The Farm-to-Table Fetish

  • Share
  • Read Later

I was standing naked in a linen closet at the old Rockefeller farm outside New York City when I began to wonder if I had gone too far for a meal. John Rockefeller Sr. probably wouldn’t think so: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he had assembled some 4,000 acres in this part of New York State, some of the most verdant land in the Hudson River valley. It’s a lovely spot that brims with history — Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., is nearby — and as good as any place to be naked in a linen closet.

Actually, I wasn’t naked: I was wearing socks. But I was wringing out my rain-soaked boxer briefs and nervously eying the door; just beyond toiled young women from the kitchens, helping prepare dinner. On the theory that I should make some noise so no one would open the door, I began to sing, but for some reason all I could think of was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” At which point the door opened onto this view — a nearly nude 35-year-old man holding his wet underwear. Before I caught a glimpse of the person, she — I’m not sure why, but I think it was a she — quickly slammed the door. To whoever you were, I deeply apologize.

What had led me here? Over the years, the Rockefellers have given away much of their country estate; now 80 acres of it are devoted to the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, which I had come to visit. The old milk barn is the center’s eat-like-a-Rockefeller, hundred-dollar-plus-per-person restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. That’s where I had come to eat, which is ultimately why I was in that closet.

Chef Dan Barber and I had been caught in a thunderstorm as he gave me a preprandial tour of the center, which includes not only the eponymous barns (they now house the restaurant, the education center, an espresso café and a vegetable market) but also a working farm, which grows much of the food for the restaurant and its sister Blue Hill outpost in Manhattan. The center cost David Rockefeller — the last of John Sr.’s six grandchildren, he is now 91 — about $30 million.

Rockefeller built the place as a tribute to his wife, Peggy, who — before her death in 1996 — had helped found the American Farmland Trust. The center is only three years old, but already it has become a model for how a farm can directly supply a restaurant, which in turn helps fund educational programs for anyone who wants to learn more about where their food comes from.

(This should include you, by the way, since it seems highly uncontroversial — like something Mother might say — that you would want to know where a bit of organic matter came from before you put it into your mouth and swallow. Most of us don’t, of course, which isn’t a new problem: in the Dark Ages, as M.F.K. Fisher wrote, food was “only a necessity” — “like sleep and sweating.” So it is for most of us.)

Restoring the link between the farm and the table is an ambition shared by a growing number of restaurants. That’s also not new: it was the driving idea behind the fresh-above-all restaurants that launched the U.S. food revolution in the 1970s and ’80s. But most of those pioneering restaurants — led by chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse — were in California, where anything can grow and where it would be silly not to supply a restaurant from a nearby farm.

Today the farm-to-table ideal has spread across the nation. In its July issue, Gourmet magazine ran a feature on what it cleverly called “plow-to-plate” restaurants from Milwaukee to Maine. These aren’t just places that source their ingredients from local farmers, as Waters and many others have urged for years. Rather, these restaurateurs actually operate farms themselves. For instance, Dan Kary, who owns Cinque Terre in Portland, Maine, farms two and a half acres that provide about 40% of the restaurant’s vegetables. On the day I spoke to him a few weeks ago, he had brought in Swiss chard, cherries, scallions and mint. This produce hadn’t suffered a ride from California or South America, like most of the vegetables you ordinarily eat. “I pick the Swiss chard and put it in the car. They wash it off in the kitchen, and then we eat it. I can’t tell you the difference that makes,” Kary told me.

But this isn’t a restaurant model for the faint of heart — Kary is often working his land after dark, by his tractor’s headlights — and I wondered if the farm-to-table concept could work for any but the most elite places.

One of the core purposes of the Stone Barns Center is to convince restaurateurs that they can get more of their products from local farms (whether they own them or not). More ambitiously, the center also hopes to convince farmers who now sell to big food processors or Wal-Marts that they can, instead, grow most of what a local restaurant needs — not just vegetables but meat, too — while improving their soil and making money.

But how?

***

When the storm was still just a threatening cloud, chef Barber — who is also the center's creative director — took me down from Stone Barns' headquarters to its 23,000-sq.-ft. greenhouse. Wait a second: a greenhouse? Isn't that a copout? What about farm-to-table?

“It's a copout to have a greenhouse if you're growing, say, tomatoes and mangoes here in Westchester County in the middle of winter, because you're pumping fossil fuel in to heat your greenhouse so you can do it,” Barber told me. “But we're not doing that... We're pumping a little bit of fossil fuel in, but we're growing for the most part hearty winter greens, root vegetables and salad greens.”

