Dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is unusually simple. As you start your meal, a waiter brings out a line of small spikes set into a wooden block. They look like nails hammered into a 2”x4”.
Speared on top, neatly in a row, is a flight of fresh, raw produce: a tomato, a radish, a baby cabbage, a carrot.
“Vegetables from the farm,” the waiter says.
There’s no sauce, no side –– really, no cooking of any kind.
And yet, when diners pick the produce off the spikes and eat it, they’re blown away.
Ruth Reichl, one of the most acclaimed food writers in the U.S., can tell you why.
“You taste things that just taste better than any pea you’ve ever had before, any radish you’ve ever had before. A carrot that is, like, the carrotness of a carrot. [There’s] a moment where you go, ‘Oh! This is what this is supposed to taste like.’”
Blue Hill doesn’t rely on fancy cooking or complicated flavor combinations. One of their most famous dishes is an egg and cheddar cheese on toast. But despite their humble menu, they’re consistently ranked one of the 50 best restaurants in the world (#28 in 2019).
They owe their success to one single thing: sustainable, biodynamic farming. When you first see Blue Hill at Stone Barns –– driving through a rural town in Upstate New York –– you don’t think of a world-class restaurant. In fact, the place looks suspiciously like a working farm, because that’s exactly what it is.
Their head chef and owner, Dan Barber, explains:
“When you are chasing after the best flavor, you are chasing after the best ingredients –– and when you’re chasing after the best ingredients, you’re in search of great farming.”
Barber began farming in a few small boxes on a New York City rooftop. His original Blue Hill restaurant was in the heart of Manhattan, which was good for business but bad for finding quality produce. One day, Barber and his team decided to take matters into their own hands. They began growing produce on the roof of the building, fitting in pots and grow beds wherever they could. When their dishes started tasting better, Barber became obsessed with farming.
After a few years of success in his Manhattan restaurant, Barber bought some farmland. He wanted to make better-tasting food, and he quickly realized that traditional farming practices wouldn’t give him the ingredient quality he needed.
Pesticides, monocropping, and other staples of industrial farming produced food that tasted flat and empty, so Barber chose to take a biodynamic approach. What if he could create a self-sustaining ecosystem, where every part balanced another and fed back into the overall quality of the farm?
He started with the soil. Healthy soil needs nutrients from cow manure –– so Barber brought in dairy cows. Of course, healthy cows need high-quality grass to graze on –– so Barber began raising free-range chickens, to break up the cow manure and spread it as they walk around the fields. When harsh brush began to take over the grass, Barber brought in goats to eat the brush. When the animals needed shade in the summer heat, he planted fruit trees.
With every new problem to solve, the farm’s biodiversity increased. And all the while, the soil got better. That made more nutritious grass for the cows, and better dairy for the restaurant. The soil quality also attracted more grubs to eat, which led to stronger chickens, and better eggs for the restaurant. Same for higher-quality brush, which the goats then ate –– leading to better goat milk and cheese for the restaurant.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns proves that when you take care of the earth, it takes care of you back. Their farm produces much higher yield than industrial farms do, and the quality of ingredients is arguably the best in the world.
Barber’s journey to become a world-class farmer and chef began with a few garden beds on a New York City rooftop. If you start a vegetable garden in your backyard, where could it lead you?