people I follow somehow get unfollowed. Don’t know how that happens:)

      2. Oh yeah, that happens to me too! People get unfollowed mysteriously. Weird!

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