When I asked New York chef Dan Barber, the chef whose name is synonymous with farm-to-table eating, to identify his favourite dish from childhood, I secretly hoped he might say Rice Krispies Treats.
Because even a boy who spent part of his childhood on a farm wants marshmallows more than parsnips, right? Such an admission might comfort the rest of us mere mortals.
Barber's answer, as it turned out, was scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs with a story, one that explains a lot about the visionary chef whose consuming passion for the land is surpassed only by the painstaking excellence of both his Blue Hill restaurants. He opened his first in 2000, in Greenwich Village when he was 31, and won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York City in 2006. In 2009, he won as Outstanding Chef in the country.
By that time, he was five years into Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, on the historic Rockefeller estate, as chef and co-owner, with his brother and business partner, David. Besides being one of the top-rated restaurants in the world, the Blue Hill there is the partner to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, an adjoining non-profit educational center that includes a working farm, which supplies the restaurant.
I met Barber on a recent morning at Blue Hill in Manhattan, so he could re-create the eggs, or at least try. The problem with most childhood memories is they lack documentation.
First, we had coffee. Barber, 47, is the father of two daughters, ages four and one, and he and his wife, Aria Beth Sloss, don't get much sleep. "I'm in the hurricane," he said, gripping his cup. Even exhausted, Barber remained focused and intense. He is a brainy, driven man, inquisitive about everything. As we talked, he buttoned and unbuttoned his cotton jacket without seeming to notice. Along with his mind, his body moves constantly.
For the first time I understood the feeling that food is love.
He had recently returned from a month in London, where he and his crew took over the rooftop of Selfridges with the second iteration of his pop-up restaurant called wastED. Barber researched the London project for a year, and his creative obsession with transforming waste verges on mad genius territory.
On wastED's menu of 16 dishes, the cheeseburger alone is an adventure. (A version is on the bar menu here.) He enlisted juice bars to donate the vast amounts of vegetable pulp they normally threw out, which he mixed with eggs, nuts and tofu to make burgers, topping them with cheeses from the high-end dairy Neal's Yard that were not pretty enough to be sold.
With Balthazar Bakery in London, he reconstituted stale hamburger buns in a mix of water, milk and yeast, re-baking that dough. He collected the beet juice from the pre-cut beet salads made at the supermarket chain, Tesco, and reduced it to make ketchup. Then he topped the cheeseburgers with bacon, made from pigs raised on organic food waste, because Barber is no vegetarian. A well-managed farm is the perfect ecosystem, and nothing in it is anathema to him.
Though he grew up in Manhattan, much of his childhood was spent on his maternal grandmother's Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires, which is still family-owned.
Barber says wastED, which debuted as a three-week pop-up in Greenwich Village in 2015, was not much different from what he does every day in his restaurants.
"Part of a chef's DNA is to take what is uncoveted and make it delicious," he said.
"Tonight we're serving braised lamb ravioli with spring vegetables. That's last night's leftover lamb shank, ricotta, which is itself a waste product, and the vegetables we didn't serve last night. Look at the great cuisines of the world, and you see the same thing.
"Coq au vin is made with a rooster as hard as this table. In Burgundy they figured out to braise it in their wine, and it became an iconic dish. Bouillabaisse came from the fish the husbands couldn't sell on the dock. The wives braised it into a lovely soup. Waste, or avoiding waste, is at the root of great cuisine. Peasants were forced into negotiating with the land.
"The problem with American food culture is that we were never forced into negotiations. It's a young country with temperate climates, the garden of Eden. But you can't blame us. We came to a place that could overproduce."
His Eden was the farm in the Berkshires, though he grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his brother, David, and his sister, Carolyn, from his mother's first marriage. His father was in the toy business.
"My mother died of breast cancer when I was four," Barber recalled. "We had a woman who came in to help who was an amazing cook. When she wasn't around, my father's go-to dish was scrambled eggs. He used margarine, no salt. It was an omelette-scrambled-egg thing, hard and dry."
He shrugged. "He was trying his best," he said. "He was a business guy, and we spent much of my childhood going to restaurants. He loved the excitement of a restaurant. It was less about food than the feeling of my father being happy."
