A few months ago I was in Spain, where I had the best foie gras experience of my life—even, I think, the best culinary experience of my life—and I’m convinced that what I saw is the future of food. It may sound crazy to say that I see the future of food in foie gras, especially since there is not a more maligned food in the world right now.
Having it on the menu is comparable to walking around in a mink coat. It’s been outlawed in Chicago, with bans pending in California and in New York. The rationale of people who are against foie gras has to do with the way geese and ducks are force fed through a process called gavage. Gavage means taking a duck or goose and ramming a tremendous amount of grain down its throat, more grain than that duck or goose would get in a lifetime, maybe three lifetimes, in just the span of ten to fifteen days, and the liver expands by six to eight times its normal size. Suffice it to say that it’s not a pretty picture of sustainable agriculture. The problem for chefs is that it’s so amazingly delicious. It’s fatty, it’s sweet, it’s unctuous. Anything you pair with foie gras also tastes incredible. It’s not as though I can’t make a delicious menu without foie gras; you can bike the Tour de France without steroids, right? But not a lot of people are doing it.
Nearly a year ago I got an email from a friend who forwarded me a link to someone named Eduardo Sousa in Extramadura in the southwestern portion of Spain. Eduardo is raising what he calls natural foie gras. So what’s natural about natural foie gras? Well, he takes advantage of the goose’s natural reaction when the weather turns cold, at right about this time of year: the geese naturally gavage: they gorge on everything around them, storing up calories for the winter. Just like me. A very simple idea. Eduardo slaughters the geese at the end of this period of natural gavage, and he gets a liver that he claims is better than foie gras. That’s what he’s been claiming on his label, Pateria de Sousa, which has been around since 1812. His great-grandfather started Pateria de Sousa, and the family has been marketing it quietly ever since, until last year when Eduardo won the Coup de Coeur, the most coveted gastronomic award in France. Based in Paris, it is awarded to the best food products. Eduardo’s natural foie gras won out over 10,000 foie gras entries.
Eduardo appeared on the front page of Le Monde because he was accused of cheating. That’s how I found out about him. Later, when I asked about this, he said that the French were outraged because never in the history of the Coup de Coeur had a non-Frenchman won a foie gras prize. Naturally, they accused him of cheating, of paying off the judges, which was found not to be true. I was intrigued by the notice because of my love for foie gras and the ecological and ethical complications associated with it. I don’t have it on my menu at either Blue Hill restaurant. So I decided to go and visit him in southwestern Spain and look into an operation that seemed utterly complex at first glance but in the end was utterly simple, like all beautiful things in nature.
When I arrived, he was lying in the grass with his cell phone, taking pictures of his geese. I was excited to meet him and quickly started peppering him with questions. Almost from the first moment he was gesturing to me in a way I interpreted to mean I should speak more slowly. It’s not the first time I’ve been told that, but he did it continuously throughout the day, and I kept trying to speak slowly. Even in my excitement I did slow down a lot. He still kept gesturing, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I realized he wasn’t telling me to slow down; he was telling me to be quiet because I was upsetting his geese. When I lowered my voice and spoke at a normal pace, the geese came over to us within a minute or two, right next to us by the fence, and he never had to gesture again. Eduardo is the goose whisperer, so he communicates with them in weird ways.
He designed the fence for the geese, a paddock that he moves around the property so that they are always feeding on fresh grass. It was something I’d never seen before, and I thought it was brilliant. The inside of the fence is not electrified, but the outside is. When I asked him about this, he said, “When my geese feel manipulated, they don’t eat as much because they’re not happy, but if I give them everything they want, they are happy, so there’s no reason for them to leave, and they know it. They feel more comfortable just knowing they are free to go, and they eat more. There’s no need to electrify the inside of the fence whereas electrification of the outside protects them by keeping out predators.”
I would expect Eduardo’s biggest challenge to be the region of Extramadura itself. Extramadura translates as extra hard, very difficult terrain, but over the course of 160, 180 years his family had transformed the landscape, through sound animal husbandry, into a kind of Garden of Eden. It was breathtaking to stand there amidst the beauty and the lushness. The geese were eating grass that was as lush as Berkshire grass, but they were also eating olives and figs and everything else that the climate would grow. It was all free for the taking for the geese in this Garden of Eden of diversity. In fact, Eduardo told me that he made more money selling the olives and the figs than he did selling the foie gras, but he said the geese came first, and whatever was left over, he then sold. When I asked him how he could throw away profits, he said, “No, no, no, the geese are always fair.” I thought I tend to anthropomorphize, but this guy takes it to another level.
As it turned out, the biggest challenge, at least initially, was really us, was the marketplace, because we demand yellow foie gras, bright yellow foie gras. That’s how I was trained to recognize its quality. But because Eduardo doesn’t perform gavage, the foie gras was off-yellow, a little grayish, and he couldn’t attract buyers. Then he discovered that the geese love wild yellow lupine. They don’t eat the leaves of the yellow lupine bush, they eat the seeds, and he discovered that the seeds turn the foie gras bright yellow. So he combed the Extramaduran landscape when the yellow lupine went to seed, collected the seeds, and planted them in his Garden of Eden. In late August the yellow lupine bloomed, followed by the seed that the geese gorged on, turning the foie gras bright yellow. I’m skeptical enough to wonder if I could believe Eduardo. I mean, how does he make money doing this, and was he putting on a show for me? He had an answer for everything that was so pure and squeaky clean, my natural reaction was to wonder where the holes in all this were.
