Book review

'The Third Plate': Dan Barber writes a food manifesto for the ages

The esteemed chef of Blue Hill in New York wants a revolution in the kitchen -- and at the farm

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There hasn’t been a call-to-action book with the potential to change the way we eat since Michael Pollan’s 2006 release, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Now there is.

Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” is a compelling global journey in search of a new understanding about how to build a more sustainable food system.

By Dan Barber
Penguin Press HC ($29.95)

Mr. Barber is a multi-James Beard Award-winning chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. It’s at Blue Hill at Stone Barns where his work is most impactful.

A few years ago Mr. Barber decided to drop a standard — or even seasonal — menu for a meal that changes daily depending on what’s coming into the farm. What chefs should be doing, he realized, is work with what’s coming into the restaurant rather than impose a menu of expected favorites and demand that farmers and ranchers grow them.

In “The Third Plate,” Mr. Barber argues for a broader and more holistic approach to food systems management. Chefs’ and home cooks’ commitment to purchasing “locally grown” food is a nice place to start, he says, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Mr. Barber argues that it’s time to move away from a system that values high production but devalues the health of bodies and our farms. We should move, he says, toward farming in a holistic way that combines respect for the land with a lust for delicious flavors.

According to Mr. Barber, it’s time to shift the plate away from a focus on large, prime cuts of meat to a plate focused on vegetable, fruits and grains. Humble, nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as the cowpea are the cover models of the future.

Mr. Barber’s argument for change is modernist, and it’s largely effective. Rather than polarizing the debate teams into entrenched camps of big versus little, homespun versus industrial, or heirloom versus hybrid, Mr. Barber recognizes not only is there a third plate, there is a third way.

For example, he praises Jamison Farms, the Latrobe lamb ranch that has demonstrated since 1979 how to run a sustainable, mid-sized operation. He highlights the work of Stephen Jones, the Washington state plant breeder who is bucking land grant university trends by breeding wheat varieties that aren’t just high yielding and disease resistant, but also, according to Mr. Barber, taste terrific.

Mr. Barber will certainly be criticized for being an elitist. Fair enough. As a top chef, he has access to just about anything he fancies eating, and this — while exciting from a narrative perspective — can be at times distancing. For example, the “Land” section of the book focuses on Eduardo Sousa, a man who raises foie gras so precious that he rarely even sells it to chefs.

After a while it’s easy to get a little jealous of his access. If we can all have a visit to Eduardo Sousa’s fantastic Extremadura landscape and feast on his priceless foie gras, we’d all fight daily for a change in the food system, too. However, unlike Mr. Barber, we can’t all fly off for a jaunt to Spain.

Don’t let Mr. Barber’s access to the good stuff — or his rather elite chef perspective — dissuade you from hearing his message. His solutions might at times seem a bit romantic or pie-in-the-sky, but he deserves praise for his high aspirations and exacting demands.

By encouraging more Klaas Martens — the upstate New York grain farmer who is a recurring hero in Mr. Barber’s narrative — to develop in all of our localities, more democratized and sustainable food systems will develop.

Although Mr. Barber doesn’t shy away from highlighting the very real problems in modern global food systems, “The Third Plate” is an argument for good rather than an argument against bad. This recipe might at times be challenging, but what’s served in the end is a dish for a better future. This is a book worth reading.

Hal B. Klein holds a master’s degree in food studies from Chatham University and writes for “The Allegheny Front,” Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets:

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