This was Lesson 1: Grow what you can grow. Don't overburden your soil with petroleum-based fertilizers so you can yield copious bushels of corn that will be factory-processed into syrup for soft drinks.

But it was also Lesson 2: Make money. Stone Barns devotes more than half the space in the greenhouse to salad greens not only because they will flourish there without the use of chemicals but also because they draw a good price in a health-conscious place like Westchester County. (Despite the close links, Barber insists that the Stone Barns farm sells its produce to his Blue Hill restaurants at fair-market value. The farm also sells to retail customers at a small but busy on-site market.)

Barber, 36, is a wiry guy, a talker, a fuzzy-haired and friendly type. He pretty much always wears chef's whites, but he is most passionate about farms; he grew up in New York City but worked summers at his family's farm in Massachusetts. (Full circle: that farm is named Blue Hill.)

He is a bit of a dreamer, and his dreams have been fueled by a Rockefeller-size budget, but Barber is no purist. Stone Barns is an organic farm, but Blue Hill doesn't serve only organic food. The fruit, for instance, is almost all grown with chemical inputs. Organic fruit is available from California — which doesn't suffer from the Hudson Valley's humidity — but Barber prefers to buy locally. That's partly because the fruit tastes better without being trucked across the continent and partly because Barber wants to encourage non-industrial, regional agriculture. That means he lives with some pesticide residue.

Other compromises are made with the farm's livestock. Stone Barns is raising roughly 450 turkeys this season, and most of them are Broad-Breasted Whites, the conventional breed you can buy in a regular grocery store. The Whites are distinguished by their genetically huge breasts and — as a consequence — their inability to have sex with one another. (Virtually every turkey you have ever eaten could not copulate without human aid.) These turkeys are a freak of human engineering, so what are they doing at an idyll like Stone Barns? Ditto the Cornish/Rock Cross chickens, a quick-growing, large-breasted breed used by the massive Perdues of the world?

“The answer is, in part, the technology is not that bad,” says Barber. “Perdue may be evil incarnate, but they have bred a chicken that is goddamn profitable. And easy.”

The difference at Stone Barns is that the chickens — and the turkeys, and the pigs, and the lambs, and the calves — eat the farm's grass rather than fattier, less healthy grain feed purchased from a supplier. The grass is carefully maintained by rotating the animals on it — veal calves eat the tastiest grass and drop their manure on the remainder. Chickens then come in and clean the calf manure by foraging in it; they also eat some of the less desirable grass. Chickens leave their own manure, which helps the grass rejuvenate. Unlike animals raised in feedlots and pens, Stone Barns' animals oxygenate their muscles with all their ranging and grass-eating, and thereby develop more sapid meat. They also keep the grass healthy — and ready for the next season.

This is Lesson 3, a point that writer Michael Pollan makes in his influential book The Omnivore's Dilemma, which was published earlier this year: to produce the most flavorful meat in the most sustainable way, livestock farmers may need to think of themselves instead as grass farmers. “When you manage the grass incorrectly, you have to supplement, whether it's antibiotics to keep [the animals] healthy or grain to fatten them up,” Barber told me as the rain began to fall. “And the reason that the industrial system looks at [grass-farming] as a crazy system is that it takes work. It takes intensive management. Whereas instead of feeding a flock of lambs on grass that has to be just right, you just stick them in a barn and you feed them grain. And they get fatter twice as quick.”

Barber is a bit obsessive; he didn't stop his tour when the rain began to fall. I didn't really mind getting wet — it had been a hot day, and I was reminded of summers as a kid. But later, as I donned some of Barber's dry clothes, I realized I wasn't entirely convinced that Stone Barns' complexly symbiotic, intensely managed system could work on a large scale. Not because it would necessarily require a Rockefeller to fund it — as Pollan points out, there are other “grass farmers” around the country who are succeeding with the help of proselytizing websites like eatwild.com. But not every farm will have a Dan Barber behind it — an obsessive, a guy who won't come in from the rain so he can show you the compost pile.

After the tour, Barber helped cook one the best meals of my life. My notes are filled with superlatives: "by far the best chicken I've ever eaten"; "tomatoes so fresh and tomato-y that they taste like a pure idea of tomato, not the thing itself"; "delish corn"; "a peach poached, perfumed so beautifully it seems to be solid, liquid, gas at once." After I paid, I took the train back to Manhattan. I was still wearing Barber's clothes and was now filled with his food. I'm not sure I was "impregnated with nutrient density," as he had promised, but I was heady with his agrarian dream.