As I’m standing there with him, all of a sudden I hear from above a loud noise, a sort of clap. It gets louder and louder, and I see wild geese flying over the paddock of domesticated geese. Eduardo grabs my arm and says, Watch this, and he takes me under a tree. When the wild geese fly over, his geese start making a lot of noise directed up to the wild geese, louder and louder, and the wild ones louder and louder. Right after they pass the paddock, it’s as though air-traffic control has called them back. They circle and circle, and then they land. I look at Eduardo in disbelief. “Your geese are calling up to the wild geese and convincing them to come for a visit.” He says, “No, no, no. They’re coming to stay.” They’re coming to stay? A goose’s DNA is to fly south in the winter. “No, no, no. That’s not a goose’s DNA. A goose’s DNA is to find the conditions that are conducive to life. When they’re here, they don’t need to leave, and so they don’t.” They reproduce with the domesticated geese, and that’s how he gets his next flock. Can you imagine a wild boar coming upon a factory pig farm and deciding to stay?
How did the foie gras taste? It was incredible. Of course, I was so won over by Eduardo, he could have fed me feathers, and I would have thought it was a culinary revelation, but this really was a culinary revelation. I don’t want to say it was the best foie gras of my life because I think that would demean his foie gras. It was on a whole other level of experiencing a fattened liver, so filled with flavors of the landscape that it was breathtaking. When I sat at a table with him in a local restaurant, and he served me some, I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t stop eating it. Then I switched to my chef mode and tried to identify the ingredients, such as star anise and saffron. Eduardo said, “No no, I don’t use star anise, and I don’t use saffron.” I could have sworn there was saffron in it. I went through a list of 20 spices, and finally asked, “You take the liver and you salt and pepper it, and then what?” He said: “I don’t salt and pepper it. I just take the liver and put it in a jar, and I cook it and confit it.” Later that day he showed me the wild pepper plants that he makes sure are in abundance and the plants that provide salinity. It was at that moment that I thought, Who’s the farmer here, and who’s the chef?
At the end of our lunch—when I had just tasted the best foie gras of my life and it was so readily apparent that this was something magically delicious—I asked him why so few people have heard of him. The most famous chefs right now are in Spain: Ferran Adrià, the number one chef in the world, is a couple of hundred miles away. Why doesn’t he have Eduardo’s foie gras on his menu? I asked in a few different ways, and he never seemed to have an answer. Then I put it right to him: “Really, Eduardo, why don’t chefs have it on their menu?” His reply: “It’s because chefs don’t deserve my foie gras.” He’s right, because when we chefs cook with foie gras, or really anything else, all the attention is directed toward us. We pair it with an interesting ingredient, which turns it into something else. Our ego is slathered all over the place. What he was saying in so many words was that his foie gras is the perfect expression of nature. There is no reason to put it in the hands of a talented but egotistical chef. No reason. And he even became religious when he said: “My foie gras is God’s work. It is God telling me that I’ve done right, and it’s a gift. There’s no reason to do anything more with it.”
On the plane on my way home, I was reviewing the notes I took about this experience. I had circled an answer he gave when I asked him what he thought of conventional foie gras? Of 99.9999 percent of the foie gras that’s out there in the world? His answer was, “I think it’s an insult to history.” I had added an exclamation point because I didn’t know what he meant. The day after I got back, I called him, but he uses the cell phone only to take pictures. I sent him a few emails that he never answered, which shows you what an impression I made on him. Then I decided to look up the history of foie gras. It turns out that the Jews invented it 5000 years ago when they were looking for an alternative to schmaltz. They discovered that in the late fall when they killed geese, there was a perfect layer of delicious fat that covered the livers, and they could use this for cooking, for the kosher laws. They took care of the geese in a way that produced this beautiful fat. The Pharaoh got wind of it and demanded that the Jews supply that fat all year long. As a result the Jews, for the sake of their lives, I suppose, invented gavage. They invented gavage to supply goose fat all year long, and that’s the beginning of what we know today as conventional foie gras. That was the insult he was talking about.
If you think about it, it’s not just an insult to the history of foie gras. What we learn from this story, it seems to me, is that the way we grow food in this country is an insult to history. It’s an insult to the basic laws of nature, whether we’re talking about megafarms, feedlots, chemical amendments, chemical agriculture, food processing, or long-distance travel—you name it. It’s an insult to the basic laws of nature including biology: the way we raise cows in this country, the way we raise chickens, the way we raise broccoli or Brussels sprouts. We have a General Motors mindset for farming: Take more, sell, more, waste more. And for the future—as we can all see, with General Motors’s bottom line being what it is today—it’s not going to serve us.
