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June 2, 2014 at 11:18 AM

Dan Barber & Nancy Leson talk about the future of food

Dan Barber photo by Mark Ostow

Dan Barber photo by Mark Ostow

We can’t all eat at chef Dan Barber’s New York restaurants. Thanks to his new book, though, Barber might change the way we all think about food.

He’ll be at Town Hall at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 3 in a conversation with our own Nancy Leson. They’ll discuss “The Third Plate, (Penguin Press, $29.95)” a book that could be as influential in its way as a Fast Food Nation or Omnivore’s Dilemma. Leson said she hopes to let Barber’s entertaining style shine through and “to allow him to convince our audience that what he has to say is important, forward thinking, and attainable.”

Barber, a graceful writer with an ear for dialogue, argues in his 496-page tome that we’ve all (himself included) been shortsighted in our ideas about what’s best to eat. While he made his name as a farm-to-table chef, he’s learned that way of cooking isn’t inherently ideal.

“Farm to table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day (and I should know, since I do it often), but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. Which is really about an expected way of eating,” he wrote.

“It forces farmers into growing crops like zucchini and tomatoes (requiring lots of real estate and soil nutrients) or into raising enough lambs to sell mostly just the chops…really the farmer ends up serving the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.”

Rather than the “first plate” of the traditional American meat-and-veggies diet or the modern “second plate” modified with grass-fed beef and organic heirloom carrots, Barber pictures a very different “third plate” where we find delectable ways to enjoy ingredients that will keep the land healthy. In that world, sweet carrot steaks would take up most of the plate, sauced with braised tougher cuts of beef. We would not just feast on locally grown wheat, fresh enough to have a flavor and character that industrial flours have lost, but would also relish dishes like the “rotation risotto” Barber cooks using the grains and legumes required to build a rich soil for farming that wheat.

A lot of Barber’s ideas will resound with Northwest diners who have heard fragments of such inspirations from local growers, as when Sea Breeze Farm raises veal calves as part of a healthy ecosystem rather than viewing them as dairy farm discards, or when the owners of Skagit River Ranch invest unending energy on building their farm’s soil and grasses to nurture their cows, or when Scott Mangold at The Breadfarm adjusts his baguette recipe to work with a locally developed, grown, and milled breed of wheat.

Barber brings this all together with the insights gathered through a decade of research, through the global connections he’s developed in his years as an influential chef, and through lovely turns of phrase. We’ll never think of mullet as a “trash fish” again after hearing him describe how it became the slightest bit boring, and “as with a date who wears the same outfit and tells the same stories, you might find your eye wandering a little — until one day she shows up carrying a purse bursting with roe and a cashmere coat of blanched white lard. And you fall in love all over again.”

The book gains particular power from Barber’s perspective as a player in the process as well as an observer, one who needs practical business solutions, who can’t always convince even his own servers to “sell” a dish to diners the way he envisions it. He explores a sustainable-sounding fish farm in Spain partly because he wants to serve sustainable fish at his own tables (if such a thing exists,) and he investigates local wheat pioneer Steve Jones of Washington State University’s Bread Lab partly because he wants Jones to develop wheat he can grow and harvest on the farm associated with his own restaurant.

Jones is one of the book’s heroes. Barber weaves a great tale of how he gave up riches in royalties offered by Monsanto when he was head of the wheat breeding program at Washington State University, refusing to give up one of the “oldest rights of humankind,” to replant what you harvest. That led eventually to Jones leaving for the Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center, a move Barber describes as “a little like leaving a vice president position at General Motors in Detroit to run one of the branch offices in Kalamazoo.” Regular readers know that Jones went on to create the Bread Lab and develop it into a national beacon of inspiration for farmers and bakers alike. Barber devotes the book’s last lines to Jones, saying that his work “is the difference between an antiquated system of agriculture and the possibility for a future of delicious food.”

Will we find a way to set our tables with the third plate? Details on the Tuesday night discussion on “The Future of Sustainable Food” are over here; admission is $5. If you want to see Barber in action on screen, here’s his popular TED talk on “How I Fell In Love With A Fish.”

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