Chef's Table & Dan Barber. A Netflix Original Series.
I don't always like cooking shows. Some are dry and mechanical, while others are sensational, marred by goofy competitions for bat soup, jellied moose nose, and other unhelpful things.
Chef's Table is different. It's a deep dive into the very meaning of creativity, a study in motivations: why we live for food—and live from it. The filmmakers manage to weave a genuine thread of unity between the food these chefs make and the way they live their lives.
I give the series 5 stars for being gorgeous and unexpectedly personal.
The story of Dan Barber particularly lights me up.
Dan is an award-winning New York City chef and author who originally caught my attention with his book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. I find his perspective on food refreshingly outward bound:
There's a real advantage to creating a cuisine, a menu where the vectors don't all point at you, at the chef, where the food you're eating, the place you're eating at, points out to something larger—a restaurant that has an overriding message, a purpose: it's about something.
"Dan gives us a new notion of who a chef is in the world", says Ruth Reichel, an acclaimed food writer, who narrates the film. "When you question everything you very quickly get to the ethics, to the biology, and to the deeper questions: how do we use the planet? What are our responsibilities to our neighbors? What are our responsibilities to the future? Dan asks himself these questions as a chef. But he starts with: 'I just want to cook great food'."
And Barber does just that. He cooks great food. Because he starts with great ingredients.
His NYC bistro is named after Blue Hill, a 138-acre farm in the Berkshires. He and his brother, David, inherited the farm from their grandmother. They have since loved it back to life, with beyond-organic farming techniques à la Joel Salatin—building loamy soil and robust pasture by layering and looping diverse biologic inputs: cover crops, cows, chickens, goats, foraging pigs, all in a virtuous circle. There is life in this soil. And you can taste it.
Today the farm has an academic-sounding outlet in Pocatino Hills: The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. (A nod to Agroecology)? Yet it looks more like a rural dream, than a university. People flock to Stone Barns, not just to learn, but to dine—or to do some Grazing, Pecking, and Rooting as Barber modestly puts it. (There are no menus, just whatever is fresh and delicious, with Barber's special sauce, of course).
But life wasn't always so bucolic and beautiful for Barber.
In the early days of Barber's vision, he had to take some risks. After all, it's not easy committing yourself to what's fresh and sustainable when you're a chef in the city; people want what they want. Don't they?
One fateful night the kitchen was overflowing with asparagus, cases and cases of it, as generally happens with seasonal food. And it was going to oxidize, if Barber couldn't figure out how to use it. All of it. He nearly despaired. Then he had a brainwave:
Every dish is getting asparagus tonight. We're doing asparagus ice cream!
Barber says he felt the asparagus crisis was a test he couldn't afford to fail. So he went with it. He doubled down on fresh.
But things got complicated. Fast.
No sooner had the kitchen turned itself into a Wonka lab of asparagus invention, then Jonathan Gold walked in, a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Food Critic, who, it's been said, eats as if his masculinity depends on it.
Gold took a seat and ordered.
After what seemed like forever—a long, methodical silence that stretched out over his entire meal—Gold left, poker-faced.
"I just thought we were going to get skewered", says Barber.
But like most successful people, Barber had intuitively pushed through one of the secrets of success: the obstacle is the way. The obstacle of asparagus was the way of asparagus.
When the review came out, the praise that Gold showered on Blue Hill was a revelation. It was a signal to all of New York that here was something different. Gold raved about Blue Hill as the new epitome of farm-to-table; he absolutely loved the fact that Barber was not shy about advertising a product that was at the height of its flavor.
"Dan became the voice of the farm-to-table movement very consciously", says Reichel in the film. "Farm to Table is exactly what's in season right then. It's an old way of eating, it's the way our ancestors ate until there was refrigeration and air freight. Now we think we can have anything we want, anytime we want. The world is our oyster. And it doesn't matter even how good it tastes."
And that's a problem for Barber—how good things taste (or don't):
I'm not an activist; I wouldn't put that on my business card, but what I've come to understand—and I've yet to find any example that flies in the face of this—that when you are chasing after the best flavor, you are chasing after the best ingredients, and when you are chasing after the best ingredients, you are in search of great farming.
I can vouch for this.
This year, the Wagner family dove in. We signed up for a weekly CSA box. We also bought shares in a dairy farm, purchased 4 laying hens, planted a garden, began sprouting things on our countertop, and learned how to make our own kefir and kvass.
And food has never tasted so good.
When the credits finally rolled on the Barber episode, I found myself thinking: Our great grandmothers are dead. Their wisdom has been replaced with technology, advertising, and convenience. There are few souls left, who really know how to cook, or what to cook with. Is that why cooking shows have become so popular: we're just trying to figure it all out again? On our own?
And enjoyment. What about that? What about all those "food-like substances" we say we enjoy. Do we...enjoy them?
It's true. We seem to want all the food, all the time. Flavor be damned. But might we want something better, if we could just taste it again, if we could just feel it sustaining us—satiating us?
The paradox of modern metabolism in America is this: there is no shortage of food or fatness anymore; yet somehow it's still quantity—not quality—that remains our chief concern. "Pile it high and sell it cheap". We seem to be shackled to an obsolete idea of scarcity—you could almost say—to a childish idea of what is good: great heaps of not-so-great food. Out-of-season, milled-to-death, pithy, cardboard, sprayed, engineered; it doesn't matter. We want it. We support it. We subsidize it. And we unconsciously make it difficult and expensive for folks who want to produce something better—for all of us.
Barber suggests a way out of this cycle of mediocrity, by making our way back to an actual cuisine, a cuisine built around actual soil conditions, actual ripeness, actual deliciousness. And community. A cuisine built around seasonality, locality, husbandry, and above all, the love of real things.
It could be all about enjoyment again. It really could. It could be all about Environment. Health. And Human Flourishing. It really could. These things could align, if we wanted them to.
The obstacle is the way.
Dan Barber shows us how. He's dedicated his life to the rebirth of mankind's most nourishing traditions (and a few of his own) and to the conversations around what it means to find ourselves both overfed and undernourished. This makes him an advocate for Human Flourishing, right where medicine, ecology, and pure joy converge: a plate of food. A plate that never gets old, because it's always in, always sustainable, and always fabulously delicious.
Yours in Health and Resilience,
Marc Wagner, MD, MPH.
Watch Dan Barber on Netflix now:
What to Read Next: Why I Focus on Food: How a Broader Palate and More Food Experience Can Improve Your Health (and the Health of the Planet).
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