Jonas Salk said, “If all of the insects disappeared, the world as we know it within fifty years would disappear; if all human beings were to disappear, within fifty years the world as we know it would flourish as never before.” He was right. We need at this critical moment to visualize a totally new conception of agriculture, one that does not sacrifice the health of the planet for the bottom line, one that does not degrade our natural resources, converting them to cash as quickly as possible for the sake of cheap food, and does not treat animals as if they are widgets on an assembly line, as if we have some kind of inalienable right to endless amounts of protein. We don’t. What we need in this new paradigm of agriculture, it seems to me, is to look to people like Eduardo, to farmers who are themselves looking to nature for answers and solutions, who, in the words of Janine Benyus, are listening to nature’s operating instructions instead of imposing our own. Someone like Eduardo teaches a chef like me, and anyone else who cares about food and cooking, that the most ecological choice we make when we buy food is the most ethical choice, and it is nearly always the most delicious choice. I have never in my experience as a chef tasted a delicious carrot or a perfect cut of lamb and found bad ecology behind that vegetable or those pieces of protein, never once in my life, and I bet I never will. They are one and the same.
Without going into an infomercial I’ll say that I come here from the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. I do think the Stone Barns Center is a good example of an alternate food system for the future. With 80 acres of property, we have eight acres of vegetables and 20 acres of pasture. We have 23,000 square feet of greenhouse production through the fall. We raise chickens and ducks and pigs and lambs, honeybees, turkeys, and now geese, which is where my story leads. After returning from Spain on a Wednesday night, I was in my office when Craig Haney, the livestock director at Stone Barns, walked into my office at 9:30 the next morning and started talking about the late spring rotation into early summer. “By the way” he told me, “we’re going to be raising some geese.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” He said, “No, it’s the perfect rotation.” The geese were going to follow the sheep, and the chickens were going to follow the geese. He wanted to give it a try.
I told him I had just been in Spain visiting someone, and I told him the story, adding: “This is perfect. We can raise foie gras.” He looked at me as though I had just suggested we go out and hit baby seals over the head. I said: “Craig, this is real, this is natural foie gras. It’s the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.” It took a little convincing, but we separated 40 geese out of a flock of about 150, and we fed them a little bit of grain, doing the same kind of rotation that Eduardo did, minus the figs and the olives. Two weeks ago we got to the point where the weather started turning really cold, and I decided it was time to bring out the corn and work on getting these geese and their livers fattened up. I had invested so much in convincing the farmers that this was something we should do, and now they were doing the work. I’m not the most popular person on the farm because I often have wacky ideas that impinge on them.
On the first day the geese didn’t take the corn. They just ate the normal amount they had been taking for the past couple of months. I could tell that the farmers were both ecstatic when they told me that news. They resolved never to do another experiment with me again. In desperation I called my contact in Spain and told her I just had to get in touch with Eduardo. She did manage to get him on the line, and I said, “Eduardo, we’re doing your work here. It’s been great.” I told him what I had been doing and what the geese had been eating. There was a long pause, and then he said, “It’s not going to work. That’s because you forgot the number one rule at the pateria, which is that you feed them only from the landscape. You don’t feed them any grain along the way.” I had been requesting a little bit of grain because why not? It would fatten them up a little sooner, right? A little bit of extra fat and maybe we could even get competitive with Eduardo. Let’s get a bigger liver than Eduardo. What he was saying was, “You’ve domesticated them, so of course when you bring out more grain, they’ll take what they want to satisfy themselves because they know you’re coming out with grain tomorrow. That way, you won’t ever get them to eat more than they want to, and they’ll stop eating when they’re full.” “You’ve got to help me,” I pleaded. Eduardo said he had to go, so that was the end of the conversation.
Two days later I got a phone call from Eduardo. He said: “I have an idea. You should try to rewild your geese. Take the grain away completely for three weeks, and just let them starve on your grass. At the end of three weeks, come out with the grain for only twenty minutes, and then take it all away. Do that for three days as it continues to get colder, and you might summon up natural gorging. That’s your best hope.” So that’s what we’ve been doing for a week and a half now. As we speak, the geese are on a crash diet to rewild them, and I hope it works.
I’m going to stop here because I don’t want to make up an ending to a story that’s only 80 percent complete. Next year I will come back and wrap this all up into a tight ball, and then I’ll serve you delicious foie gras. Thank you for listening.
Question & Answer Period
The question was, Have you noticed any difference in the behavior of the geese? That’s hard to tell because I haven’t spent as much time with them as I would like. We have two different varieties, the Brown African and the Embden from the Netherlands, which is a classic white goose. What I did notice is that when we were feeding them the grain, the two species interacted very well, kind of friendly, and they hung out together. Ever since we removed the grain completely, they don’t come near each other, and they’ve become very territorial for the best grass.
Are we moving them around? Not as much as we used to because we want them to be on the line between hunger and starvation. What I guess I notice in their personalities is that they’ve become more like us.
