For more than a decade Dan Barber has been among the most influential chefs working at the intersection of ecology and gastronomy—building his menus around the farm outside his restaurant window, combining sophisticated kitchen wizardry like sous vide with old-fashioned homage to offal, adorning tables with impaled turnips, proffering bowls of fragrant soil to unsuspecting diners. But his words are arguably even more influential than his cooking; check out his popular Ted talk on a fish. And last Monday, with a veritable United Nations Security Council of the world’s top chefs as his allies, he exhorted cooks to think not just about how and where their food is grown, but about what forces are influencing the very DNA of our ingredients.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Every day, the world continues to lose food diversity—whether breeds of dairy cows or varieties of lettuce; at the same time, the development of new varieties is guided almost exclusively by the interests of multinational food corporations, rather than nutrition and flavor. Barber is determined to change that. “We’ve made chefs and farmers rockstars. Now we need to recognize that breeders are the heroes,” he said to a room of bold-faced name cooks, editors, funders and farmers at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture, home to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Barber’s trailblazing restaurant in Westchester.
This was the third annual meeting of the international advisory board of the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian (think Guggenheim museum with kitchen classrooms, rooftop gardens and solar panels). The advisory group is a dream team of chefs from Mexico (Enrique Olvera), Peru (Gaston Acurio, who has more Twitter followers than Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman combined), Japan (Yukio Hattori), France (Michel Bras) and Spain (Ferran Adria, the molecular gastronomy pioneer of El Bulli). (Food enthusiasts might have spotted this group—fondly referred to as the G9 of food—soaking in Gotham food culture in a tour that included a cocktail party at NoMad Hotel, kibitzing with the Frankies and waiting in line for Shake Shack burgers.)
So the packed room—including New York chefs April Bloomfield, Alex Raij, Peter Hoffman, Bill Telepan, and John Adler, White House chef and school garden advocate Sam Kass, as well as food education leaders Dorothy Hamilton and Joan Gussow—was treated to a whirlwind of PowerPoints, tasting exercises and brain dumps of data, together making the case that chefs should be working not just with farmers, but with regional breeders.
Pioneering Low Country chef Sean Brock and Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts presented together, reminding us that specific varieties are the building blocks of America’s regional cooking cultures. “They don’t work without real ingredients,” Brock noted, pointing to the real Carolina rice, black-eyed peas and other crops whose sophisticated rotation worked for the soil, the farmer and the cuisine. Frank Morton, a master lettuce breeder from Oregon noted that the plants reflect their breeders’ values, be they flavor, nutrition or food sovereignty—or, far more likely, global profit—and chefs can help shift those values toward the public interest. Barber spoke of his own collaboration with a regional tomato breeder who had created a variety that resisted the devastating Northeast late blight four years ago, but whose perfect, round, red uniformity left room for improvement: “There’s an opportunity for us to sit at the drafting table and help curate the flavors and the blueprint.” (It’s worth noting that none of the breeders in the room work with genetically modified crops, wary of the proprietary constraints that such seeds carry and committed instead to sharing the plants and traits they develop in the public domain.)
And finally there was Steve Jones, perhaps the poster child for the seed breeder of the future. Jones had been developing wheat varieties for more than 30 years before he decided that the focus on high yields and other traits for industrial baking was doing more harm than good. That’s because “99.99%” of wheat breeders and growers today are only interested in wheat for industrial baking, meaning that eaters—in America and worldwide—only get to experience a tiny fraction of the possibilities. The wheat characteristics he hadn’t been working on may shock you: “No one had ever asked me about taste. No one had ever asked me about nutrition,” recalls Jones, who now emphasizes precisely those traits at the non-commodity wheat program he runs at Washington State University. Jones dazzled the audience with a constellation-esque diagram showing the rainbow of colors, flavors and other traits that exist in wheat, and all the possible uses—from making small-batch hooch to malted sweetener to wood-fired, whole-wheat bagels. At Jones’s Bread Lab, breeders work side by side with bakers, and he made a call to everyone in the room to break down the walls between breeders and eaters.
