America’s “food-revolution” has always been driven by the media and its power to disseminate information—Craig Claiborne via journalism, James Beard through books, Julia Child through television and books, MFK Fisher through food literature, to name a few of the early heavy hitters.  For most of that time, a primary source of information and inspiration has been chefs.  They were so good at what they did, and the field of their expertise became so popular, a handful became celebrified, embalmed by spotlight.

The danger for all of us and chefs, as with all celebrity, is that celebrity becomes the subject itself, not the result valuable work.  And so food media, now heavily dominated by television, gives us chefs, not in the form of Pierre Franey or Jacques Pepin, but rather in the form of Colicchio and Ramsay and the Food Networks Iron Chefs, while the most watched food educators are non-chefs.  This is by no means criticism of Colicchio or Ramsay or the Iron Chefs, who got to where they are through extraordinary work as chefs, managers and businessmen.  Nor is there anything wrong with cooking as entertainment—indeed, it’s lead many at home into the kitchen to cook for themselves.  Nor is this a condemnation of America’s celebrity culture or celebrity chefs—Mario still runs thriving businesses, Thomas Keller continues to produce both restaurants and products of extraordinary refinement, each of them employing increasing numbers of people who are themselves thriving within these growing businesses.

But the chef as inspiration, the one who points the way to the cool new stuff, the important stuff—once the only kind of visible chef we knew—that chef is getting harder to hear in an increasingly cacophonous food world.

There are many chefs out there who are doing this, and good magazines and newspapers are covering them and writing about them, even publishing them and spreading their ideas and the knowledge they’ve accrued in the course of their work of feeding people—Daniel Patterson of Coi and of Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune (finish that memoir, please!), for instance, two chef writers I admire.

The chef who inspired these thoughts today is Dan Barber (pictured above), chef of the Blue Hill restaurants, and his excellent op-ed essay in the NYTimes on Sunday.  It’s about our moving into a post-industrial agricultural age, one in which small farmers proliferate not just in the United States but around the world.  You may want to argue with him.  In some email back and forth about this, my friend Russ Parsons author and LATimes reporter who covers farmers markets, worries that too many will view this as a call to replace industrial agricultural, which for all its harm has made food very inexpensive—a salient point with the cost even of industrial food skyrocketing.

But Barber, whose foie gras experience I wrote about a few weeks ago, is proving to be one of the most important voices in the chef world, and I think we need to listen to him.  And we need to listen to other chefs who are actively promoting a better way of living simply by caring about our food and the way we grow it and distribute it and eat it.

I hope that soon we can allow chefs to step out of the spotlight and reclaim their position not as vaunted moguls, untouchable in their starched white jackets, not as greedy sellouts to be derided for leaving their kitchens to open multiple restaurants or host TV entertainment, but rather as accessible spreaders of information and inspiration about some of the most important issues we face today.


58 Wonderful responses to “Chef Voices”

  • Kelly

    Everytime I hit the large local grocery store where I live(westside suburb of Cleveland),I am pained at how lack-luster and just downright horrible the quality of the produce looks. The organic stuff doesn’t seem much better on top of it being way more expensive.

    Lately I have been reading more about the kind of high quality products that big time restaurants and chefs can get because they can afford to. I know it helps that it’s readily available in some areas. I’m jealous! The way produce is described and pictured in The French Laundry Cookbook is amazing.

    So how does a person living in the mid-west seek out better, fresher, more small farm type items to cook with? Keeping in mind that cost is a factor as well. Is the Westside Market the only way to go?

  • joelfinkle

    There is food for nutrition, and there is food for passion.

    Industrializing food production will be needed worldwide to feed growing populations — staving off that growth requires education, education requires time outside of subsidence agriculture… so that industrialized agriculture is a necessary evil step on the way to enlightenment. (For example, India is getting about 30-40% of its potential agricultural food productivity out of its land. The scary part is that China is a 90-95% — and eating up that land for industry and housing. Figures from Chicago Tribune 5/11/08).

    Food as passion, entertainment… that takes tradesmen and artisans, no different than furniture. You can buy ready-to-assemble furniture and get by, and even live well, but what Neal Stephenson called “Grandma Furniture” is expensive, time consuming to produce, and requires trained experts and high quality raw materials. Same with dinner.

    Even in Eutopia (go look up the difference between that and Utopia), I don’t expect every meal to be like one from the French Laundry, or even my local Bistro. Beating McD’s is doable even on the industrial scale, beating Olive Garden regularly should be something we should shoot for.

    But we will never sustain our worldwide economies and populations on organic, hand-raised, hand-processed food, sadly, just like I’ll never have all of my furniture from Thom Price etc.

  • amber

    coming from the perspective of an amateur home cook, it’s those “celebrity chefs” that got me at all interested in cooking in the first place. combine that with reading food books such as yours and bourdain’s and well, i became hooked.

    hopefully, once that celebrity status inspires folks to get to know their kitchen as more than a place to store plates and cutlery for takeout, people will become more interested in food and the cooking world in general and will be open to other ideas and ways of thinking about it all.

  • Bruce F

    I agree with you that high profile chefs like Mr. Barber can and should be listened to whenever possible.

    Along the same lines, Michael Pollen has been using his visibility to teach outside his normal university setting. “In Defense of Food” is a great read, he did a question and answer session in front of some Google employees that you might like to watch.

    An earlier comment was made that industrialized farming is necessary to feed the world. That’s just not true. Organic and permaculture produce higher yields per acre, per Barber’s piece, and they can do it on a large enough scale.

  • Kate in the NW

    Ooooh – I’m so glad you wrote on this – as always! Barber’s piece was marvelous.

