Dan Barber: King of Kale

The New York chef is rooting his activism in delicious cooking

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About three years ago, Mark Overduin noticed something strange happening to his kale. The president of Bejo Seeds, he had long been accustomed to flat sales for the challenging vegetable. "But almost overnight we watched our kale-seed sales quadruple," he says. "It's a nice example of a prominent chef's influence."

That chef is Dan Barber. From his restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns--located on a working farm in the Hudson Valley--he not only helped usher in the Great Kale Leap Forward of 2010 by publishing a recipe for his popular kale chips in Bon Appétit the year before, but also brought a new protagonism to vegetables in general. By moving them literally to the center of the plate in imaginative dishes like cauliflower steaks, he lets his vegetables--sustainably raised and packed with flavor--make a delicious case for the benefits of farm-to-table cuisine.

Barber is an activist who believes chefs should play a role in improving the food system. "Many chefs are great thinkers, many are great cooks, but few are both," says Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine magazine. "Dan Barber is a rare chef who's able to translate his intellectual ideas into the most delicious food imaginable."

Now he's trying to do for seeds what he did for brussels sprouts and kale. At a symposium at Stone Barns in September, Barber brought several of the country's best plant breeders and chefs together to explore the possibilities for crossbreeding new varieties of vegetables and grains that would hit the trifecta of high nutritional value, profitability for farmers and great taste. "We can move the conversation about where our food comes from forward, and we can do it, as chefs, by helping write the recipe for seeds."