dan-barber-third-plate

book review: the third plate by dan barber

I first encountered Dan Barber when I watched the TED Talks Chew on This collection through Netflix. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, but his talk was something of a precursor to this book.

Now, I’ve read a lot of food books. A ton of books on food systems highlighting the problems with our current one and people’s visions for the future. So while I expected the book to be well written, since Dan Barber’s TED Talk was, I didn’t expect it to really say anything new.

Well, I was wrong.

I knew after reading the intro that this book was going to be different, and I was not disappointed. The Third Plate has the audacity to challenge the farm-to-table movement – one I personally hold dear – and question what it means to support farms and sustainable agriculture. By “third plate,” Dan Barber is alluding to his vision of where cuisine is going for the future. (He came up with the idea as a response to a reporter who asked him where the future of cuisine was going.) The first plate is a traditional American meal of a large, corn-fed steak and baby carrots. The second plate is a farm-to-table plate of a grass-fed steak with heirloom, organic carrots. But the third plate is a carrot steak, with a side of beef seconds (the more obscure cuts).

What in the world is he talking about?

He realized that as a chef cooking in the farm-to-table philosophy of cuisine, he was still cherry picking what he wanted for ingredients – ones that were often expensive to produce and not the best for soil management and long-term sustainability. Our food culture dictates that farmers grow what will sell – not what is better for the land. And it extends to livestock – we throw away many usable and edible parts of animals that we raise for food, all in a quest for more boneless, skinless chicken breasts and beef tenderloins. 

Through four sections organized around soil, land, sea and seed, Barber profiles various farmers, fishermen, bakers, seed managers and more in an attempt to explain what is missing from our current food culture and how we can get on a path toward a more sustainable future.

Barber argues that what we need is a food system organized around the whole system of agriculture – and most perhaps most difficult for us to wrap our heads around – is that we can’t always get what we want. He calls on chefs to start cooking with other types of foods that are the most important for soil management – certain grains and vegetables that return nutrients to the soil. In essence, chefs need to create the market demand for the items that the farmers need to maintain their land to sustain its health. The idea is that once the chefs start a trend, it can morph into our home kitchens. Which, if you think about it, makes sense – think about what chefs have done for pork belly and brussels sprouts.

This book has fascinating new ideas and a comfortable writing style – definitely for the person who feels like they’ve already heard it all when it comes to food systems and sustainability. You’ll also get a healthy dose of information about international cuisines and agriculture (including the story of some of the world’s only foie gras that is not from force-fed animals). It’s optimistic, but logical and realistic, which was a tone I really found refreshing. Gives me hope that there are visionaries who are really getting to the heart of what needs to happen to ensure sustainable agriculture. 

And it really makes me want to try a carrot steak…