The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is Dan Barber’s thought-provoking book about the future of food. What makes the book so compelling is how Barber combines his knowledge of being a working chef with an openness to explore where the ingredients he’s cooking come from, how they are grown, and an understanding that we need to find a different way to eat if we are going to thrive.
As a James Beard Award winner and as the Executive Chef for Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber is in a unique position to explore where our food comes from and how we eat. Blue Hill is connected with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which is a working farm located on 80 acres in Westchester County New York that is trying to create a sustainable food system.
A lot has been written lately about how unsustainable our eating habits are, from our meat-centric diet to an agricultural system that is overly focused on monocultures that are heavily dependent on pesticides and fertilizers.
Barber takes his role in this system seriously, understanding that in our culture today chefs play a role in what and how we eat. Early in the book Barber poses a question that turns the farm-to-table movement on its head when he talks about why Blue Hill went away from traditional menus, because they created a situation where Blue Hill and their network of suppliers were focused on providing what the restaurant wanted, instead of the kitchen trying to figure out how to feed people with what the farms were producing.
The question the book digs into is “a restaurant menu really sustainable?” is a wonderful proxy for asking about the sustainability of our food system as a whole. As Barber travels around the world, he introduces us to people who are trying to change our food system using a combination of new and old techniques that are rooted in thinking of ourselves as stewards of the land and sea instead of tamers of nature.
It’s a much more interesting and effective approach than having Barber get on his high horse and spew a litany of everything wrong with big agriculture and our industrialized food system.
What Barber advocates for in the Third Plate is a different way of cooking that combines ingredients because they support the environment that produces them. “It helps us recognize that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients. It champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, crops and cuts of meat that is required to produce the most delicious food.”
One of the things that Barber uncovers as he talks with farmers and breeders who are working to bring back heirloom varieties, create new varieties, and to develop more sustainable farming methods is that taste has taken a back seat. As Michael Mazourek who breeds squash, melons, and peppers tells Barber, “It’s a funny thing, or maybe a tragic/funny thing… but in all my years breeding new varieties -after maybe tens of thousands of trials- no one has ever asked me to breed for flavor. Not one person.”
The idea that there is a connection between taste and sustainability is one of the most thought-provoking ideas in the book. What makes it such an interesting idea is when you look at how people around the world and in particular in developed countries spend their money taste plays a huge role in what we eat, but it’s generally focused on the how exclusive a dish is or the uniqueness of the animal, not on how sustainable it is.
Taste is also malleable, a lot of what we like to eat is because it was what we were raised on or something we developed a special connection to along the way. It’s how many of us developed a taste for fast food and overly processed, nutritionally vacant junk food, and it could be the seed of Barber’s third plate.
Barber’s ideas pose some interesting questions for all of us, but especially for those of us who create recipes and write about food. A challenge in what we do is writing recipes that are accessible for people to make, which means the more specialty ingredients we include, the less likely people are to make the dish. That being said I’m already on the hunt for Carolina Gold Rice and Eight Row Flint Corn who star in the book as delicious throwback ingredients.
Barber ends the book contemplating what the menu at Blue Hill could look like in 2050. The menu is built around his ideas for a sustainable food system with great taste being at the center of the meal. It includes things like single udder butter; rotation risotto, that would include grains instead of rice; with crossabaw grilled over pig-bone charcoal; along with a parsnip steak; and rice pudding.
What makes the menu so interesting is how clearly it articulates his vision of moving towards a more plant-based diet, because it’s more sustainable, in ways that promote land stewardship and great tasting food. It’s a meal I would love to eat and be inspired by.