    My 2 cents: It’s going to be really important for you guys up there on the pedestals to make responsible food fun and accessible in terms of making the techniques feel do-able for us down here among the Great Unwashed.
    It’s going to be up to us down here to get educated, make an effort, make some sacrifices in order to buy good ingredients, and to support legislation that not only feeds us well, but also feeds the world and preserves this tiny planet. Tough nut to crack.
    My mom lives about 5 miles from Blue Hill at Stone Barns (fabulous food, idyllic setting – if price is no object…it’s like BioSphere for Foodies!) and a side benefit of having small, diversified, local, organic farms is that they’re magnificent places to spend a day with your kids/family/friends. They’re educational and community-building. And the farmers are often more than pleased to see you, as long as they can still get their work done. Heck – some will even let you pitch in, if you know what you’re doing (especially CSA’s).
    But they’re still boutique items.
    Let’s not kid ourselves – WE’RE IN A RECESSION, and it’ll probably get a lot worse before it gets better. That’s really important to keep in mind if we care about not just our own priveleged plates, but everybody’s (and there are a whole host of reasons we should…).

    I’ve always been a “foodie” (gastrocentric individual?), but I’ve also been really poor – and IT SUCKS. After working 17 straight days of double shifts – on my feet the whole time – I would eat anything that came from a drive-through on my way home to my crappy apartment (where I couldn’t cook much because of the atrocious kitchen and the pest issues in the building). If there was a 79-cent-menu, even better. You can’t blame people for simply needing calories. Sometimes cheap food is not a choice – it’s cheap food or no food.

    Maybe the answer is some kind of program that redirects farm subsidies going to big agribusiness and sinks it into cheap, easy, local, organic, nutritious prepared foods.
    I don’t have the answers. But I sure do hope that someone can find them, and this TV/celebrity chef culture can get the message out in a non-elitist way that people can hear and use. I’ve lived on both sides of this issue and hope that folks like Dan Barber can sit down with folks like Jimmy Dean and come up with some sort of a plan!

  • faustianbargain

    to ruhlman: when is keller going to come up with a vegetarian restaurant in yountville? surely, you’ll be on board to collaborate with him on that cookbook, eh?

    p.s: Kate in the NW, this is completely unrelated, but i only mention this because you capitalised it and its also somewhat of a pet peeve of mine when it comes to macroeconomic jargon…but we are not yet in a recession. a recession is officially on when there has been at least two *consecutive* quarters of negative growth. it hasnt happened yet. the last report even showed a slight growth, iirc..of course, this doesnt mean that the country isnt in the shit or that the fed isnt diddling the population..and yes, its probably going to get a lot worse..but there is no recession. yet. officially.

  • Ulla

    Everyone is so down on the celebrity chef. If a celebrity chefs get us into the kitchen to discover that cooking, good healthy food is not as hard as the corporate food conglomerates would have us believe how is that bad? I mean Rachel Ray is a perky and cute but she does get people into the kitchen! The first step on the path to caring about where your food comes from is making food yourself. I say cheers to anyone who tells people that food can be made at home!

  • NYCook

    I had a chance to go eat at Blue Hill at stone barns a little while back and it was amazing. The food of course was spectacular, but the whole scene was really something to behold. I think in certin ways Chef Barber’s restaurant could become NY answer to the french laundry.
    I saw Chef Barber interviewed for the FCI chefs story series and he made some really interesting points about Organic VS Local, and explaining why Blue Hill isn’t 100% organic.
    I highly recomend anyone in the NYC area to check out Blue Hill at Stone Barns it is an experience for sure.

  • Vincent

    I work with an organic farmer on a daily basis, feed people daily with the same sort of product and agree with Barber completely. His passion is great, a wonder in this day and I hope chefs will follow. Great post.

    Faust…who will make it official to you?

  • Johnny Disaster

    To answer Kelly, you can try looking into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). It’s where you commit to receive produce from a local farm on a subscription basis (my first search result was http://www.localharvest.org/csa/). It’s good for the farmer to have guaranteed subscribers and good for you to get fresh local produce.My box comes every other week full of fresh produce direct from a farm around 90 miles away – they even occasionally have events at the farm like the strawberry picking sleepover/campout. Although as I live in northern California, I may be a bit spoiled…

  • Rochelle

    Do people want to hear this sort of thing any longer? Is it possible to be a chef who is respected by the culinary cognoscenti yet who reaches the masses with the information on technique and ingredients that is so sorely lacking amidst the squawks of the convenience-food queens?

    My personal experience with great restaurant chefs is that the one who makes time and energy to teach or write, and does a great job of it, is somewhat rare. Though those are generally the restaurant chefs I admire most. I think it’s like Broadway musicals: lots of people can sing, lots of people can dance, and lots of people can act, but if you want performers who can do all three they’re probably not going to excel at every one of them. It’s tough to maintain consistency on the line, plan menus, lead a brigade, manage food costs etc etc and also be a decent writer and educator.

  • luis

    I am reading/looking over Jacques Pepin’s complete techniques as I glanced over your chef’s rant. Your boy Patterson has some very very BIG PANTALONES to fill…. go for it!!!!

  • Doodad

    I am doing my small part this summer. I have learned to shop seasonally thanks to many fine chefs of all calibers. I will be planting my first full on vegetable garden in a few weeks. We are still in a drought, but food is exempt from watering restrictions. Goodbye azaleas, hello squash. And I can eat the blooms!

  • luis

    Doodad, We/many are in striking range of retirement. Retiring in a place that allowed us to farm organics and raise our own tilapias would be nice.Patterson is probably picking up on this type of trend. Also when you project the challenges that face the country going forward including the sea levels rising forcing the population on the coast to retreat deeper into the country, being on a self sustaining mode is in most folks minds. It’s all about preserving the family.

  • Charlotte

    Hey Kelley — won’t solve your problem year round, but one solution to the produce issue is to grow your own. You don’t have to put in a whole garden — you can grow a season’s worth of lovely lettuces in a container. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers too … peas are as easy as can be. Of course, growing some of your own vegetables will ruin you for grocery store produce because your own will taste so good, and be so fresh, that you’ll never look at a zucchini in the store the same way again (how long has it been dead? how many people have touched it? how far as it come on some truck?)

  • Ulla

    Dan Barber’s Manhattan restaurant is in my neighborhood is it better to got to the one up in Westchester? I have been meaning to go check it out. It is a bit pricey but the upstate version is so intriguing, does anyone recommend one over the other?