To the extent that I know about biodynamic farming, we are biodynamic at Stone Barns. From what I’ve read, I find it fascinating, and most of it makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense in terms of sheer practicality is that there are specific days when one is meant to do certain things, such as planting when the moon is full. When I was speaking to a farmer about this, he said, “What if it’s raining when it’s the right moment to plant or when the tenets of biodynamics tell you what to do right now? What if my daughter is getting married that day?” I do agree that a farm is connected to the larger picture. It’s the holistic nature of farming that makes a lot of sense. So the idea that someone would reject biodynamic agriculture because of its connections to weather patterns, to the moon, to the stars, to the currents of the ocean seems false to me. The biodynamic wines I’ve tasted and some food I’ve tasted that is strictly biodynamic are almost always delicious, and that’s my criterion. What I question is the strict adherence to laws that from a practical perspective might not work in terms of your particular ecology or your particular moment in life.
I work for a nonprofit called Remineralize the Earth, and I’m the director of its Real Food Campaign, which is working to coalesce the science with the experience of farmers who have been working to improve the biological system of the soil and maximize its yields, quality, flavor, nutrition, etc. I think you are also doing that work at Stone Barns. Considering that half the planet is in agriculture, if we’re going to be practical about increasing nutritional value and applying these biological systems, there needs to be attention paid to the science of it as well as to how beautiful it is. I was wondering if you have any comments on the subject.
At the Stone Barns Center remineralization is something we obsess about, and the farm itself is so connected to the restaurant that it’s enabled me to learn much more about such systems that are both holistic and obviously useful. We now divide the trash at my restaurant into four separate receptacles: traditional trash, recyclables, pig food, and material to be composted. We’re adding a fifth one for chicken food, to try to make the egg yolks from the laying hens more yellow. That I as a chef can minimize waste and convert that waste into nutrients for better food makes a lot of sense to me. We have a compost field that produces half an acre of compost, and we’ve invested in a full-time compost man as well as in machinery and technology that raise the level of biological activity within the compost. Ideally you want compost material to be cooking at about 140°. The problem is that if it goes above 180°, it starts to kill good bacteria. This affects me directly because those good bacteria result in good flavor, whether it’s a carrot or whatever else we’re growing, so we invested in something called a Sandberger, an Austrian design, to drive up and down the rows of compost, taking the internal compost that’s over 170° and turning it so that it’s on the outside cooling off. Now, this is something you can do in your backyard with a turner, but for a large-scale enterprise it’s very hard to do, which is why composting on this scale usually ends up being pretty mediocre. It’s better than nothing, but you usually have to add amendments to make it worthwhile.
The farmers are like chefs: they cook the soil, in this case to temperatures between 140° and 180°, making sure that the bad bacteria are killed but the good bacteria stay alive. I’m making this small point to make a larger one, which is the difference in flavor. The flavor of the vegetables we’re growing on the farm since we’ve instituted this new composting operation is spectacular. I can really tell the difference.
We have a Brix meter, which measures the percentage of sugar content in parts per billion. We take readings on about 80 percent of the vegetables that come through the door in order to understand at what stage of sweetness they are being picked. We keep a chart of these Brix levels from year to year and from season to season, and we’ve noticed about a 20 percent increase in Brix levels from the composting operation now coming to speed after three years. It takes a while, but the difference is not small. After we had five freezes, we took in a Mokum carrot, an old variety, and we got a Brix reading of 13.8 percent sugar. When I looked up this family of carrots on the internet, the highest it went was 13, so we were literally off the charts. We tested an average supermarket horse carrot as a control, and it rated 0.0 on the Brix meter. I think the average for a conventional carrot is somewhere around 3 percent. We’re documenting all this, but we don’t really need to because we know just from the taste.
Turning to the future, I’m excited about taking these tenets of sustainability—biodynamics, holistic farm management—and using technology and innovation to bring them into a modern context. A good example is the old-world technique of composting we use on the farm, supplemented by modern technology to show what we’re doing and also to make better compost. I don’t subscribe to the idea that by harking back to a simpler time—and even Luddite tactics in some cases—the more pure we are, the better we are. I think we should learn from heritage wisdom and then apply technology and innovation to bring it up to date, thus enhancing that wisdom and making it fresh.
I talk about our compost whenever I can because I think we have the best compost of any farm I know of. A famous farmer named Joel Salatin, whom Michael Pollan has written about extensively, was an adviser to Stone Barns and is an old friend. Once when he came to the restaurant for dinner, he didn’t want to sit in the dining room, so we sat in the kitchen. He’s not a foodie at all, he just loves to be around people and talk and sort of proselytize, but we prepared a very special meal for him, and about half way through he couldn’t stay in his seat. He was over by the dishwashing station, just staring at the plates. It was a very busy night because we had seated a big group of people in the restaurant. We serve nine courses, so 200 times 9 means a lot of plates going in and out of the kitchen. Joel was standing mesmerized at the dishwashing station, and finally when he reluctantly came back to his seat, he said, “I just can’t believe the nutrient gold that you have going into the garbage with all this activity.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Well, when the plates come back and they’re not empty, what’s left gets scraped into the bin and thrown away. God, you’ve got gold right there.” That led us to our second composting system, which is an oxygen (O2) system, very different composting from the meticulous 140 to 180 we do. It basically raises the waste to a higher temperature, and USDA law allows you to spread that compost on fields. It can’t go directly to vegetables, although there are people arguing for that, but for now we’re kosher by applying this second-rate compost to the field. I used to get so angry when people didn’t finish my food, but now what they leave is going back to make the grasses the animals eat taste better. That seems to be a good resolution of the problem.
