The Boys on the Hill
Determined to change the way we look at food, even the way we eat, the men behind Stone Barns are leading a quiet revolution
By Dina Cheney Photography by Phillip Ennis
There is a quiet revolution taking place right here in Westchester. Put your ear to the earth and you may hear the steady hum of activity—roots taking hold, worms aerating soil, seedlings pushing upward towards the sun. The buzz of this growth is punctuated by the clang of pans, the clink of china, and the click-click of high heels across beautifully refurbished wooden floors.
Though these wooden floors may have cost a fortune to refinish, this revolution isn’t about power or money. Granted, it took deep pockets to fund—thus far, about $30 million. But the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in bucolic Pocantico Hills is about loftier goals of social and ecological responsibility and community-based agriculture. It’s about the farm-to-table connection that our ancestors understood but that we’ve lost, having grown accustomed as we are to greenhouse tomatoes and frozen peas. It’s an experiment to show what happens when the distance from farm to table is 100 feet, rather than 100 miles, with chefs not just going local, but going right into their own backyards. And yes, it’s about eating well. Make that dining well.
The seeds for this revolution were sown when David Rockefeller, the 89-year-old grandson of patriarch John D. and brother of Nelson, dreamed of making some sort of tangible tribute to his late wife, Peggy, who was a founder of the American Farmland Trust. Rockefeller donated the land and funded the renovation of the Norman-style stone barns his father built into a working farm and educational center, a place he envisioned would promote local agriculture with programs for children and seminars for adults. But it also had to make money. Ergo the idea of creating a fine dining establishment amongst the pastures, woods and historic buildings of his family’s former dairy farm in Pocantico Hills, near Pleasantville.
Enter Dan Barber, acclaimed chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan, a restaurant known for its use of local, seasonal ingredients. “When I approached David with a proposal for a second Blue Hill on his family’s property, I pushed for an educational center and working farm as well,” says the intense, rail-thin chef, who once worked at the revolutionary California restaurant, Chez Panisse. His was one of the many proposals the Rockefellers considered. “I wanted to extend the idea of local, community-based agriculture and the farm-to-table connection, which I couldn’t do in Manhattan,” he says.
As envisioned by Barber, who serves along with Michael Anthony as executive chef, and Executive Director James Ford, the 80-acre working farm will eventually produce most of the meat and vegetables for the restaurant (selling at market prices, proving the adage that there’s no free lunch, even for the Barber brothers: Dan and his brother, David, co-own Blue Hill at Stone Barns). Meanwhile, an education center offers classes and lectures in farmland preservation, cooking and gardening led not only by the Stone Barns staff, but also by American Farmland Trust, The New York Botanical Garden and other like-minded organizations.
To make it work, produce manager Jack Algiere, who recently developed an organic program for Connecticut’s White Gate Farm, and livestock manager Craig Haney, who founded and continues to operate the pasture-based organic Skate Creek Farm in upstate New York, educated the entire restaurant staff about sustainable agriculture. The 10-person kitchen cadre and 15 front-of-the-house employees are expected to dig right in—literally—working the land. Armed with lessons from Algiere, who oversees three full-time employees and a varying number of volunteers, they have begun tending a small herb garden, located directly behind the restaurant. In their chefs’ whites, the cooks flutter about the garden like delicate butterflies on a warm summer day. Some staffers have even ventured beyond the herb garden to help Haney feed the 41 Berkshire pigs and build hoop houses for the chickens (currently they house 600 broilers and 300 laying hens). There are also 200 turkeys and 60 sheep on the farm. Haney has returned the favor by doing his time in the kitchen, trimming ramps (wild leeks) and cleaning chicken gizzards (the restaurant tries to use every part of the animal). “I love being in the kitchen,” he says. And, one suspects, the kitchen staff enjoys their role reversal just as much.
One of the major challenges of a farm-to-table restaurant is planning menus. “Going into this,” Barber says, “people kept asking me what was going to be on the menu. My answer: â€˜I’ll work with whatever comes from the farm.’ But, I guess like a typical chef, I want to prepare what I want to prepare. So, I was expecting that Jack would be a bit obsequious and ask me what I wanted him to grow. But he never did. So, suddenly, 20 pounds of an obscure Japanese green, komatsuna, showed up on the restaurant doorstep. And I’d never heard of or cooked with it before.” Still, Barber says, he ended up sautÃ©ing it with garlic oil and shallots, and it turned out, he reports, “delicious.” A couple of mornings later however, he saw only one row of komatsuna in the greenhouse. “Why isn’t there more?” he recalls asking Jack. With a chuckle, Barber remembers the response: â€˜You didn’t seem too excited about it, so I decided to plant less.’”