  • Bob delGrosso

    I have lots of respect for Chef Barber and his skill in the kitchen. But I am not comfortable holding up his “farm to table” program at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester as a model for the rest of the world to emulate for one reason only. I’m not entirely convinced that it could exist without the financial support of David Rockefeller and his daughter.

    In the short time that I have been working as chef/salumaio at a raw milk dairy farm whose sole means of support comes from sales, I have come to understand how fabulously difficult and expensive it is to maintain standards of practice advocated by Chef Barber and a public that is increasingly influenced by his, and others, call for organic, sustainable, humanely raised and slaughtered, ethically sanitized food.

    Put another way, I’m get a little annoyed when people who are, in effect, subsidized in their work tout standards that are virtually impossible to achieve without the same subsidy. And Barber is not alone.

    I can cite you any number of small farms around here (in SW Pa), that practice “sustainable agriculture” that would not be sustained for very long if a good portion of the money that sustained it did not come from the farmer’s day job at the Hedge Fund or Investment Bank.

    (As for that “excellent” op-ed piece. I agree it was a good read but Chef Barber’s claim that organic food is more nutrient dense than conventionally raised food is a generalization at best and at worst, not proven.)

    Finally, I think that the dialog on the subject of sustainable-humane-organic food versus conventionally raised food has become too polarized and that one model of production is not in every aspect better than another and that what we really need is something that combines the best elements of each. That is what is going to happen anyway, so we may as well face up to it and redirect the conversation to reflect the reality on the ground.

    Great post Michael, it’s sure to generate some heat.

  • Kate in the NW

    To Ulla – I haven’t been to the one in Manhattan, but take a nice day this summer and get thee to Westchester. If Martha Stewart and the Olmstead brothers designed an amusement park, it would be Stone Barns. Even if the food doesn’t totally wow you (and I can’t imagine it wouldn’t), the place itself is exquisite. Go up in the late morning in your jeans and hiking boots – bring a book and a picnic blanket – pretend the whole world is like that place. Then change into your fancies and dine, dine, dine…the day will be like a mini-vacation.
    Just don’t look too closely at the pigs…they’re cute and friendly and…delicious.

  • Flaime

    Two thoughts for Mr. Parsons:
    1) Industrial agriculture produces very little “real” food. The main products of the industrial agriculture machine are processed food additives and consumables created from these food additives. Science and medicine are demonstrating on an almost daily basis that the consumable products from industrial agriculture are shortening our lifespans and increasing the levels of nutrion related diseases world wide.

    2) The primary answer to the cost of food now adays is to grow your own as much as possible. Anyone with a yard should be able to start a garden of some sort that could replace/supplement their food purchases. Many people without yards can create small container gardens that can offer supplemental food sources.

    A growing trend in urban areas is urban homesteading, with tenents creating platform gardens on tenement roofs and in vacant neighborhood spaces. As most rural residents have access to at least some space, they have even greater opportunities for gardening.

    And with gardening, there will always be the abundance to be dealt with…people can, for a minimum cost, take up home canning (24 quart pot, some quart jars and proper lids, and a free pamphlet from the USDA or the FDA are all that you need to started there).

    Lessening our reliance on the high oil processes and inhumane processes of industrial agriculture should be a high priority of Americans.

    For those who don’t know the high oil part, most industrial agriculture crops require applications of high nitrogen fertilizars; these “fixed” nitrogen products are derived solely from petrochemicals, at this point–oil.

    Now, it is admittedly true that the enormous yields in modern agriculture are unobtainable without these fertilizers, but the environmental damage caused by these products is tremendous; there is now a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico so large that it threatens a significant portion of the Gulf’s shrimp and other fisheries caused by the runoff from these fertilizers. The price of oil and gasoline can be, in part, attributed to the portion of oil that is diverted to create fixed nitrogen fertilizers for agriculture.

    I’m sure Russ Parsons is aware of all this, as well as the fact that even if all products produced by industrial agriculture were relegated to food uses, it wouldn’t help people in places like Haiti, Somalia, and Ethiopia because the governments divert food aid delivered to feed their armies and control their populations. We would be much better off if we greatly reduced the role industrial agriculture had in the world and returned to the small farm and small farmer.

  • Messy

    Every time I read an article where a chef touts the glories of organic, “peasant” food, I have to laugh. Not because it’s silly, because it’s not – I agree. No, It’s because I grew up on that stuff, and the reason was a simple one, we were poor for most of my childhood.

    Lest anyone accuse me of reminiscing about the Depression or WWII and rail against the impossibility of living the way we did, I was born in 1963. This means that I grew up in the 60s and 70s and went to university in the 80s.

    We did own a farm, which probably saved us financially, but we were so spoiled when it came to the quality of the food we ate on a daily basis that I find it hard to feel sorry for myself.

    We had goats, and therefore fabulous feta and chevre. We had every bird you can imagine on a farm, including chickens, geese, ducks, muscovy ducks, turkeys and on one memorable occasion, pheasants. I actually got bored with foie gras at one point, which makes me sad because we now live in Chicago, where the yummy liver is banned.

    The garden was immense – I know because I had to work in it. There were raspberries, strawberries, and every kind of veg that we could make grow in that climate. We froze, we pickled, we made jam, the whole schmear. It was hard work, but the rewards were more than worth it.

    We went out and picked our own wild blueberries, highbush cranberries and mushrooms in a good year. I remember one summer when we were able to pick water pails full of morels. We froze them, dried them and ate them sauteed on toast for lunch. I had no idea what people actually paid for such things until I moved away from home….Sigh.

    I could go on for pages. I never ate a loaf of bread from a store unless I was out at someone else’s house, and I didn’t like it. We had game regularly, as well as grass-fed beef and bison (people ranch them). When we were driven to shop at a grocery store at the end of the winter, I have to say that I wasn’t fond of the produce, and I’m still not enchanted with any of it.

    It was by no means idyllic. Let’s face it, that was a hard, miserable time and while I know I could do that, I wouldn’t want to. Killing chickens is not a fun thing, nor is picking a half acre of raspberries. The livestock doesn’t care if you have the flu. Still, when I contrast that food with the stuff we see in the stores now I lament the state of agriculture in this country.

