Farm-to-table is an overused phrase in the dining world, but there’s something special about a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, wünderchef Dan Barber’s restaurant in the Pocantico Hills, an hour or so north of New York City. Rare are the times you can actual walk around the farm in question, but here you’re encouraged to come early and tour its six acres of grounds: the greenhouses and herb gardens, the pen where a cheerful red-cheeked farmhand is tending to the close-to-slaughter turkeys, or the fields where an experimental celery-lettuce hybrid is sprouting bright green plumes and you have a view on the array of stone buildings that makes up the farm – the centrepiece of a vast estate once owned by the Rockefellers. It’s not just a tourist destination for greenery-starved New Yorkers; agricultural professionals hold colloquiums here, disseminating information to a new generation of increasingly eco-conscious farmers.
The term “perfectionist” somewhat undersells him, because there are several types of perfection Barber is striving for
The size of the operation at Stone Barns is matched by the passion, drive and ambition of Dan Barber. The term “perfectionist” somewhat undersells him, because there are several types of perfection Barber is striving for. One is a kind of zeroing in on the abstract ideal: the sweetest mokum carrot in the world, say, or the most radish-y radish you’ve ever tasted. Another is to work against the US food industry’s complacent – in fact nefarious – schemes to produce diet staples like bread as cheaply as possible, passing off bland, unhealthy, downright disgusting ersatz bread as the only option. Some of the population may be content to eat this bleached anti-bread, but not Dan Barber. If you’re Dan Barber, you speak to technologists, ecologists, farmers, bakers and many more, and end up designing and growing your own variety of wheat.
In March 2015, the Manhattan arm of Blue Hill reinvented itself as wastED, a pop-up that explored how to reuse and rework some of the food waste that naturally occurs during the long version of the farm-to-table restaurant, from discarded fat to those bits of the vegetable you normally trim out as too tough. Nothing has just one purpose; that’s straightforward agricultural sense, here taken to its logical limits, and sometimes beyond. Infamously, Barber spent much time and effort researching ways to create a natural foie gras which wouldn’t necessitate force-feeding geese but instead allowing them to wander freely, foraging grain specially strewn for them, pecking up as much as they liked, the idea being that they would eventually develop foie-grade livers naturally and painlessly. As chronicled in Barber’s book The Third Plate, it transpires that geese are pretty resistant to force-feeding themselves, and so this experiment has concluded, or is on hold for now. It’s a rare setback at Blue Hill Farm. The geese are still here, innocently mewling in an enclosure in the farmyard, while their next purpose is being decided.
There is nothing so passé as a menu here
All this is serious, high-minded stuff, and may sound rather earnest. On the face of it, a meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns eschews the overt playfulness of nouvelle cuisine – but there is theatre too. Unfamiliar flavour combinations – “Liver and chocolate?!” someone squawked from a nearby banquette – are designed to draw attention to ingredients from the farm, but the focus is always on “deliciousness” rather than (though not in opposition to) innovation or weirdness. To that end, too, the dining room, a huge barn with a vaulted ceiling crosshatched with iron girders, is grand in a classic rather than an overbearing way, characterful but not distracting. On one side, French windows look out to a patio and, beyond, the green fields. In the middle of the room is an extremely large wooden table – and I mean large enough that it could probably double the seating capacity of the dining room, were it to be used; instead it’s a sort of decorative serving station, dotted with candles and vases of spring flowers, where wine decanters are set between pours. It, and the beautiful spiralling sculpture of gnarled and knotted wood suspended over it, ensures that the room feels neither football-field vast nor over-crammed with diners; even when, around 7.30pm, the room has filled up (celebration dinners, extended family groups, a few Big Dates, one family with a bored teen boy who texts all through dinner and has the borderline catatonic air of someone forced to attend a sales conference conducted in an incomprehensible foreign language) around 7pm, it’s not at all deafening.
There is nothing so passé as a menu here; instead, your only clue about what’s to come is a little A6 journal, left at the table, which details the crops to be harvested this month, the various foodstuffs to be pickled, cured, juiced or crystallised. Small courses arrive swiftly, and continuously: one bite of kohlrabi with nasturtium purée, or cherries encased in lardo, and the plate (or branch or mediaeval torture-rack) is whipped away and replaced by another: the first cucumber of the season, a none-more-yellow flower still attached, or something cheerfully described as a “failed fig”. Some more unfamiliar preparations and ingredients – a sprig of elderflower in spiced tempura batter, or a plateful of garden weeds with truffled mayonnaise – leave us a little perturbed when a sheaf of uncooked asparagus and sprigs of thyme and rosemary is set down on the table: are we meant to gnaw on this too? It’s okay to enquire (the answer was no – this was a “before” illustration; the cooked “after” version would be served to us some time later), because without asking overt questions of its guests, the Blue Hill team is observing and monitoring the way you eat, the things you like, how adventurous you are, drawing conclusions on how to tailor your evening. One of their favourite things to do is allow what they call “interaction” with the restaurant: one or more ancillary courses taken in different places around the property. You might, for instance, stand outside the gloaming, watching for the distant glimmer of fireflies over the celtuce fields, as you chomp through a hotdog (in Barber Wheat bun). Or you might be keen – though your eyebrows might leap at the suggestion – to eat a course or two in the manure shed.
Having sat down to dinner at what seemed a preposterous 5.45pm, we’d been eating solidly for five hours
You read correctly: the manure shed. Happily, it’s an entirely salubrious room, and the site of one of Barber’s most arresting lateral-thinking successes. The compost heap, as I know from gleefully flinging myself into one such when I was a small and miscreant boy, generates terrific heat (somewhere between Gas Mark 3 and 4, in fact) as the matter within breaks down. So why not use that waste energy, Barber reasoned, to cook? The server retrieves a vac-sealed plastic bag from the steaming heart of the recycling bin in the corner of the shed and, after minor preps, serves up a “pizza” of Yukon gold potato, maitake mushroom and grated hen egg, all of it cooked sous-vide in the compost heap. This is intelligent, fun, innovative dining, provocative as it is enjoyable, and that rare thing in 2015: a kind of cooking you have never seen elsewhere.
With one eye on the train timetable, we had to draw a halt to dinner, meaning, to my great dismay, we missed out on whatever desserts would have followed. Whether we could have eaten them, I’m uncertain: having sat down to dinner at what seemed a preposterous 5.45pm, we’d been eating solidly for five hours. Too much for some: at around 10 o’clock, after finishing a dish of Stone Barns pork (belly, snout, blood sausage), the young couple in the booth next to us summoned their server and, visibly distressed, admitted that they had had enough. I surreptitiously totted up what they’d eaten so far. Suckers, I thought: imagine giving up after just the first twenty-five courses! C
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 630 Bedford Road, Tarrytown, NY 10591 USA
+914 366 9600; bluehillfarm.com
The paperback edition of The Glasgow Coma Scale by Neil D.A. Stewart is published summer 2015 by Corsair
Picture (top) by Ira LIppke