Chef Barber's quest for flavor may prickle purists

By Elaine Ganley

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This Oct. 9, 2012 photo shows Alain Ducasse holding an apple as American Chef Dan Barber stands next to him in the kitchen of the Plaza Athenee in Paris. He fires up the succulent pork over gnarled, carbonated pig bones, grows sweet greens in a soil mixed with pumice that's left over by the hazelnut oil industry and he's creating a new kind of wheat, named after himself _ Dan Barber.

Michel Euler, Associated Press

PARIS — He fires up the succulent pork over gnarled, carbonated pig bones, grows sweet greens in a soil mixed with pumice left over by the hazelnut oil industry and he's creating a new kind of wheat, named after himself — Barber.

It's all about flavor, and being kind to the planet with sustainable agriculture. But Dan Barber, the prize-winning American chef, insists he's not an ecologist who likes to cook.

"I think all chefs who pursue great flavor have good ethics," Barber said in an interview Tuesday after serving up one of his trademark meals at the behest of French chef Alain Ducasse. "When you pursue great flavor, you also pursue great ecology."

Barber is a leading figure in the so-called farm-to-table movement, a culinary approach that places great value on where and how food is produced and prepared. But he holds some views likely to discomfort some foodie purists. He's not opposed to foie gras — banned in California in July on grounds that the forced feeding of ducks or geese to produce the fatty liver is cruel. He dismisses what he says is an obsession with hard-to-grow heirloom vegetables. And — vegetarians take note — he thinks eating meat is "really justifiable" because growing only vegetables drastically depletes the soil of nutrients.

"It's a fallen world. We eat and sacrifice in the process," said Barber, who says eating responsibly includes eating meat and describes himself as a "limited carnivore."

Barber's mission lies elsewhere, and he's passionate about it: marrying the old and the new and shaking up the food chain as we know it to produce more nutritious food with enhanced flavor that reflects the land where it was grown. That means a new role for breeders of crops and livestock — and a stronger voice for chefs.

Introducing his guest chef, Ducasse, one of France's foremost celebrity chefs with restaurants around the globe, called Barber "the future American star."

Ducasse met Barber by chance in Monaco in 1993 after the young American apprentice dined — alone — at the famed chef's Le Louis XV restaurant, a meal that "changed my life," Barber said. It was a fairytale encounter as told by Barber in the introduction to Ducasse's book, "J'aime New York."

Barber went on to open two restaurants, Blue Hill in Manhattan and a second location 25 miles upstate in Pocantico, N.Y., also the location of his Stone Barns, a working farm that serves as Barber's laboratory and provides food to both restaurants.

Over the years, the Ducasse kept his eye on Barber and dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2009. It was clear to Ducasse that they share a culinary philosophy — creating dishes that exude the authentic tastes of the land, uncompromised by technique.

It was a commonality on display Tuesday, when Barber was the featured chef at Ducasse's "Essential Encounters" program at the Hotel Plaza Athenee restaurant that bears his name. The lunch — for which Barber flew ingredients in from Stone Barns — was a culinary adventure, course by course.

Tasty treats from bite-sized tomato burgers to pork liver wrapped in lacy chocolate or a "fence" of tiny, tender vegetables opened the appetite. A wheat brioche married with ricotta cheese and spinach marmalade was a standout. It was followed by the piece de resistance, a Crossabaw pig from the Stone Barns farm — roasted on pig charcoal made from the bones of slaughtered animals — accompanied by a new variety of squash created by Barber's team.

If an elegant presentation is very much part of the experience, not all of Barber's dishes have elegant names. The brioche — made from wheats that are the "parents" of what will become Barber wheat — is labeled "Aragon X LP3." Then there is the 502 butternut squash.

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