Another Plate at the Table
There is something delightful, and rewarding, about a new idea that both inspires and changes the way we think. When it also involves equal measures of self-awareness and self-motivation, well, then you’ve got the genuine article.
Dan Barber offers all of that and more in his new book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food.
It’s a terrific book and is quickly becoming the blueprint for the next stage of the evolution of the American food movement. This is not new territory for Barber, who has been one of the leading proponents and practitioners of the farm-to-table approach for more than a decade. His restaurants, Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, are highly respected kitchens showcasing his creative skills with local, sustainably grown ingredients.
But what makes The Third Plate so intriguing, and arguably trustworthy, is its foundation on Barber’s honest assessment that the farm-to-table movement has fallen short. “For all its successes,” Barber writes in a New York Times op-ed piece, “farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised.”
Barber’s book is his effort to “make sense of this odd duality: a food revolution on one hand, an entrenched status quo on the other.” It is that effort that positions Barber the chef alongside folks like Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry, two writers Barber admires and acknowledges, as challenging all of us: farmers, chefs and consumers to think more deeply about food and food systems.
Barber does this by digging deeper into the agricultural ecosystem. In the process he gives us new ways of talking about food systems, alternatives to farm-to-table—including whole farm cooking, farming one level down and the third plate, which is his description of what a
Barber believes chefs are uniquely suited to lead this effort with their creativity and sense of aesthetics. He writes about what is required to produce the local wheat he wants for his bread. It’s wonderful wheat and it makes delicious bread. But to keep the soil healthy enough to grow it, the farmer needs to rotate annual plantings of non-wheat grains like millet and rye, then cover crops like cowpeas and mustard. The Third Plate, both literally and conceptually, suggests we need to find value in those grains and greens as well: Expanding our view of what foods we define as desirable is critical to the sustainability of the system. Indeed, farmers may not be able to afford to grow the wheat and asparagus and heirloom tomatoes so highly sought after if they can’t get a decent return on the crops needed to keep the land healthy enough to grow them.
To his credit Barber confronts this responsibility head on. His menus now feature, for example, Rotation Risotto, and Rotation Salad, dishes using the grains, legumes and greens that are such an important part of the system. He readily acknowledges it’s been a challenge to change his own thinking and instincts—from envisioning a dish and then seeking the ingredients, to letting the ingredients dictate the dish. But he also finds cultural context in traditional Italian and Spanish cooking, where often vegetables are featured with local grains and very little meat.
We’ll need to change our thinking as well, about what we buy at farmers’ markets and what we order at restaurants. We need to eat off of “the third plate” if we are serious about a sustainable food system where the local, fresh foods we have so come to treasure remain available at all.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.