Dan Barber, the vanguard chef behind Blue Hill at Stone Barns, earned two Michelin stars as he championed the farm-to-table movement in New York State. But rave reviews have spared no one in the ailing food world, as restaurants have gone into perilous hibernation, leaving workers unemployed and thoroughfares eerily quiet around the country.
Barber shut the doors of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Westchester County, and a second location in New York City in mid-March. With hopes of keeping some income flowing to struggling employees and suppliers, his team started offering to-go boxes of produce, meat, fish and other items that loyal patrons could make and consume at home. But even at prices ranging up to $170, Barber says, it’s hardly a drop in the bucket. “It’s like whack-a-mole,” he says. “There’s problems everywhere with everyone.”
As they respond to today’s emergency, insiders are also planning for the next one. The pandemic has shown that the connection between farm and table can be broken. And for Barber, that means rethinking everything.—Katy Steinmetz
When did you know the coronavirus would have a huge impact on the food world? It went in concentric circles. [My restaurants] closed, and my first understanding is the employees were going to be really hurt. Just as quickly comes the understanding of what this does to the entire restaurant industry and small, independent farmers and producers that rely on restaurants in the farm-to-table movement. That network is shattered.
We got into relationships with some farmers where we were sort of building the business with them, through Blue Hill as an exclusive. The farmer—I’m thinking of one in particular who raises pheasants for us—looks at you and says, “What do I do now?”
How long is the food world going to feel the fallout?
Right now it’s like you’re on the shoreline and you’re seeing a tsunami coming. There’s so much else to be fretting over. There’s emergency happening all around us. But the impacts of this, from an agricultural and ecological point of view, are a disaster that we will be talking about and writing about for our lifetime … [By this summer] restaurants may come back but they’re not coming back at 100%. We will not be returning to normal even when we’re allowed to. The idea that people are going to be spending money in restaurants is preposterous. We’re headed for an enormous recession.
How important are restaurants to local economies? There are numbers that support that, but I go beyond the numbers. Restaurants have a cultural imprint on what it means to be alive. Restaurants are this place of connection and community and excitement and decadence that is very powerful. That was most pronounced in the last decade. To have them shuttered now and then shackled when they come out of it, I think it will be very difficult to bring that back.
One prominent chef estimated that 75% of independent restaurants may not make it. What can the average American do to help? Advocate with your Representative or Senator for the importance of restaurants in the local economy and local culture. During these moments in history, the ones who are clamoring the loudest are the ones who get served.
Is ordering takeout a kind of civic duty? Any restaurant that is doing takeout at this moment is not doing well, and if you love that restaurant, now is the time to support it.
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Recently, local food—or food from smaller, independent farms and restaurants—had been gaining in popularity. How could this crisis change that? The world of processed Big Food was about to fall apart. There was a new era that was much less centralized and much more regional. Now everyone is staying home. There’s a return to efficient food, food that you can eat without thinking about it. Big Food is saying, “We’re back, and we’re not going to lose it this time.” That, to me, is a disaster.
What, if anything, gives you hope about the future of local food? I feel inspired by the crisis leading to an opportunity. How does this whole thing change our relationship with food? And is there a way to create a new paradigm? I’m rooted in this farm-to-table idea. But there was so much wrong with it. It didn’t really work.
What does that mean for people like your pheasant farmer? With the pheasant farmer, I did the wrong thing, for his well-being and the well-being of anybody trying to mimic that system. As much as I touted it as the perfect example, that farmer actually ends up being the first to be exposed. [The pandemic] has been unsparing in showing weakness in any kind of supply chain and that supply chain, as exciting and important as it was, was really weak, this direct connection without any other opportunities.
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How would you do things differently, with the benefit of hindsight? If we were to do it over, we would be sharing [the farmer] not just with other restaurants but other markets, and we would be processing his food. We would be drying some of the thighs. We would be taking the breasts and making some kind of charcuterie. What we need to do is design a whole new regional food system that can withstand these shocks and others that will come along. And that could be very exciting.