Outside of the celebrity chef memoir or the specific parameters of a cookbook, the process of being a chef — in particular, the head of a highly functional business devoted to pleasure and profit — doesn’t give you much time to write. But between Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (a rightful classic of the genre and, more importantly, written before the author became a celebrity), Gabrielle Hamilton’s elegant Blood, Bones & Butter, and Dan Barber’s new The Third Plate, it’s pretty clear: some of the people behind the best meals of your life are also talented, nimble writers.
For his day job, Dan Barber is the executive chef of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill Stone Barns in Tarrytown; the latter is in the middle of a former Rockefeller farm, now the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. He is probably best known as one of the proponents of farm-to-table dining; a meal at Blue Hill is a magical experience, a sensual journey through the wonderful vegetables and meat grown and nurtured on the Tarrytown farm. The results are transcendent.
In The Third Plate, Barber turns his chef’s eye towards food: namely, the question of what we’ll be eating in the future, taking into consideration changes in environment, supply and demand, and the way that we consume food. He takes a deep dive into the systems that provide our food, going around the world — in particular, to Spain — to see idiosyncratic farmers, chefs, and innovators of “soil, land, sea, and seed.” It’s a bit like The Omnivore’s Dilemma as imagined by a chef curious about the future of food in his industry.
Barber is a clear-eyed writer who can explain concepts like the interlocking microenvironment of soil, and how the billions of microorganisms inside create a volatile, tactile environment for food (that is often abused in industrial farming). He is also sharp and observant when bringing to life some of the passionate oddballs of this book, from Eduardo Sousa, the man who created a system of “natural” foie gras (that doesn’t involve force-feeding the geese) to Glenn Roberts, the man behind the heirloom grains of Anson Mills, whose vision of success comes “fifty years from now, that’s when my work has some kind of meaning.” Roberts doesn’t mean profit, per se; he’s talking about the trail he’ll leave behind, with the delicious grains that individuals, farms, and restaurants are growing with his seeds.
In some ways, it’s men like Roberts who are the soul of the book. He’s theorized that modern agriculture has killed the cultural part of farming — the stories, traditions, and rituals that come from the stubborn, sometimes impossible task of growing a crop on a farm and making enough money to live. Barber shows food professionals, farmers, and mad visionaries who are creating a new culture with food by selling fish with all the weird parts, or creating foie gras that is gray and delicious, all by “trusting” the animal.
The Third Plate is a provocative look at how “farm to table” cooking is sort of a beautiful fantasy, and suggests that to really eat and get food from the earth, we’re going to have to change our ways. Barber’s observations on how interconnected we are in the food system show the choices behind what we eat and what it means, and he brings more awareness to the plate.