I’m Joanna Campe, with Remineralize the Earth. I’d like to speak to the whole idea of the minerals and trace elements in food. Alice Waters, for example, gets 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables for Chez Panisse from one farmer who remineralizes using rock dust. I know you also use rock dust in some form. I was wondering if you put it in the compost. I know they do in Austria. Or do you put it on the ground?
The farmer you’re referring to is Bob Cannard, a brilliant farmer working in Sonoma, who is remineralization king. He deserves to be considered the most famous farmer in the United States of America. When I was working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I spent a week working on his farm. I remember the first day he took me out to his leek field to pick leeks. We arrived at the head of the field, and I tell you I did not see a leek in the field. Not one leek. I thought he was joking, you know, trying to put one over on the city kid. But it was a leek field, and it was overrun with weeds. It looked like hell, and within this hell were magical leeks. If you ever go to Chez Panisse in the spring, be sure to order leeks, one of the great menu items. There’s a leek salad that’s been offered since the late 1970s. Bob has always grown the most delicious leeks for them that I’ve ever tasted.
His theory of farming, which is actually quite the opposite in many ways from what we do at Stone Barns, is to farm with the weeds. He counts them as his friends. I’ve visited him a few times since then. I even went back to that leek field to make sure what I had seen was not a figment of my imagination. Bob’s reason for not cutting down weeds is that he doesn’t want to take from the earth and not give back. His philosophy is “50 percent for the earth, 50 percent for us.” It makes me think of Eduardo because of what he did with the figs and the olives—you know, 50 percent for the geese and 50 percent for the people. By controlling his weeds—and Bob does plant certain manager weeds—he is getting remineralization, biodiversity, and biological activity naturally within the soil, within the natural ecology of where he’s growing, and he’s giving his vegetables the best vitamins. As a farmer, Bob Cannard takes this to an extreme degree.
In terms of the rock dust, he feels strongly that pulverized rock spread on his fields adds a nutrient level that he can’t get from any traditional compost or any amendment that he can find on the market. When I was working at Chez Panisse, I was 23 years old. The first thing Bob did when I got to his farm was take a rock and crack it in front of me and show me the value of rock dust by letting the sand run through his hands, and when I went back to that leek field 15 or 16 years later, where did we stop on the way? At the same place, and he cracked the same rock. He’s an admirably consistent man!
What we do for the soil at Stone Barns besides the composting is add a lot of soft-rock, not hard-rock, phosphates. Jack Algiere, who runs the vegetable operation, believes strongly that we get enough density out of what we’re doing in the composting operation, but the soft-rock phosphates add a boost of real sweetness and take the Brix to another level. He usually adds them pretty late in the process, with peas especially; the peas are unbelievable with that kind of amendment. But the core of what we are about is to take any natural “waste” from the farm and kitchen and turn it into compostable material that will make our crops better for us and better tasting. That’s what our farmers are focused on, so there’s a real effort not to go elsewhere for amendments even though there are some exciting developments in that area.
The philosophical underpinning of what’s going on between the Stone Barns Center and Blue Hill restaurant is practically the same as what’s going on between Bob Cannard and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse restaurant. They are both real-life examples of farmers growing food that they are selling to a restaurant at a fair market value. That’s how Stone Barns farm—located in Pocantico Hills, New York, 28 miles from midtown Manhattan—works. We get nothing free, we pay fair market value. It is expensive, though; in fact, we don’t buy everything from the farm because we can’t afford to, and Mr. Rockefeller doesn’t fund the transactions. I say this with a little bit of defensiveness because some people say, “Well, you have a Rockefeller backing you,” and that’s true.
To some extent the farmers prefer to sell retail because they make more money that way. Luckily, we have a great relationship, and I’m friends with the farmers, but this is still a business, and I think that’s why it works. This kind of model—a farm, a restaurant, and some type of educational entity that’s teaching about the relationship between the two—should be replicable anywhere in the country.
Stone Barns would look quite different in South Dakota or Texas or Berkeley. Or let’s take Topeka, Kansas: I imagine a chef who would like to put grass-fed beef on his menu, so he approaches a rancher, and says: “Can you separate some beef cattle for me? I want to put grass-fed steaks on my menu.” The rancher, recognizing that he has a built-in market, agrees. He doesn’t like sending his cattle off to finish in confinement, so he is glad to separate a few head. The chef gets the steer, makes the steaks, and has a ton of hamburger meat. He isn’t serving hamburgers at the restaurant, but he wants his daughter in the public school system in Topeka to enjoy this grass-fed beef, so he approaches the principal of the school, who has read Michael Pollan and is up on these issues. The principal says: “Yes, we’ll serve grass-fed hamburger meat in the cafeteria. We’ll have to pay more for it, but we’ll also make it a topic throughout the curriculum.” He asks the biology teacher to talk about grass-fed animal husbandry, asks the math teacher to talk about dividing up the cow, talks to the history professor, and it becomes an educational tool beyond just lunch. This seems to me to be exactly what we’re doing at Stone Barns but adapted for that locality. We like to see what we’re doing at Stone Barns happen elsewhere. I think the educational component is a key instrument in teaching people about the relationships and synergies that that are so important for our future.
