The lanky 43-year-old chef — named the nation's top chef in 2009 by the James Beard Foundation and selected by President Barack Obama to serve on the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition — is pioneering a new path to flavor by embracing the future while respecting the past. The awkward names of some offerings speak to this work in progress. The squash he served doesn't yet have a formal name, nor has it settled into a fixed taste.
Barber insists his culinary quest is not about genetic engineering, "just modern breeding" married with the best genes of the past.
"In America anyway, one of the more exciting social movements is related to food and sustainability. But my feeling is that we've talked too much about looking back for flavor... We look back to the way our grandfather or grandmother cooked for us," Barber said.
"But in fact I think the way to move forward is to not look back. It's to take some of the wisdom and genetic health of the best and marry it with today's thinking, today's technology, today's modernity."
Key to his method is reconnecting the chef and the farmer and the breeder. "We've disconnected the three camps," he said, and breeders "have been ignored in the conversation."
"Right now, breeders are being told only one thing. ... We want a tomato that can travel 3,000 miles and store in a refrigerator for 3 weeks." Instead, "We can breed for flavor, good nutrition and good yield for the farmer."
Above all, chefs need to make their voices part of the equation.
Chefs "can curate flavors for the future, help decide which direction we're going. I think we have to," he said. "Otherwise, who's going to choose what we're eating? ... General Mills and frozen food companies and companies that say 'farm fresh' when they don't mean that?
"That's why I think a chef's role is so important, because the tongue doesn't lie."
But can his marriage of heirloom and modern genes be reproduced en masse? Why not, he says. He envisions, for example, the possibility of producing butternut squash, America's most popular squash, with twice the vitamin C, twice the folic acid and with more fruit on the vine.
"That's a very decent way to look at the future of agriculture," he said.
"When we pursue great flavor, we pursue a lot of these other very important issues."
Follow Elaine Ganley on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/Elaine-Ganley
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