Dining with Dan

By Kathleen Merrigan

You’ve heard of “chef-driven cuisine” and “farm-to-table” cuisine, but what about a “farm driven chef”? World-renowned chef Dan Barber is working to be just that. Dan argues that designing a “farm-to-table” menu is not enough to achieve a sustainable meal. Chefs need to go farther and reimagine their plates as a meal that regenerates farmland, rather than depletes it.

What could that look like? Well for one, a beet steak might replace your beef steak in the center of the plate. Animal protein may become a side dish or condiment rather than the main component of the meal. Wasted food is re-envisioned; the liquid in the can of garbanzo beans is whipped into aquafaba, a delicacy like merengue or marshmallow. And soil health is celebrated through a rotational risotto, comprised of all the crops needed for sustainable land management.

By putting the farm front and center in creating the menu, Dan sees the meal of the future rebuilding biodiversity, soil health, increasing farmer livelihoods, and tasting absolutely delicious.

To ensure that the food he serves is sustainable and delectable, Dan has partnered with plant breeders to create a line of flavor driven seeds. Row 7 seeds have been bred with a focus on taste rather than yield and pest resistance, considerations that typically drive plant breeding. These crops pack big flavor, and that’s what Dan hopes will help to shift diets to more sustainable options in the future. I was able to taste the difference myself while hanging out with Dan recently in the kitchen. The Row 7 corn (on the right in the photo above) is in such contrast to the very high sugar content corn to which we have become accustomed. I could really taste -- and enjoy -- the corn flavor, which was not overwhelmed by sugar, and the difference between the two was dramatic.

I’m watching Dan’s work closely because I think there’s a magic moment that happens when you put chefs, farmers, scientists, and eaters together to find solutions. That’s exactly the kind of interdisciplinary and innovative solution-based work we’re excited about here at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems.

Follow us on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date on our work. And you can learn more about Chef Dan Barber’s vision of the future of food by reading his wonderful book, The Third Plate.