Food & Drink

Trickle-Down Foodonomics: Do the Elite Really Change the Way We Eat?

Dan Barber wants America to eat what he serves, even if we can’t afford it yet.

Dan Barber.

Source: Susie Cushner/Blue Hill

The chef-activist is now as much a part of the grassroots food movement as animal welfare groups and muckraking journalists. Jamie Oliver is one of the most vocal advocates of the United Kingdom's sugar tax. White House chef Sam Kass was one of the most effective surrogates for Michelle Obama and her Let's Move! campaign. Vegan Chloe Coscarelli used her 2010 win on the Food Network's Cupcake Wars to show that baked goods do not, in fact, require butter or heavy cream.

Perhaps most acclaimed is James Beard Award-winning Dan Barber, whose book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food argues for a new vision of the American meal, in which grains and vegetables dominate and meat plays a supporting role. Yet at his restaurants, Blue Hill, in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, north of the city, that's an expensive proposition: The tab is $188, plus tax and tip, for the bar tasting menu upstate. 

Barber sat down with us last week at the New York Times food conference at Stone Barns. Here, condensed and edited for clarity, are his thoughts  on what he has achieved, what remains to be done, and how serving the 1 percent can change food for everyone. 

You call for big changes in the way we grow and eat food today. But restaurants like this are accessible to only a small segment of the population. How do you reconcile the two?

Yes, we serve a small segment, and in definitely an elitist, rarefied world. Our dishes, our food, our menu, the work that we’re doing here has to become a little bit more accessible or a little bit better understood by the people who are eating it. We could do a better job of that. And then, I think, ultimately that ends up trickling down into the mass markets.

Can you give examples of where you've seen that happen?

The trickle-down idea is that chefs at high-end restaurants can set a precedent and a culture that becomes infused into the everyday food culture. Look at sushi, or Greek yogurt, or quinoa. People think that sushi became popular because of sushi chefs. But actually sushi became popular because high-end chefs started serving raw fish in restaurants. As fishing and refrigeration became more advanced, the quality of the fish became staggeringly more predictable, and that’s when raw fish could be served on a consistent basis. So that’s the role, it seems to me. You end up on high, starting with these ideas that get co-opted and dumbed-down, not all of them for the bad.

The thing is, I don’t want to be remembered for that. I’m much more interested in what happens to the whey [discarded as a byproduct] when you make Greek yogurt. We’re heading into a world where hopefully you won’t enjoy your Greek yogurt without some of the whey in your diet, like the Greeks have done since the beginning of time. Whey is all over Greek cuisines, but we don’t do that in this country. That’s why whey from dairy farms is poisoning soils in upstate New York. Or what kind of complex rotational, ecological environment do you need to get certain kinds of quinoa to really express themselves? The question for me is, can we look at all the other aspects and not just one product?

What do you recommend for people who can’t afford to eat at Blue Hill but want to start to incorporate these principles into their diet?

I would just say, cook. Cooking is the greatest way to activate these ideas—and it’s the simplest, most pleasurable, and delicious. These kinds of ideas actualized into food are not expensive if you cook. 

Which ingredients?

I get asked that a lot. I would look to a region and ask, what does that region excel at producing? One could say the Northeast produces wheat really well. We’re sitting in Tarrytown. In Dutch, tarwe is wheat, so it’s wheat town. So it’s not just eating the wheat, it would be eating all the crops that make wheat taste good, like barley and buckwheat and rye and leguminous crops. I don’t say don’t eat meat, but I think the proportions are out of whack. It’s about putting those proportions back together in a way that responds to what the ecological conditions dictate. It’s about eating a smattering of meat, with grains as a base and vegetables in really diverse ways.

For farmers, changing methods is expensive, whether it's diversifying crops or going cage-free. Where does the investment capital come from? 

I don’t know that it’s an investment problem as much as it is a culture shift. The investment isn't going to come without it. Why would somebody invest money in making a farmer diversify his or her crops if, at the end of the day, there’s no market for it? If we’re not eating the rye and the buckwheat and all these other things that are good for us, good for the soil, and good for the planet, what’s the point?

But aren’t we starting to eat those things more?

We are, but it’s just a start. The bright side is that supermarket shelves changed more in the last five years than the last 50 years. People are looking for ingredients that they can pronounce. People in the food industry say they’ve never seen anything like it. They're like, 'What the f--- is going on?' And now the problem is finding farmers to supply organic or supply whatever it is. It’s a transition period. Who’s gonna make the investment? 

Excuse the pun, but it feels like a chicken-and-egg problem.

You’re right.

We don't hear enough about the people making our food—in the fields, in the processing plant, in the kitchens. How do you bring more attention to these people?

That’s a great question, and I would admit that I do very little to bring these issues to light. [In the short term] I think all roads lead to immigration reform. You can’t have these kinds of ideals without an increase in the labor. The long game, though, isn’t to answer it with immigration, it's to change the culture where farming a piece of land, whether it’s part-time or full-time, gives you a good income and a reason to stay on the farm. That would be the goal. The culture right now is that if you’re a good student and you do well in school, you’re off the farm. That kind of thinking really needs to change. That’s very hard to do. 

There’s a lot of movement away from tipping restaurant servers, but I haven’t seen you comment on it.

I’m staying out of it, because I just don’t know enough to say that it’s the right thing to do and the thing that's what we’re going to do. I want to wait and see, where does the culture take that?

Speaking of culture, do you think Americans will ever start eating bugs? It seems like there’s a lot of push for a market that might not be there.

A big portion of the world does eat bugs, but I’m not convinced Americans will. There’s a lot of good farmland producing a lot of delicious food, a lot of potential to feed a growing population. If you’re a doomsday person about the future of feeding the world, I see the logic of it. It doesn’t disgust me at all, but from what I know, I’m just more interested in investing my time in other things. 

It’s a great time to be a well-known chef, but it’s a hard time to be coming out of culinary school. Pay a lot of money on the way in, don’t get paid a lot of money on the way out. What is your advice to people that want to do what you do?

I remember when I was a young line cook and [a famous chef] was asked a similar question. Maybe even the same question. And he said, "I feel sorry for recent graduates and new chefs, because the bandwidth for chefs in this culture and making money, it’s not endless, and we’ve probably hit peak.' That was 20 years ago, and look at what’s happened. If you listened to him—and I didn’t—you missed, like, 20 years of some of the most exciting gastronomic advances in recent American history.

I’m pretty positive about the future of being in the food service business, because so much is so wrong, and that leaves opportunity that’s endless. Get into food in a way that activates these ideas. Maybe it’s not a restaurant. Maybe it’s a slice of the food industry that’s less risky, less overhead. It’s definitely a rough business, but so is every business, isn’t it? If you’re passionate about it, I don’t see why you wouldn’t pursue that in your own way.

Updates fifth paragraph to reflect the efforts of the whole team.

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