If food is meant to sustain us, why not have nutritionists and chefs give input, to break the monopoly of agribusiness influence on breeding? Indeed, the single-minded focus on breeding for yield, uniformity and shelf-stability has made our food not only less interesting but less healthy, even as it’s become more abundant. A meta-analysis I conducted for the Organic Center a few years ago found that the nutrient content of all major fruits and vegetables, as well as some dairy and meat products, has declined dramatically as breeders have selected for yield.
Even if it will take some time for large seed companies and university breeding programs to change their priorities, there’s no reason that nutritionists, health care advocates, chefs and eaters can’t link up with seed breeders right now. Gaston Acurio, the chef from Peru, knows the power that chefs can wield. “Farmers trust chefs. Customers trust chefs. We are a very good weapon to change the food system.” In fact, chefs have already helped do this. Consider the expanded sweet-friendly American palate for bitter flavors, from Negronis and hoppy beers to bitter greens and sour milk. Sao Paolo’s star chef Alex Atala, who has eaten his way to the heart of the Amazon, offered tastes of fermented honeys, glistening vanilla beans and “mini-rice,” and urged us to reconsider our cultural hang-ups about eating insects. (“What is honey? It’s bee vomit. But we still love it.”)
Slowly, but surely, grassroots change is happening. According to Matt Dillon, a breeder and the founder of Seed Matters, community-owned seed banks, like Hudson Valley Seed Library, have proliferated in recent years. In fact, over 100 public libraries (the ones that carry books) have started lending out seeds alongside books and DVDs. Farmers around the country are working more with breeders in a form of “participatory seed breeding” that is more common in the agricultural development circles of Africa and Asia than in the well-funded fields of North America. And the implications go far beyond taste and nutrition, since this shift in seed breeding will replace uniformity with ecological elasticity, making our farms that much more prepared to deal with extreme weather events, new pests and climate chaos. (Seed Matters is, in fact, gearing up for a tour for next year that aims to democratize and decentralize a consolidated seed industry.)
The breeders who were in the room are outliers of sorts, often ostracized in their fields for their focus on flavor and nutrition. So having these celebrity chefs as new allies may go a long way to boosting their morale. Barber compared the breeders to where Ferran Adria or Harold McGee were in the 1980s, before the once-obscure techniques and ideas they codified found homes in kitchens throughout the world, elevating our collective diet without us even knowing it.
And naturally the day ended with a family-style dinner serving new and unusual vegetables developed by the very breeders in the room. There were pickles made from Nash’s Nantes carrots and cocktails made with Flame, Torch & Sunset beets. A mini-squash designed for small farms was served alongside mini-rice from the Amazon, Carolina Gold rice and heirloom beans from the South, and platters of sausage and thick, red ham from Stone Barn’s acorn-fed Berkshire hogs. (“Now we’re going to get our meat on,” said my tablemate Will Blunt, editor of Starchefs.com.)
Nerdy and quirky, the breeders seemed awkward but giddy for this novel attention. Barber announced that a potato and egg dish included a new, slightly blushing potato variety developed by Walter de Jong, a potato breeder at Cornell, who was slightly blushing himself as the room turned its attention to him. Barber announced that Chef Gaston was impressed with the as-yet-unnamed spud and wanted it to be called “Violetta.” “Is that OK with you, Walter?,” Barber asked, hoping to jump-start this new era of chef-breeder collaborations in real time. “It’s fine with me,” shouted de Jong to a chorus of applause and laughter.
As the meal concluded over poundcake and a remarkable assortment of cookies made with unsung grains, Ferran Adria reclined and seemed particularly optimistic. “The current generation of young chefs is the greatest in history,” he said, through a translator. “They understand culture, business, ecology and now seeds. If we don’t keep an eye on future generations, then everything we do is useless.”