    I can’t help but see a certain irony in the fact that the food that I ate as a kid now shows up in restaurants that I would never have dreamed about going to at that time. Now as we look at retiring in the next decade or so, the property that we’re considering has room for a few geese…maybe some chickens…definitely a small garden.

  • Aaron Kagan

    Sure industrially grown food is less expensive, but let’s not forget the hidden costs, such as environmental cleanup and doctor’s bills. As many now say, we need to start paying the real cost of what it takes to make our food.

    Also, there’s another problem with the coverage of chefs by the American media that you’ve left off. Increasingly, people are getting their information from sources that are neither chefs nor professional members of the media: bloggers like me.


  • Darcie

    I find it amusing that Mr. Barber considers 1,364 acres a large farm. Maybe 100 years ago it was, but that is now considered a very small farm, at least in the Midwest.

    My brothers have a farm of about 1,000 acres, on which they grow small grains and oilseeds. It is all destined for food (pasta, bread, cooking oil). The large farms in the area are 10,000+ acres. Most of the farmers have used anhydrous ammonia (a nitrogen fertilizer) so much that the soil is nearly dead and hardpan. The overuse of chemicals is driven by depressed crop prices that have farmers scrambling for more yield. My brothers and many others believe that overuse of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides is going to create a crisis in the near future (10-20 years) when the land becomes so devoid of nutrients and microorganisms that even the application of chemicals won’t allow crops to grow. You can’t grow food in cement.

    But until that, or something equally dramatic, happens, I don’t foresee large scale change. It may well be that oil prices will be a catalyst for change but I think other factors will have to weigh in before anything significant occurs.

    Dan Barber correctly points out that a change to smaller-scale farming will require more farmers. However, I don’t know many people willing to work that hard in areas as remote as my brothers’ farm in North Dakota.
    Wages for farm workers will replace high-priced oil products. Intensive labor for planting, weeding and harvesting is costly, even with low wages. Therefore I think that food will remain more expensive no matter which system is utilized to produce it. Wages will offset reduction in chemical and mechanical costs (which may not be a bad thing – I’d rather pay a person than spend money on Roundup).

  • russ parsons

    Thanks for the lively discussion. A lot of my points have been brought up earlier by other posters. I would like to clarify that I am completely in favor of high-quality small farmers (is there anyone, really, who is not?). I don’t think I’m blowing my own horn too much to say that there aren’t many people who have been covering this issue as thoroughly or for as long as I have (I started writing about where-food-comes-from issues in the mid-80s), and one of my main goals is informing my readers about the difference between good and mediocre ingredients and what it takes to grow them.

    That said, I do believe that anyone who thinks the current agricultural model can be replaced by yeoman farmers without additional cost is delusional. Here’s one irrefutable fact: Since the advent of modern agriculture just after World War II, the price Americans pay for food has been reduced by half. I’m not proposing that reverting to the prior system would necessarily double the cost of food, but to think that it would be cost-free simply is not based in reality. And just as the push for cheap food had the unintended consequence of a lot of flavorless produce, I fear that the current enthusiasm, if applied on a universal basis, would have the unintended consequence of a return to hunger for many. Is that a trade you’re willing to make?

    With all respect to Dan Barber, who is a fine chef and a great advocate, I’m afraid he may have been playing a little loose with his statistics when he was comparing the yields on small farms to large farms. Absent footnoting, here are some questions I would have liked to ask: Which two farms was he comparing? Doesn’t 4-acre farm and 1,364-acre farm sound awfully specific? There just aren’t that many 4-acre farms around, how did he find an average? And what were those farms growing? Some crops have much higher yields than others. Farmers figure you can gross about $30,000 an acre from a crop like strawberries. For a gross of $39 an acre, that guy must have been growing wheat or something like that. Surely Barber’s not suggesting that the two can be grown interchangeably.

    We can talk all we want about industrial or corporate agriculture, but it’s important to restate some basic facts, just for clarity: In California, which grows more than half of all the fresh produce in the country, more than 70% of the farms are smaller than 100 acres, more than 80% of the farms are owned by individuals or families, and 2/3 of the farms report gross sales of less than $50,000. Seventy five percent of farm family income in the last census comes from off-farm sources (meaning outside jobs).

    Which leads me to my last point, one that rarely seems to get brought up in these discussions: It’s fine and dandy for us consumers to talk about what kinds of farms we’d like to buy from. But where are we going to get the farmers to work them? It’s a hard job that requires a lot of skill and luck for not a lot of payback and, honestly, there aren’t a lot of long lines of folks waiting to apply. I admire the hell out of good farmers, but I’m certainly not going to change jobs to become one. Neither are very many other people. Because of this, American farmers are graying at a pretty remarkable rate. According to the most recent census of agriculture in 2002, during the last quarter of the 20th Century the percentage of farmers older than 65 increased from 16% to 26%. That compares to only about 3% of the total American workforce who are that age. And fully half of all American farmers are older than 55.

  • Tags

    One more question, what percentage of the farm acreage do “less than 100 acre” farms comprise?

    There may be less big farms, but if a few farms comprise a big chunk of the total acreage, that should be included in the statistics.

  • russ parsons

    that’s a very fair question and to be honest, without digging through the Census, I can’t answer it (and without a book project, I’m NOT going back into the statistics!). I can say that there are roughly 5,000 farms that are bigger than 1,000 acres out of a total of about 75,000 farms and 8.5 million irrigateed acres. perhaps someone who got beyond elementary school math can parse some meaning out of that.

  • luis

    Bob del Grosso is right. Organic family farms and for that matter vegetable gardens and one family garden crops are subsidized. NOT COMERCIAL. They don’t make money. They do make vegetables and raise fish and foul in humane ways. This is the point of the whole excercise. Comercial anything….vs organic or home grown are TWO MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE PROCESS. I take that as a given. The megatrend Patterson has spotted has nothing to do with comercialy produced stuff…. There is as I pointed out previously and many of you have as well better than me…OTHER REASONS for this trend. Better foods, better freshness, survivavility in an uncertain world.. or just plain I can do it better than them attitudes.