When Barber was 12, he was at the farm when he came down with strep throat. He was with his Aunt Tobe, who had studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
"I had that throat that felt like you swallowed an 18-wheeler, and I hadn't eaten because of it," he said.
"My aunt decided to make me eggs. I wasn't hungry, but I remember watching her make them, with butter, in a double boiler, taking such care. I remember them sliding down my throat and thinking, 'What have I been doing all these years?'
"For the first time I understood the feeling that food is love, the feeling of what an egg could be. Like so much of life, everything is expectations. If not for my father's butchered eggs, maybe it wouldn't have been the same. But I had the sense of something life-changing happening. It was the power of food to change a mood, lift spirits. With all the medicines that did not work for my mother when she was sick, it was a powerful transformative experience that maybe I could not only replicate for myself but for other people."
He led the way to the kitchen and changed into his whites. He is tall with a ropy build, and at his station his affect turned solemn. There was no double boiler on the stove, just a pot. He cracked eggs on the table. "You didn't see that," he said, as he threw a pinch of sugar into the bowl. He beat the eggs, and once they were in the pan he stirred continuously with a spatula. "Coagulation is your enemy," he said. "That's where you get into Dad territory."
The finished product seemed like a thick sauce, though it was the perfect foil to toast from his so-called 200 per cent whole wheat bread, made with a wheat he bred, now known as Barber wheat. (The bran in the 200 per cent bread is doubled, by weight). With a sourdough-like tang, chewy crust and soft crumb, it was better than the eggs. Then again, this was not my childhood memory, but his.
"The richness is so intense, that's how it slid down my throat," he said. "Let's do it again. I would prefer a little bit of texture, too." The second time he skipped an additional yolk and cooked it slightly longer. It was delicious, though he still fretted about whether they were good enough.
"A lot of being a chef comes from fear of failure," he said. "Early in my career, I worked at a failing restaurant. I was only a consulting chef, but the stench of the whole thing stays with you. Once it enters the bloodstream it stays there, like chicken pox does until it's shingles."
This was not a random observation; Barber suffered a recent bout of shingles and a stern lecture by a doctor about managing the stress in his life. In fact, that evening, he and his wife planned a rare date night. "I don't know where we're going; she's picking the place," he said. "I usually get so neurotic and intense. When it's a night I'm not in the kitchen, I'm obsessed with wanting to learn something. So in my shingle wisdom, I'm now taking a moment to take full advantage of beers and relax."
He kept talking about craft beers, his latest obsession, then malting, then about barley being a regenerative crop that improves soil conditions for the wheat. Next came peanuts giving nitrogen to the soil in the South, and beans preparing Italian soil for wheat, so no one can eat pasta before they eat beans. His face was high with colour as his words spilled out, and he was so swept up it seemed like he was conducting his own symphony. But I finally understood his immense reassurance in the order of the natural world, its cause and effect, which works so sensibly. A system that can heal itself and, if we let it, nurture us. Unlike some medicines.
And once you see that, marshmallows lose their meaning. The parsnip wins, every time.
Witchel is a former staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia.
Dan Barber's scrambled eggs
2 to 3 servings
This is Dan Barber's revised version of the scrambled eggs that changed his life as a child - and a more luxurious dish than what most of expect when we hear "scrambled eggs".
The chef uses a pot, rather than a double boiler, and stirs almost constantly. The herbs are optional; they were not in the dish he grew up with. Touches of sugar and lemon are unexpected, but welcome.
Adapted from Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 large eggs
¼ cup whole milk
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed
½ teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh herbs mix, such as parsley, chives and chervil (optional)
Juice of ½ lemon
Heat half the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat.
Meanwhile, gently whisk together the eggs, milk, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl, making sure not to introduce too much air into the mixture.
Pour the egg mixture into the pan. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly with a flexible spatula around the edges of the eggs, until they look creamy and are almost set. Remove from the heat.
Immediately whisk in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Season lightly with the pepper; taste, and add more salt, as needed.
Sprinkle with the herbs, if desired, and the lemon juice, stirring just until distributed. Serve right away.
The Washington Post