As for the cost to put this all together, Mr. Rockefeller was willing to provide the seed money. After that it had to work on its own. The farm has to support itself, the restaurant has to be successful, the public education programs have to be paid for. I think there are very few barriers if you’re willing to experiment with these ideas, as in the Kansas example. Money isn’t the most important requirement. It also takes passion and energy and time.
I don’t have a great sense of smell, and I don’t pride myself on a particular ability to taste things that other people wouldn’t taste. What I do look for is sugar. Having been raised on the stuff, I’m a sugarholic, and I look for sweetness in vegetables. That’s what the Brix measures, so those carrots that were 13.8 are like sugar, and I think we can introduce that kind of delicious, wholesome, high-Brix vegetable to children. I’ve seen it happen at Stone Barns when children who are used to a fast-food diet have a carrot from our greenhouse and then talk about it endlessly throughout the day. We get phone calls and visits from parents who say, “My kid has been talking about carrots for two weeks.” Another approach is to start early with education and work with the realities of our fast-food diet. At the café at Stone Barns, when we have a big harvest of carrots and turnips, we put them raw into a McDonald’s-style French-fry holder we designed. When kids come to the café, they get one free, and they run around the courtyard with their faux French-fry containers filled with delicious carrots and healthful turnips. I think it’s part of the associative learning process when they realize that they don’t need to think of these foods as a chore to eat but as something that tastes delicious and is wholesome and easy to eat. So I think a lot more training has to happen on the level of children’s education. It’s what Stone Barns Center is there for, and on the west coast Alice Waters is doing unbelievable things through her projects. If we start kids early, I think there is a good chance of improving their diets.
The greenhouse at Stone Barns is 23,000 square feet. We heat it to 39 degrees, and if it dips below that, we start to have problems. What we grow there from October through May is vegetables that are sunlight determinant, which means that we’re not growing tomatoes and mangos throughout the winter; we are growing varieties of salad greens and some root vegetables that thrive between 32 and 39 degrees. If it were any warmer than that, they would have a lower Brix and taste less delicious. These are things we’ve been learning as we go along. In fact, even colder than 39 is what I’d like to see. Not the farmers, though. Jack Algiere doesn’t like it to get too close to 32 because then he obviously will lose crops by freezing.
You know, I’ve always wondered why more people don’t talk about the natural advantages we have with our ecological conditions in New England as opposed to California, Texas, Florida, Arizona. For things like carrots, beets, and celery root we have a natural cold-weather advantage like no other place in the country because when the temperature goes below freezing, the plants go into survival mode. I’ve always noticed that after the first three or four freezes, we get the best tasting root vegetables from the farmers market or in the case of Stone Barns right from the farm, and I always took it as axiomatic. But recently I had it explained to me by a plant physiologist: “What you’re tasting is the plant converting its starches to sugars in order to raise its body temperature and protect against ice crystallization. Ice crystallization means death for the plant, so it is doing what it can to raise its body temperature as quickly as possible in order to survive. The sweetness you’re tasting is the plant telling you that it’s afraid of death.” I think we ought to do more advertising for our cold climate, for flavor celebrations that we don’t talk about enough, and for elevated Brix levels.
We’ve noticed that the energy produced by our supercompost is not only raising the Brix levels of our plants and improving their growth rate by about 8 percent but is lowering our annual petroleum bill to heat the greenhouse. The cost went from $85,000 four years ago to $13,000 last year. That’s because the compost is throwing off so much heat to the greenhouse. To me this combination of increased sweetness and reduced fuel bills is an amazing example of not just gastronomical and nutritional advantages but ecological and economical advantages as well, so we win on all counts when the compost is as rich as it can be.
I don’t derive my menu from thinking about the nutritional loss or gain from a cooking medium. I probably should think about it more. We serve a lot of raw vegetables because they’re just so good with their Brix level that there’s no reason not to. On the other end of the scale we also do a tremendous amount of sous vide cooking. Sous vide means taking a piece of cooking-grade plastic, sucking all the air out of it, and sealing in a loin of lamb, a belly of pork, a chicken breast, or even a head of broccoli or fennel, and then cooking it at a very low temperature. Before I came here today, I stuck a shoulder of lamb from the farm into water at 140, 145 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will cook for 72 hours in a continuous water bath. What are the nutritional benefits of meat or vegetables cooked at that low a temperature for that period of time in a nonoxygenated, anaerobic environment? I don’t know. Tests haven’t been done yet, but I can tell you my feeling is that it’s a lot healthier because there is no escape of flavor. Flavor is locked into this shoulder of lamb or this carrot or fennel or whatever we’re cooking. And I bet you that the nutrient density is locked in there too, but I can’t prove it. I should be emphasizing much more strongly the direct correlation among high Brix sweetness, flavor, mineral activity, and nutrient density. There haven’t been enough studies yet, but going forward we’re going to see that there’s a beautiful correlation.