  • Dick Black

    Back to your original post. I think too many people see the culinary world through the eyes of the Food Network. A few chefs have been given a taste of the moguldom and have seriously milked it to the max. And they don’t seem to mind the overexposure whatsoever.

    Perhaps one good reason to watch culinary shows on PBS. The standards are way different and the programming is so much more intelligent.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Thanks for the bracing dose of common sense. I’d forgotten about Chef Barber’s odd yield/acre data.

    I’d also like to remind all of the folks who think that small farmers are the best stewards of the land that the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was largely caused by small farmers. And as I write, the planet is awash with small farmers who are wreaking havoc in rain forests, grasslands etc.

    Why, there’s a small farmer (50 acres) near the farm where I work who left his organic grass fed cattle to graze on a slope so long that they denuded it. When winter came, the slope washed out and dumped a huge plume of silt into the stream that runs by the farm. The farmer’s response? Nothing.

    I suppose that in an ideal world, perhaps the world that is coming, all small farmers would be as well-regulated and as educated in agricultural science as are the people who are running the big farms. But really I think that the best model for future agricultural production is one that looks like what we have now, but without the subsidies, less use of pest and herbicide, more oversight by a USDA that is tasked only with making sure that best practices are used and does not impose standards on small farmers that they cannot afford to implement.

    Oh, and throw in an EPA that has not been castrated by supply-side conservatives who don’t know or care anything about human nature.

    But I’m dreaming.

  • Jasi

    But isn’t that like anything? What the underground is for? To expect that anything presented in a profitable way to the masses won’t be exploited is naive. So let it be this way- the constant tilling of “cool” and “innovation” out from the compost heap of common.

  • Kate in the NW

    Russ – to take up your point about the lack of farmers being an impediment to change in the industry, I think you’re right. We will need people to do the hard labor of producing our food. Not everyone has the time or space to garden, can, preserve meats, etc.

    Who will the the new farmers be – the ones who save our bacon (literally)? The same people who have always run the farms in this country – immigrants. I know I’m probably gonna’ get reamed for this post because it will be seen as a political statement, but I don’t think it’s off-topic. Immigrants looking to turn their blood, sweat, and tears (and a little dirt) into a better life have always been at the root of American agricultural productivity, not to mention cuisine. Immigrants already pick most of our food, and they’re also most of the people preparing it at our posh little restaurants. Not many establishment Americans want to do any of those jobs, because they are hard work, as you’ve said.

    Maybe we can solve two problems at once: create programs where immigrants who want to come here and farm can be supported in doing that, and set things up so that those farms are more food and earth-friendly, serving local communities. We help new arrivals make a better life for themselves, and they help us out of this sh*tty situation we’re in. Maybe a low-cost loan program so people can buy land, and subsidies/tax breaks to motivate agribusiness to sell.

    It all comes down to the same thing – learning how to share the planet, and coming to a new understanding of economies/costs/benefits that factors in those squiggly concepts of sustainability, quality of life, opportunity, and common human decency.

    In case you hadn’t already guessed I’m a screaming liberal. But yes, with guilty, conflicted luxury tastes. There’s got to be a way to work all this out. I’m so glad people are discussing it!

  • russ parsons

    i haven’t had this much fun since e-gullet started adding hyperlinks to my posts!

    OK, points to think about (and apologies to michael for hogging his bandwidth):

    1) I propose we flog anyone who complains about “commercial agriculture.” Farming without business is gardening. Farms have to make money to stay in business, just like you and I.

    2) an addendum to Mr. Del Grosso’s admirable post (why? because he agreed with me): The Dust Bowl was caused by small ORGANIC farmers.

    3) perhaps I misunderstood, but for the record: fruit and vegetable farmers receive NO direct government subsidies. They do often get discounted rates for water and power, there are tax advantages and they get marketing support. But those million dollar checks you read about go to guys who grow delicious things like cotton and field corn.

    4) Kate, if they come for you, they’d better come for me, too. Here’s an amazing statistic: 50% of all of the certified farmers market farmers in Fresno County (the No. 1 agricultural county in the US) are Hmong. More and more we’re seeing immigrants who have worked on farms saving up enough to buy small pieces of land. Then they sell at farmers markets because that’s where they can get the best return.

  • luis

    This one is out of bounds Michael. I apologize in advance for it. But your post about brinning has made a big impression on me. I have brined a five lb turkey breast/carcass from the Publix overnight in 4 fl oz of MOJO with two tbsps of kosher salt in a one gallon of water environement.
    I have made a MOJO marinade right out of the ingredient list from Badia’s mojo I used on the brine. That and Guava shells and syrup from a low sugar content Syboney brand product from Wynn Dixie. Long story short I don’t need to eat anything. The smell coming out of the oven for the last two hrs is enough to bring Julia Childs to my table. I mean this in the best possible way man. I can not recall anything smelling this great in my kitchen in a long time. Outstanding again Ruhlman!…

  • Kathleen

    “I hope that soon we can allow chefs to step out of the spotlight and reclaim their position not as vaunted moguls, untouchable in their starched white jackets, not as greedy sellouts to be derided for leaving their kitchens to open multiple restaurants or host TV entertainment, but rather as accessible spreaders of information and inspiration about some of the most important issues we face today.”

    I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Ruhlman. Luckily I have been blessed to have 3 amazing instructors at my Culinary Arts school who are exactly what you are hoping for. Chef Elena Sirignano (CIA Graduate; The French Laundry), Chef Edward Hennessy (CIA Graduate; DuPont Country Club) and Chef Cindy Hazewski (Johnson and Wales graduate; Arguably the best pastry chef I’ve ever met) have been my mentors for at least the past year or more, and I am so thankful that I have been able to work with them, to learn from them, and to benefit from the plethora of information they have passed down to me. Perhaps I am biased, as they have not only been my instructors as well as my mentors; but they continue to amaze me with every word they speak.

    Here’s to hoping that the next generations of chefs are even more accessible, down to earth and are good representatives of our industry to the world.

  • hollerhither

    Not for nothing, but I had an excellent meal at Prune recently. Thank you, Chef Gabrielle — your food, your business, the way you’ve executed it are all very inspiring. I’ll read those memoirs when they’re published.