A few days before produce is ready to be picked, Algiere regularly leads the two chefs, Barber and Anthony, through the half-acre-sized greenhouse and four acres of vegetable gardens. This gives everyone some lead time so the kitchen can plan its menus and locate the produce it wants from other sources. As a result of a recent walk, during which Algiere told Anthony that he wanted to harvest the arugula, the peppery green found its way onto three of Blue Hill’s menus.
Barber has a bit more influence with soft-spoken Haney, who supplied meat to Blue Hill Manhattan for almost three years before moving to Stone Barns. When he has a question about the quality of the meat, Chef Barber just steps outside the kitchen to the faucet, where Haney often stops to gather water for the pigs and chickens. “We recently started raising veal calves,” says Haney, an Ed Harris look-alike in dirt-stained overalls and rubber boots. “One night, some plates came back with unfinished veal legs. And Dan said to me, â€˜Do you know why customers might not have finished them?’ Or he’ll say something like, â€˜The calves this week seemed tougher and had a different color. What was that about? How old were they? What did they eat?’ And we’ll look at all the variables. We’re constantly trying to figure out how we can tweak everything.”
In spite of the constant communication and obvious camaraderie, revolution ain’t easy and it doesn’t come cheap. At many restaurants, chefs are like generals. They typically can select from a limitless array of foods, order what they want at low prices, and have it delivered the next morning. However, “many companies providing produce are agribusiness operations and pass little of the profits on to the farmers,” says Barber. “Plus, there’s a high environmental cost in importing all of those goods.”
Choosing to glean most food products from small, local farms means that gratification isn’t as instant, though. “If I want a type of vegetable from our farm, I need to let Jack know weeks in advance. I can’t just have it delivered to me the next morning,” says Dan Barber. “And I’ll pay market price for it, whereas I can probably get the goods for half-price if I order from, say, a large corporate farm in Oaxaca, Mexico. The fact is, I can’t afford to buy all of my carrots from the farm here, as much as I would like to. I need to be realistic; it would be too expensive.”
Revolutions evolve and Blue Hill can’t change the way we eat with a single meal or succeed financially with too limited a menu. Pampered and privileged as we are, we expect variety on a menu. That’s why the wild leeks on the plate were probably tended by Jack Algiere, yet the salmon alongside it may have been swimming in Alaska or farmed in the Atlantic. And Barber has yet to find local, sustainably-raised, grass-fed beef. Admits Dan’s brother, David, the Center’s financial director, “Customers have been asking us for beef. We’ve responded by serving lots of pork. You’ve got to be selective. We do have salmon on the menu, even though it’s not local. This is a spirit, not a religion. The question is, how limited a menu can you offer customers and still be a successful business?”
There are other equally challenging choices. Although taking chickens to the local slaughter-house would conform to the mission of community-based agriculture, it costs the restaurant precious time. Haney tried using a nearby family-based slaughterhouse, but neither he nor Barber was impressed with the results. “They did nothing beyond slaughtering the chickens,” Barber explains, “so we had to spend two hours in the kitchen cleaning and otherwise processing them.” The next time Haney needed to have the chickens slaughtered, he headed to a larger slaughterhouse upstate. Barber reports, “They were so processed, they could have been from anywhere. They didn’t have the romance of the small-scale local slaughterhouse. Still, the bottom line is this restaurant needs to be economically viable and time is money.
“Yet,” he adds, “we want the customer to have a pleasurable experience and, if they support sustainable agriculture by dining here every night or by growing a rosemary bush on their windowsill, great. But, we’re not going to be pure and self-righteous and deny customers certain foods. We’ll continue to serve coffee and chocolate, products not grown here.” He grins impishly and continues, “After all, even though, philosophically I want to get the message across, I am a chef. And as a chef, I’m always striving for food that tastes good—the hedonistic experience.” Which, according to contented diners, he’s been delivering in spades. (For a review of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, see page 89.)
Though Stone Barns is an experiment waiting for a conclusion, one fact is clear: The chefs and farmers are learning from each other and diners are having a wealth of unique culinary experiences. Bring on the local organic carrots and molten chocolate cake.
Dina Cheney is a freelance writer, editor, and recipe developer.
She also offers private cooking classes and guided chocolate
tastings through her business, Cooking by Heart (www.cookingby heart.com).