The term “farm to table” can have many meanings,which vary with restaurants. Increasingly, it’s come to mean restaurants that grow their own food.
Ideally, it indicates that a restaurant has a close relationship with a number of small farmers, from whom the restaurant buys their food directly. There’s no broker or middleman. You’ll often see specific farms cited on restaurant menus for their contributions. Restaurants such as Chez Panisse in California and L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin pioneered this sort of one-on-one relationship with a community of small local farms.
Then there’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where “farm to table” means that the land you see outside the restaurant window is the land where the food on your fork was grown. Located in the Pocantico Hills in New York’s Hudson Valley region, Stone Barns Center occupies 80 acres filled with pasture, a greenhouse and even a bee colony.
The undisputed star of the show at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is executive chef and co-owner Dan Barber. Barber won the James Beard Award in 2009, marking him as one of the nation’s top chefs. Time magazine named him one of their 100 World’s Most Influential People, Food and Wine named Blue Hill at Stone Barns one of their Top 10 Life-Changing Restaurants and the Michelin Guide gave the restaurant two stars.
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, there is no set menu. Instead, diners are invited to partake of a “farmer’s feast”—a multi-course tasting menu built around the daily harvest. A list of available ingredients is presented instead; for example, a late winter menu might contain venison, cranberries, beets, chestnuts, mache and eggs. Most of the ingredients come from the farm itself or nearby Hudson Valley farms. Only a handful, mostly fish and citrus, are procured farther afield.
But Stone Barns isn’t just a working farm with a two-star Michelin restaurant on site. It’s incorporated as a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about seasonal and sustainable food as well as honing and refining farming techniques to produce that food. Food waste from the Blue Hill kitchen feeds either the compost pile or the pigs. The compost feeds, among other things, the greenhouse heating system, which is regulated by a programmable roof that opens and closes as needed. Stone Barns also hosts heritage breeds of turkey, which are sold to the general public for Thanksgiving. The Center also hosts a monthly market that sells both produce and meat. Stone Barns was founded in 1996 by the heirs of Peggy Rockefeller; in 2004 Blue Hill at Stone Barns became its tenant.
At times, Barber seems bemused by his status as a mover and shaker in the local food world. “I feel like I’ve crashed a party,” he told The Holland Sentinel. Nonetheless, the chef has become one of its most outspoken advocates. Barner has penned several op-eds for The New York Times on legislative issues affecting our food system and he has also contributed to The Nation. In the latter, he urged readers to stop centering large cuts of meat on their dinner plate—and, by the way, to learn to cook as a way to “democratize” food. “Not only do we eat too much meat, we also eat too much of the wrong parts.” Barber wrote. “We don’t know where our meat comes from, we don’t know what the animal we’re eating ate, and we sure don’t know how to get behind the stove and take control of what we put in our mouths.” Barber also currently serves on President Barack Obama’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition—just the latest step this chef-farmer turned educator and policy maker has taken toward permanently changing our relationship to food.