We are abolutely thrilled to present this Q&A with Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Cornell Plant Breeding Geneticist Michael Mazourek. Read this inside scoop prior to their special joint presentation at the first NE Organic Seed Conference, part of our NOFA-NY Winter Conference, January 20-22, 2017:
1. Please give us a little history of your work together, and what was the inspiration?
MICHAEL: I was invited to Blue Hill at Stone Barns for dinner. I had heard it described by others as life changing, but had no idea it was literal. Of course the meal was great, but it also inspired me and gave me the courage to embrace creativity with the vegetables I was developing and explore characteristics I valued but were not part of the mainstream.
DAN: After their meal Michael came into the kitchen. I held up a butternut squash–our bestselling workaday squash— and, half jokingly, asked him if he could create a new variety with a more intense squash flavor. (I asked him to shrink the thing.) I’ll never forget his response. “It’s a funny thing, or maybe a tragic/funny thing,” he said, “but in all my years breeding new varieties, no one has ever asked me to breed for flavor.” For me, as a chef, it was a revelation. If the chef’s role is to pursue truly great flavor, then we need to engage with the people writing the recipes for our seeds.
2. What will be the main “take-aways” from your special presentation?
MICHAEL: This next wave of development of cultivars for the Northeast are really just underway. We have the opportunity to really create new cultivars and market classes all our own.
DAN: Chefs and eaters tend to think of seeds as a black and white issue—heirlooms over here, Monsanto frankenfood over there. But there’s a whole spectrum that exists between those two —one that we’ve unfortunately neglected. For the future, we need to think not only about how to advance a dynamic tradition of breeding and selection, but also about how to communicate that story to eaters and home cooks.
3. How do you think culinary trends get started and then catch on?
DAN: I think we can look to chefs. That sounds self-promoting, but we’ve already seen chefs' ability to catalyze food trends that trickle down to every level of the food chain. If you look at the recent kale craze—which started on restaurant tables in New York and now has its own holiday—you see evidence of that influence.
MICHAEL: It is the chefs. So we need to ask ourselves what trends can we spark? Can we partner to create trends that will support growers and sustainability and nutrition in our food system once they catch on?
4. What do you believe is the future for chef-breeder collaboration?
DAN: I think we need to continue to blur the lines between chef, breeder and farmer. That means breeders who are willing to immerse themselves in the kitchen in order to better understand ingredients' culinary applications and potential; and it means chefs who are willing to educate themselves about agronomic challenges. How can we influence one another’s decisions in the field and the kitchen to maximize ecology, economy, and flavor?
MICHAEL: It’s expanding beyond reacting. Rather than a chef just developing dishes around new ingredients and breeders developing cultivars, there is the potential to co-design new plants for organic production.
5. Is there anything else that conference attendees should know or consider in advance of your presentation?
MICHAEL: We're excited for the First Northeast Organic Seed Conference!
NOTE: Dan and Michael will be presenting on Friday, January 20, the first day of our three-day conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. For more information and to register, go to: https://www.nofany.org/events-news/events/winter-conference