My palms are sweaty…
Arms are heavy…
All right so there’s nothing on my sweater already, but you get the point… I’m nervous.
Which may seem like an odd feeling to have as you stroll to dinner, but then again, this isn’t a normal dinner.
This is a celebration of food.
A sort of agricultural commemoration... that's disguising itself as a fine dining experience.
This is a magical evening where plates act as a catalysts to transport the diner from farm to the table, and back again. A place where ingredients are allowed to tell their own story—without being forced to adhere to the rhetoric of their adorned spices and oils--and where you find yourself constantly confused if the person responsible for your current mouth-full of euphoria is a farmer or a chef.
I’m talking, of course, of the award winning Chef Dan Barber's Blue Hill Farm in New York, City.
(Who also happens to be the author of one of my favorite books on modern food systems, The Third Plate.)
Ducking down a you’d-never-find-it-if-you-weren’t-looking flight of stairs, just off Washington Park, I’m quickly led to my table.
The energy is contagious.
And I don’t mean a, “Everyone is being loud… so it must be fun!” sort of energy.
I’m talking about the sort of energy that subtly buzzes around a space in the form of quietly intense murmurs. The sort of hushed-excitement that I've only heard amongst people who have found themselves in the presence of creative genius.
Simultaneously attempting to maintain a professional air, while also craning obtrusively to see other peoples food, gets me dizzy... I slightly black out.
Next thing I know... the first course is coming.
DUM DUH duhhh DAAA!
The waitress sets the "plate" down.
A single habanero pepper, lay modestly on top of a smooth rock.
Even for the guy who fed his chickens red peppers to get red eggs, this seems a bit strange.
But the real problem is… I can hardly nibble on a de-seeded jalapeno without sweat-logging my shirt.
The waitress lends an amused smile, and then explains that this pepper is a “Habanada”…and that I should simply try it.
Skeptical, but yielding to the trust of the chef (farmer?)… I take a bite.
My mouth is immediately overwhelmed, my tongue is overloaded, my brain lights up… but not from the fight-or-flight response of unbearable skoville heat, rather, a dopamine-induced elation.
What the pepper lacked in heat, it made up for ten fold with its nostril-widening aroma, refreshingly crisp texture, and complex sweet in-the-best-kind-of-way flavor.
This is my kind of pepper.
The next dish follows a similar style, four different raw vegetables—with preparation consisting of little more then being cut—giving a full appreciation for the fact that these were recently picked.
Maybe even just picked?
Maybe there is a garden in the kitchen?
MAYBE THE KITCHEN IS A GARDEN?!
Bite after bite of these unaltered veggies; the same word comes to my mind… alive.
They are crisp, juicy, bright, and have the sort of chlorophyll-like sweetness that rarely makes it to the fork.
Chef Barber’s message is made deliciously clear… real flavor starts with real food.
This message was already understood, but my perspective was about to be radically shifted by one small red orb.
The fruit masquerading vegetable him(her?)self...
The humble tomato.
As you may have guessed, it's not in my preferred position (sauced on top of a crust and smothered with cheese), instead it's simply cut and lightly drizzled with a basil seed vinaigrette.
I take my first bite, and am immediately assaulted with an incomprehensible variety of flavors. Slightly dazed, I decide a second bite is needed before forming an opinion.
And on my way for the second bite… I literally drool on my lap.
Not being hyperbolic, not meaning to gross you out—just stating the fact:
The flavor in Dan Barber’s raw tomato, made my salivary glands react in an uncontrollable manner.
With the second bite, I give into the rush, and I’m overcome by a simultaneous sense of light-seeing happiness and resentful sadness.
Happy, for whatever reason, the world had lead me to this moment, and scornful, of course, at those little flavorless red imposters who have invaded my local grocery store.
Next comes the bread.
Its dark color and density unappetizingly reminiscent of the inedible bricks eaten only for their associated longevity claims. But even as I bring it to my mouth, I realize that this is a whole grain experience of which I have never been apart.
The roasted malty notes fill my nostrils, and my teeth are met with a pleasing resistance that surprisingly gives way to be soft and chewable.
A wave of metaphorical descriptives and fancy adjectives that I learned during a recent beer tasting rush through my mind... I strain to harness one, fail, and instead let out an incomprehensible garble of glee. The waitress, confused/amused, smiles and walks away.
I polish off the loaf before coming up for air.
This. Is. “Barber Wheat.”
I know what you're thinking…
“Wow! His own bread? What’s his secret baking method?”
And that was exactly where my head went… “What was the preparation of this bread?”
When the answer actually lies in the cultivation of the wheat.
That's right, this bread is uniquely delicious--not because of a special oven or secret ingredient--because Barber worked with a wheat breeder to create his own hybrid variety of wheat to meet his desired environmental and culinary needs.
How cool is that?
The rest of the night I’m fading in and out of a food-induced state of euphoria.
Tasting, laughing, crying, and fist pumping.
Dishes are presented, enjoyed, and explained (at one point a bizarre looking squash the size of an infant was actually carried to my table to help make sense of the dish).
The early courses celebrating flora cultivation—like the little flavor bombs of an experimental corn variety—eventually gave way to fauna, and equal mesmerization ensued.
Of particular revelation was the dish featuring three different parts of a goat—including tongue—reflecting Dan Barber's passion for nose-to-tail cooking and reducing food waste. (Needless... all three parts were lip-smacking good).
Dinner is concluded with a sweet corn blueberry pie, with a generous dollop of fromage blanc (I'll save you the Google--it's a French style "fresh cheese") and white chocolate. The delicate presentation coaxed me into small bites, appreciating the artful dance of the subtle richness, and the refreshingly not-overpowering sweetness.
As I stroll back to my Air BnB, the concrete feels a little more friendly beneath my feet, the air a bit more soothing in my lungs, and my stomach's nods of approval are beautifully vindicated by the lingering flavors of berries and sweet corn.
Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where he continually works to blur the line between the dining experience and the educational, bringing the principles of good farming directly to the table.
Barber has received multiple James Beard awards including Best Chef: New York City (2006) and the country's Outstanding Chef (2009). In 2009 he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
If your interested in Chef Dan Barber’s work--or eat food--I highly recommend his book The Third Plate