  • Charlotte

    Just something nagging at me — what’s with the less than 100 acres thing? Seems like a very East Coast metric to me. Remember the failure of the Homestead Act? 160 acres was a lot back east, but out here west of the 100th meridian (aridity marker), it was unworkably small. Even our family farm in Illinois is about a half-section (360 acres), and it’s by no means a “big” farm. I understand he was looking for some mnemonic for “non-industrial farm” but I just wonder about that particular number.

  • Tana

    Wow, I can’t believe I liked this post so much that I even read all the comments!

    I have great respect for Dan Barber, both as a chef and as an educator. For those who would like to see another side of him (stand-up comedian), do not miss this video from Taste3 conference in Napa just about one year ago.


    And yes, Ulla, get yourself up to Blue Hill Stone Barns. It’s almost heaven, unlike West Virginia. (Well, after West Virginia yesterday. Hmph.)

    Great post, Michael. Thanks from this farm lover.

  • Clifford Replogle

    Ruhlman – I love your blog and I think it really kicks ass over all others for several reasons, namely, your writing is superb, your topics are on point, and the site itself is very well developed and professional. My only drawback, which came to me after reading the article you linked by Mr. Barber, is I think the simplistic tone of what is being said in these articles and comments errors in the reality of over-regulation required to purchase great quality food at reasonable prices. For instance, in Europe, a chef can drive out to the country farm – pick out an animal of his choosing (lamb, pig, steer, etcetera), have it slaughtered, wrapped and packed ready and brought straight back into his restaurant for use. Hell, I watched on Bourdaine’s show him and Marco Pierre hunt and kill a whitetail deer– clean it in Marco’s kitchen, then serve, with the entire head on the table! Something missing here, which I as a restaurant owner and operator in a small Santa Barbara County town, is how the exorbitant costs to procure and produce the way Barber would like to see in this so-called revolution -is elitist and out of touch to large majority’s of clientele. From the big cities, I can see how this seems so reasonable – but to the rest of us serving in the other millions of square miles not urbanized – how can we make this work, since everything we do requires Big Brother to stamp approval thereby increasing already naturally increasing quality products? I am frustrated if you cannot tell, by this bourgeoisie statement from Barber that “ Truly great cooking-not faddish 1.5 pound rib-eye steaks with butter sauce, but food that has evolved from the worlds thriving peasant cuisines – is based on the correspondence of good farming to a healthy environment and good nutrition.” Ummm— have you watched the news lately? We are the peasant class. We are not striving for malnutrition – we simply seek affordability. I would love to strap on the mask and snorkel – 20 minutes from my house, spear a few ling-cod, grab some rock crab, and pluck some nice red abalone and create wonders from this in my kitchen – but I can’t, because this is the United States of America, and that might help me make a profit while also providing fresh quality.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Hey, this is off topic and out of context but big (food) news is breaking in Chicago…

    City Council reverses foie gras ban

    Posted by Dan Mihalopoulos at 2:05 p.m.

    With Mayor Richard Daley running the vote, the Chicago City Council on Wednesday repealed its controversial ban on foie gras.

    Over the shouted objections of Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the ban’s sponsor, the council used a parliamentary manuever to put the ordinance on the floor for a vote.

    The council voted 37-6 to repeal the two-year-old ban, which critics argued had made Chicago–and the City Council–a national laughingstock.

    Ald. Thomas Tunney (44th), a restaurant owner,forced the vote on the measure that prohibits restaurants in the city from serving the delicacy made from the engorged livers of ducks or geese.

    Moore, whose pleas for a debate were ignored by Daley, warned fellow aldermen “tomorrow it could happen to you.


  • Ulla

    I really want to go to the restaurant to see what the fuss is all about. I am with Bob del Grosso and Darcie— Barber’s farm is not total reality. I grew up on a farm and it is hard business. It is expensive and the way that Barber farms is very expensive. It is a really complicated issue, what I really love is that people seem to care more about farming then when I was little. My class mates used to bully me because I was a farm kid, now it is glamorous even! Chefs in NYC have helped farmers farm in my upstate community. I think that all Chefs should be praised for educating the public about where food comes from.

  • Claudia

    I have to agree with Cliff – I dream of a world like Dan Barber envisages but, realistically, a lot of people simply can’t afford small farm-produced food. Sure, I have that luxury, but, say, a family of four in the same income bracket? A single person in a lower bracket? (No, not “peasants”, Cliff – just middle-class of differing levels). Maybe if we all bought from small farms it WOULD become affordable, but what was a bit out of people’s range a few months ago is now ridiculously so, as even mass-farmed supermarket food is becoming. It’s going to be too much to expect people to deliberately choose to pay more, however justified the prices might be by the quality of the food and the benefit to the earth, the economy, small farmers AND ourselves, health-wise. (You know you’re in trouble when your grocery bills are almost as much as your mortgage (or rent)- especially in NY!)

    On the one hand, I keep hoping small farms WILL be fully supported the way we should and we’ll never see, say, crappy CAFO supermarket proteins, again – but on the other, I’m just about ready to strap on the old snorkel and join Cliff in spear-fishing dinner (if I wasn’t likely to die from one bite of New York harbor seafood.)

    [You know, those grey squirrels are beginning to look good . . . I need to look at the Ruhlman squirrel-cooking video from last year again . . . (!)]

    Still, a well-written and thoughtful piece by Barber and glad you posted it, Michael. Thought-provoking in the extreme.

  • Connor

    Thought-provoking post, Michael, though I’ve got to agree with the points that Russ and Bob made about Dan Barber’s op-ed.

    As others have pointed out, he plays the small farm vs. big farm card ineffectively. Is he talking about produce and animal farms entirely, or is he lumping them into the same pot with commodity crops? Why is he using dollar values (rather than yields) when asserting that small farms are “the most productive on earth?”

    And something that troubles me (both in his op-ed and increasingly in the media) is the oversimplication of “Big Agriculture.” The number of acres a farmer manages isn’t indicative of his/her environmental stewardship or energy efficiency or care of the land. Barber seems to put the 4-acre farmer on a pedestal, while villifying the 1,364 acre farmer. Why? A farmer with over 1000 acres of land (whether it’s owned or leased) isn’t a “Big” farmer by any means, especially if you’re including commodity crops in the mix.

