The Austin Chronicle

Five Questions With Dan Barber

Award-winning chef reimagines local

By Brandon Watson, December 5, 2014, Food

An Evening With Dan Barber

Monday, Dec. 8, 7pm
Paramount Theatre
713 Congress, 512/472-5470

Turns out, farm-to-table isn't as direct as it sounds. Before the farm, there's the home cook or chef, whose palate determines what is sown. A commitment to using produce and protein raised in one's own backyard isn't all there is to being sustainable. In Dan Barber's book The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the TED talker and multi-James Beard Award winner argues for another way – one that truly places the farm at the start, and what truly is best for the land. In doing so, he may also redefine what it means to eat and drink local.

Ahead of his December 8 talk at the Paramount, we caught up with the chef and author.

Austin Chronicle: What makes good food writing?

Dan Barber: I spend my days in a kitchen, so when it comes to food reading, I'm less interested in the sensory experience of food than I am with the stories behind it. I want to learn more about the recipes that begin before the kitchen.

AC: How does third plate cooking respond to climate change in places like Texas, where the longtime drought threatens all agriculture?

DB: The agricultural systems with the most resilience are the ones with the most diversity. We need to diversify our farms, and our diets. And we need to diversify in our seed supply, too. (You could say that's another part of "third plate" cooking.) These days, most vegetable and grain varieties are bred on a one-size-fits-all model — selecting to grow as well in New York as they will in North Dakota or New Mexico. That isn't going to work for the future. And it's certainly not delicious.

AC: Is being able to be concerned with food sustainability inherently privileged?

DB: Over the past decade, we've seen the enormous costs of our industrialized food system — costs to our environment and our health; costs that weigh most heavily on our least privileged communities. Put simply, our food system is failing. In order to make good food a reality for everyone, we need to rethink the entire system — from field to distributor to marketplace to plate.

AC: How do you convince an eating public that increasingly seeks culinary novelty to eat a less showy diet based on regional staples like beans or barley?

DB: Just look at the success of the nose-to-tail movement. Over the past decade, we've seen the widespread popularization of "uncoveted" cuts of meat. That movement's success is due not only to an increased awareness about the responsibility to cook with the whole animal, but also to the realization that these supposedly lowly cuts are incredibly tasty. We can take the same approach to our landscape and cook with the whole farm.

AC: In previous interviews, you talked about the idea of chefs creating the "scaffolding" for a new everyday diet, but processed foods, fast food, etc. remain pervasive in America. Can chefs really affect the larger food system?

DB: I don't want to underestimate the juggernaut that is our industrial food system. But chefs can and do have an enormous influence, creating trends that trickle down even to almost every level of the food chain. Why not use that leverage to reimagine the way we eat, to explore the relationship between a plate of food and the landscape that produced it?

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