High Brix also means that you can store vegetables longer.
I mentioned that ecological decisions and ethical decisions are always the most deliciously beneficial decisions gastronomically; what we’ve been seeing in just the past few years, and this is a stunning development, is that they’re also becoming the most economical decisions. I believe this will be the factor that affects how we grow food in the future and as a consequence how we affect climate change. The old system, which is grain intensive and chemical dependent, is also fossil-fuel dependent, as we all know. It’s a food system that’s crashing because it was developed after World War II when oil cost only $30 a barrel. That’s been the average over the past sixty years. Thirty dollars a barrel. Three or four months ago oil was at $147 a barrel. Even though it’s now gone down, it’s going to shoot way up again. We will be looking at a world in which the average price for a barrel of oil is more than $100, and there are credible scientists who argue that $200 is going to be the average.
Why am I talking so much about oil? Because our industrial food system will not survive at $200 a barrel, and from what I hear in the industry, there has been a total shake-up this past year because big agriculture and big food-processing companies are losing money on every package sold, on every pig produced. There is increasingly a price parity between the kind of food we all want to eat and what used to be the cheap food we took for granted. That price parity is incredibly important, it seems to me, and will foster the greatest amount of change. When you look at the environmental connection, for the first time in our history the price of oil and the price of food are running along parallel lines. The effect of this—not mentioning nutritionally or environmentally or even politically as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Haiti—is that in the past year democracies are being threatened because of high food prices, and those are areas where grain dependence—the American way of agriculture—is coming up short.
While there are depressing realities like this, there are also exciting opportunities. For people who believe in sustainable agriculture and practice it, and I see some farmers in this room, we are not talking about looking at a bucolic field of grazing cows and saying emotionally, God, that’s how I want to feed my beef, or New England is where I want my goat to come from. What we are looking at, behind that field, is a savvy farmer taking advantage of the earth’s greatest resource, the sun, to convert the grass into energy, energy into protein. This is the first time in the history of sustainable agriculture when you can say from a strict profit and loss perspective that your most expensive input besides labor—and that of course is fossil fuel—has been removed. This is a development that I think will make more of an impact on how we eat, how we grow food, and where we get our food from in the future than anything else, and I think it’s going to have a profound effect on the environment.
What we’re trying to do at the restaurant and what I would argue chefs are in a particularly good position to do is tell stories, narratives about where our food is coming from, who’s growing the food, how it’s getting to us. That’s the most effective way to get people to want to experience the flavors. You know, I’m convinced that the ability to tell a good story about where the food’s coming from is one of our greatest assets as chefs. It’s information people want to have. The storytelling is an ingredient I can provide, and over the past few years, having the advantage of being on the campus of Stone Barns, it’s been made easier for me, but it’s possible for any chef to do. The narrative, just thinking of it selfishly, is so helpful in calling attention to good flavor and good sustenance and the enjoyable experience they provide. With the conventional food chain, from seed to farmer to trucker to distributor to marketplace, there is no story because price is the determining factor all along that chain. When you can persuade people to consider something other than price, you can get them to consider flavor, and when they consider flavor, they taste things they otherwise wouldn’t have tasted. For me that’s the most important role of the chef in the future.
We talk so much about our livestock, what they’re eating, how they’re being fed, the conditions of their existence—but not about the moment when they’re most stressed, just before being slaughtered. I think that we as chefs, and really everyone, should be talking about more than we do, especially in New England, where our obvious greatest natural advantage is the open pastures. New England has the greatest grassland in the country, and it should be a focal point for producing some of the best grass-fed animal agriculture, besides New Zealand’s, in the world. We’ve got the grass; what we don’t have are the local abattoirs, the slaughterhouses. They have disappeared through fire sales over the past thirty years because they couldn’t compete with the big ones for a variety of reasons that I don’t need to go into except to say that big industry lobbies your Congressional representatives to make rules and regulations that make it very hard for small slaughterhouses to compete.
It’s difficult to find an abattoir that’s run humanely. Even if you set aside the issue of believing in animal rights and the necessity to kill animals without any suffering, which is an enormous issue, for me flavor is crucial, and I know that animals who have experienced great stress before slaughter don’t taste good. The meat is often streaked, and it tastes tough; then you have a hard time selling people on grass-based lamb agriculture, grass-based cattle agriculture. Even if you get the correct breed, the correct feed, and do everything right up until the last twenty minutes of life, if the slaughter is not done correctly you can ruin everything in just the span of a few hours.
At the Stone Barns we have built our own slaughterhouse, but only for poultry because the USDA prohibits us from killing anything that’s considered a large animal, which is basically everything other than chickens and turkeys and ducks. Everything else needs to go elsewhere to be slaughtered. The closest slaughterhouse is two hours and fifty minutes away. There’s actually one a little closer, but what’s done there is horrendous, so we go to one that’s the most humane, but the expertise there in terms of processing isn’t great, and especially the butchering is horrendous. That’s why at both Blue Hill restaurants we procure only whole animals. I have my own butcher in each place who has been with me since the opening of each restaurant. They cut the carcasses up, which I am proud about, but it’s only a nod to the realities of small-scale animal husbandry in New England.