    And the part of his article that I took biggest issue with is this: “Land-grant universities and agricultural schools, dependent on financing from agribusiness, focus on maximum extraction from the land — take more, sell more, waste more.”

    Wow. What a bizarre, mis-informed statement. Does Barber really think that agribusiness is brain-washing everyone but chefs and gourmets out there? Is he really serious (I had to re-read his concluding sentence multiple times) that the “future [of agriculture] belongs to the gourmet?”

    Sure, I want chef voices to be heard (which, to be fair, is what I think Michael’s original post was all about), but I also want a whole lot of other stakeholders at the table.

  • Connor

    Correction to my post above — *Oversimplification* — that’s what I get for typing so fast.

  • Andre

    I am a Cook at a small food shop in Canada’s Capital City, Ottawa. I have been in the industry a mear 5 years but have since learned so much. I come from a classic civil servant background, no special ‘foodie’ upbringing, in fact, I come from a small mining community, and no farms for 200miles. But I have over the last few years, fallen in love with small food. What I refer to as small food is food that comes from a smaller source. One that is not mass-produced in California(for example), picked green(read: unripe and unappetizing), artificially ripened, driven over thousands of miles, and sold to me as fresh, days and weeks later.

    I am one of those Cooks/Chefs who loves to be involved in his community teaching and writing in the local newspaper. I have over the last little bit heard so many people say they don’t understand how it’s possible for us to eat well, local and fresh, without spending an arm and a leg. (I’m getting to my point Kelly, promise)

    Even as a chef, I have the same challenges. If anyone knows the wage of your every day cook, you know I can’t be spending 35$ on a pound of organically grown local spanich. I do however, choose my battles.

    My fiancé and I, have over the last 2 years, eaten only local produce. We no longer go into our produce section at our massive supermarket and look at the counter. In fact, I haven’t seen a full-out counter in months! I look above the produce, where all the signs are, describing the products and where they come from. If I read Canada, then I read the name, and onyl then will I look at the actual product. This is how we are doing our part.

    On the Industry side of things: we decided to plant our own garden. We have dug up about 625 square feet of land and have tilled and are getting it ready to plant a slew of root vegetables, tomatoes, peas etc.. All things are heirloom and will be used in our store for production. This permits us to make things more accessible to our client and helps us get a sense of what is involved in getting things from our farm, to their tables.

    Enough babbling. Anyone wants to check it out, we have decided to blog about the experience. Its been great so far and I can’t wait for things to start growing!

  • milo

    “There is food for nutrition, and there is food for passion.

    Industrializing food production will be needed worldwide to feed growing populations”

    I don’t buy that. It increasingly seems like “industrially” produced food tends to have less nutritional value than food that isn’t raised with chemical fertilizers and isn’t varieties bred solely for quantity and shelf life.

    Besides, so much of today’s food is so highly processed and marked up from the original ingredients. While the cost to the consumer has gone way down, the cost that the companies processing the food pays has gone down many times more. Ironically, the farmers are now making less than ever, the consumers are paying less than ever, and yet the corporations are still making more profits than ever.

    And much of that is due to a completely screwed up system of subsidies. We simply don’t know what the true economics of the situation are because it’s nothing close to a free capitalist market. Not to mention that government regulation favors huge farms at the expense of small ones (not surprising since the big corporate farms are the ones lobbying to get the laws to say what they want).

    Also, the main fertilizers are derived from petroleum – as the price of oil goes up, I would think that the financial advantage of chemical fertilizers is lessened.

    In the USA at least the biggest food problem facing most people is oversupply to the point of gluttony. Most people are overweight, they eat too much, get too many calories. Maybe if food prices went up it would force some to eat less. Dare I say it, but if some people took the money they were spending now on the cheapest available food and spent the same budget on healthier things, they wouldn’t be able to afford nearly as many calories…but they’d lose weight, which they badly need to do. Along the same lines, the amount of meat americans eat is extremely high and still rising. Americans could live on less acres of farmland if people would just eat more vegetable products instead of growing corn and feeding it to animals. And people can do more gardening even on even the smallest yards. While it won’t replace buying food bought from farms, it will save some money and provide some quality edibles.

    While organic or small farm isn’t always necessarily better, there do seem to be ways of farming that are better and ways that are worse. I don’t believe the bad ways are a necessity to get people fed, that we can’t aspire to more beneficial means of farming and still produce enough for everyone.

  • Steven Morehead

    I’m sorry but I just started catching up on this thread now and only got part way through the second comment but I have to stop reading and say, “can’t we just beat olive garden?”. back to the reading.

  • Steven Morehead

    It seems to me after reading the whole thread there are two problems: 1. People think that cooking is hard/too complicated. 2. People think that they are “inventing” something new when they talk about local/organic/etc. food. In response to 1, yes sometimes food takes work just like everything else worth while and while it might be difficult it is not impossible (even the complicated stuff with practice). In response to #2 there are chefs out there that never made the switch to “commercial” food and we should listen more to them even though no one knows there name, which is a shame.

  • Vincent

    Okay, here is a few thoughts. I don’t know him personally, but I think Dan Barber has been around the block:


    If you didn’t catch his piece on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Holiday spacial you can watch it here:


    If his Times article was taken as a stomp on commercial agriculture, well…who the hell wouldn’t do what he does with the chance? Broad generalizations of agriculture and food in general have become more and more prevalent in blogs and articles over the past few years. I’ll agree that some of Mr. Barber’s veiws are skewed (esp. since Parsons and Del Grosso weighed in with factual info) but his is a vision determined. As a chef that has bought the mass produce and protein for years – when you actually research how it is processed it starts to weigh on you. Even if he has never bought a 40# case of random chicken breast from SYSCO I’m sure he knows what he would be putting in peoples bodies. Do I still order thousands of dollars of this product a week to feed customers? Yes. Do I like it? No. He is doing something that chefs want to do, IMO, and I commend him for it. Some people call him arrogant and one sided – I call him lucky as hell to be able to do what he does.

    I am lucky enough to use 2 organic farms for most of my home purchases. One is 5 minutes from my house and the other is an hour and a half. The one that is close I purchase eggs and goat’s milk (the farmer and I make fresh cheese together – he made a trade – I shovel shit on sundays and he let’s me make it with him)as well as whatever he decided to grow in season. The one far away is wonderful – I get produce from them twice a month…whatever is in season. What’s great about it is, as far as money is concerned, it is an event for me, my children and our future. As far as gas prices are involved you could call it a wash – but not really. We get 2 weeks of produce, a wonderful day playing in the dirt, a farming lesson, recipe swaps, a suntan, great stories etc. As for it not being a wash – organic produce lasts (in my history) 50% longer than store bought and we eat ALOT of veg.

    As for organic meats, buy Michael’s book on charcuterie, buy the cheap cuts and improvise – no one says you have to have berkshire loin chops for dinner every night.

  • luis

    Good for Chich.. Bourdain has a u tube foie gra segment in a foie gra farm that clearly shows you can make foie gra without torturing your animals. End of story.
    Foie Gras as with everything you can acquire a taste for it. Or your family or culture can impose it upon you.
    Your palate is a clean slate. You can detox it and you can change it. You are in control. It’s up to you were you choose to take your palate. I am not sure foie gras is a good ingredient to labor to incorporate into one’s diet.

  • milo

    Luis, I saw that video, and it sure looked cruel to me. If anything it made me less inclined to eat the stuff, having seen how it is made.

  • Joel

    I do not have the time at the moment to read all of the comments on this posting, so I apologize if my arguments have already been covered. One commentator argued for the necessity of industrialized agriculture to feed the world. The immense dependency on imported food in many African nations, forexample, is not because farmers went to better jobs in cities or the mechanization of agriculture, like in the Western world, but because subsidized agriculture shipped there by Europe and the US created a situtation where local farmers could not compete. Industrialized agriculture does not make food cheap, the political economy of food does. Many African nations, despite the visual stereotypes, is able to grow enough food to cover their needs and export surplus, but they cannot compete with artificially depressed, subsidized prices. Hunger in Africa in the 1970s and onward has more to do with Iowa and Washington D.C. than the ability of African to feed themselves. In order to move toward rational, safe and tasty food, agriculture must develop at the local level. The Anglo-American economic mythologies that argue against small-property farming and the peasant life (yes, the peasant life, the paysan is respectable, elitism isn’t) must be permanently dispelled.

  • Vincent

    Okay this just in and I hope some are keeping up with this thread…

    Bob Weir just did a peice on ABC World News that features fast food stats, slow foods, etc. and had Dan Barber with him at a local market giving info as well as stats. The cool thing is that you can go to the link to follow and ask him a question. I hope that some of you who were quite nearly verging on speaking for him and those who had questions about his financial info (farm based – industrial agro) email him the questions that you have. I know I already did.


  • Vincent

    By “him” I mean Dan Barber – he will be the one answering questions.

  • Luke Hayes-Alexander

    I am a 17 year-old Executive Chef in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I took this position on my 15th birthday. My specialty is Charcuterie. Before I was 13 I had taught myself butchery of local, pastured animals, and was making a wide array of charcuterie.
    We’ve always supported our local farmers, happily bringing them into our family circle. It just seemed right –our menus are now 90% local.
    We are seeing the same thing in Canada — people are curious about “real’ foods, they want to know from where they have originated.
    Ours is the only restaurant in Canada to be 90%, and to make everything from scratch. The press and attention has been rather humbling; I’ve simply always wanted to pay pay respect; to the animals,our farmers,the beautiful local, seasonal produce, and to ourselves and our clients.
    Canada does not produce “star chefs”, but they are starting to pay attention to the passions shared by a few of us.
    It is a battle worth fighting…becoming, and staying, sustainable, is not just a passing trend, it is our collective responsibility.

  • Kay

    The notion that farming is something only farmers can do is a crock. What if state and local governments gave property owners tax breaks based on the amount of said property they used for growing food? It certainly wouldn’t obviate the need for supermarkets entirely (hard to imagine a successful rice paddy cropping up in Fresno), but if even a handful of people in a given suburban neighborhood replaced their swimming pools, lawns and koi ponds with fruit trees and small gardens, they could

    1. Put all that water they already waste on vanity to good use

    2. Reduce the number of times they need to drive to the store

    3. Reduce the number of trucks on the highway bringing those same products to the store

    4. Keep their staple costs sane

    5. De-mystify farming for the average idiot who thinks it’s too difficult and keep the knowledge of food production methods circulating (and improving)

    6. De-centralize everything so that an unseasonal freeze/rain/pest outbreak/commercial bee colony collapse doesn’t necessarily translate into lower availability and higher prices for everyone

    7. Let evolution continue to give us the diversification we need rather than the homogenized clone orchards with multiple single points of failure we tend to produce

    Don’t have time to tend your garden? Well then you probably didn’t have time to tend your pool, either. Hire somebody. Or better yet, give your kids something more productive to do than txt msgng lol and Warcraft. Your darling Logan and Dakota are probably not going to amount to much on their own regardless of which Montessori House of Learning you send them to, so they might as well do something useful.

    I don’t want every meal to taste like it was cooked by Thomas Keller nor do I want to live on a smelly hippie kibbutz, but I would like to see small time street vendors replace a few Taco Bells wherever possible. Who cares if a small bag of Doritos costs $5 if you can get a sizeable portion of your produce from your own (or your neighbor’s) back yard? Junk food should be a luxury item anyway.

  • Kate in the NW

    I know it’s been a while since this topic came online, but just in case anybody’s still reading it, there was an interesting piece in the Seattle P-I this morning that speaks to some of the issues mentioned above. Maybe I was dead wrong in my comments – maybe the future of farming in this country is in the hands of second (or third or fourth) career yuppies. Or maybe we’ll end up with a two-tier food system like everything else in ths country – one set of standars for the wealthy and one for the rest of us. Not that I’m bitter! ;-P

  • David Owen

    How wonderful to see Pierre Franey’s name on a screen.