What we’ve discovered at Stone Barns is the importance of chill time. What in the world does chill time have to do with sustainable agriculture? It might just be the best way to get people away from grain-fed meat. All of the slaughterhouses are geared toward animals who are fed grain. When a lamb is fed a grain-intensive diet, there is a fat cap, which is why when you open a cookbook, you’ll find that it says to take your rack of lamb and remove its fat cap, which you then discard. Every traditional cookbook worth its salt says that. Remove fat cap and throw it in the garbage; then begin cooking. What you’re throwing away is the fat that protects the meat from cold chill. The USDA requires that you chill an animal to 32 degrees instantly after slaughter—a concession to long-time campaign pleading by lobbyists. The extra layer of fat on grain-fed animals allows them to go into rigor mortis despite the cold, preventing toughness in the meat. Grass-fed animals, on the other hand, have a much thinner layer of fat, a more delicious layer of fat, a more healthful layer of fat, and the fat cap from a grass-fed lamb rack is not lost. The problem is that when it goes through chill, it doesn’t experience rigor mortis and you get tough meat, so selling my customers on grass-based agriculture is really difficult, even if it tastes great.
Part of the reason it tastes so good is not just genetics and not just good handling and slaughter but also correct hanging after slaughter, a tradition that has been lost over the past half century. I’ve always been struck by pictures from New Zealand that show rooms right outside the slaughterhouses, with the windows open and the meat hanging. Before chilling it is put into a holding pattern, during which it slowly goes from body temperature down to 33 or 34 degrees, and in a 24-hour period rigor mortis develops, flavor develops, and that cut of meat becomes like butter.
There have been innovations in this area, such as mobile abattoirs, but essentially what needs to happen quickly is a change in the federal farm bill so that it eases restrictions and allows a slaughterhouse in every community.
I don’t want to sound like my grandfather here, but I cannot believe the way the world has changed in ten years. When we opened Blue Hill and spoke about these issues, we couldn’t get anyone to listen. People agreed that what we were doing made the food taste better, but there was no awareness of its political and environmental ramifications or of how it connected to our personal and ecological health. Now it seems as though the world has flipped on its head, so that the things Sally Fallon Morell and Anna Lappé said today no longer sound like wacky ideas. They may still be on the fringe, but these are ideas that seem to me to be the incubators for a future agricultural system. We’re not looking at another fifty years of business as usual. The present system is going to change quite soon because it isn’t viable. On the basis of working at the Stone Barns as well as traveling around and listening to people who are interested in food and talking to farmers, I feel strongly that we are on the way to an exciting future—if we can articulate that future in terms of how we want to eat and how we want our farmers to grow our food. From my standpoint, these fringe ideas are quickly becoming mainstream and will expand in the future.
I’ll leave you with a story about a farmer here in the Berkshires. His name is Ridge Shinn, and I think he is an absolute genius. One of the problems with pasture-fed, grass-fed beef from a chef’s standpoint is that often, when diners order a steak, they have to chew and chew and chew. We’ve been raised in a culture where if it doesn’t cut like butter, it’s not prime beef. After Ridge slaughtered an animal, he would look between the twelfth and thirteenth ribs, which is where the measurement for marbling is taken in the conventional system, and the animal is graded accordingly. What he found so frustrating was that occasionally he would come across an animal that was incredibly well marbled between the twelfth and thirteenth ribs, but it was already dead. He sold it as prime, but the genetics were now lost. So with the help of a scientist he perfected a procedure that’s been around since the 1960s, the sonogramming of animals. The sonogram is rubbed along the twelfth and thirteen ribs while the animal is still very much alive. If you get a bad reading, you can weed that steer out of your herd. A good reading lets you know that this is a steer you want to propagate for the future. Over the course of eight or ten years the quality of Ridge’s beef increased dramatically to the point where I think he is supplying some of the best grass-fed beef in the country. He does this by taking advantage of the natural ecology of the Berkshires, its grass, the good genetics that he has to begin with, and then improving on the final product with the use of sonogram technology. It’s a way of creating a future alternate food system that combines inherent sustainability with modern technology.
I wish that were the end of the story because I think it’s good enough, but a few weeks ago Ridge, whom I hadn’t seen in years, came to Blue Hill. I cooked him a dinner, and at the end of the evening I went out to talk with him. I asked him about the latest advances in the sonogram, only to learn that he wasn’t using it anymore. “But that’s your tool,” I said, “it’s what made you famous.” His response was: “I used to believe in it, and then I gave a talk in Wisconsin. Afterward I went to the Ag library there, and I found a notebook from 1848 that was kept by a grass farmer. The notebook was an illustrated guide to the way hair follicles fall on the back of a steer to determine marbleization. I made a copy of the notebook, and when I got home and tested the method, I realized that this 1848 notebook provided a better guide to marbleization than did my sonogram. So I got rid of the sonogram.” This illustrates that balancing technology and old-world wisdom is a constant evolution. In this case old-world wisdom trumped technology.