Sometimes I feel like I am on “Ed TV ” or “The Truman Show”. While Jay and I where taking a seed saving class in rural Ontario, the big boys of the culinary world were meeting at Stone Barns in upstate New York talking about seeds. Is the world watching what I am doing? Who is biting my style? Is someone out there spying on me… us? Or, are my choices so mainstream that I am predictable?
no matter, if you have a few minutes this article is worth the read.
Sowing a Change in Kitchens
POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. — It used to be that chefs believed their work began in the kitchen, where knives and fire and skill would convert good ingredients into a great meal. During the last few decades, a number of top chefs started to focus on an earlier element of the process: the farm, where so many of those ingredients come from.
But on Monday morning, in a high-ceilinged chamber that used to be a hayloft and suddenly felt like a minimalist country church, the chef Dan Barber posed a provocative question to a room full of luminaries from the world of food: “What if we were involved in writing this recipe from the beginning?”
Mr. Barber was talking about seeds. More precisely, he was talking about using seeds to explore a whole new frontier of flavor and cracking open “opportunities that we never even knew existed,” as he told a crowd gathered here at theStone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
What would happen, he asked, if chefs were to team up with breeders, the agricultural experts who know how to guide the evolution of fruits and grains and vegetables? Could that creative partnership lead to tomatoes, melons and wheat with sublime tastes and textures that no one has even imagined yet?
Could kitchen wizards and scientists work together to make good ingredients even better? And, in the words of Matthew Dillon, the director of the Seed Matters initiative hatched by the Clif Bar Family Foundation, “How do we make seeds sexy?”
Only time will tell whether Monday’s meeting of the minds will come to be seen as the legendary (and sexy) genesis of the seed-to-table movement, but it certainly felt historic. “I think we’re all going to remember this day,” the influential innovator Ferran Adrià told the group, through an interpreter, in his closing comments.
Among the chefs and bakers on hand were Mr. Adrià and Joan Roca from Spain, Alex Atala from Brazil, Gastón Acurio from Peru, Michel Bras from France, David Kinch and Chad Robertson from California, Sean Brock from the American South and Sam Kass and Bill Yosses from the White House.
They were joined by a bumper crop of stars who work in New York City, including Daniel Humm, Dominique Ansel, April Bloomfield, Floyd Cardoz, Michael White, Jim Lahey, Bill Telepan, Danny Bowien, Dan Kluger, Matthew Lightner, Mads Refslund and David Bouley.
For many of them, the theme of the day was Meet the Breeders. Placed at tables around the room were some of the nation’s beet, rice, wheat and hot-pepper specialists, most of whom the chefs had never heard of. “The breeders haven’t exactly been recognized in the mainstream media,” said Mr. Barber, the chef and an owner of the Blue Hill restaurant here.
The soil-tilling food experts happen to be every bit as expressive, and iconoclastic, as their knife-wielding counterparts in the kitchen. These days, many in the culinary world tend to view produce in a black-and-white way: You have either your delightfully lumpy, bumpy farmers’ market treasures, or your scarily uniform corporate Frankenfood. As Mr. Barber said, it’s “heirlooms over here, Monsanto maniacs over there.”
But Monday’s convocation, overseen by the Basque Culinary Center, suggested a third way: Independent breeders are ready to help make our breads and salads richer with deep flavor, bold color and plenty of nutrients. They just need someone to ask them.
What they do may also be seen as an old-school alternative to the spread of genetically modified plants, which have not been shown to be harmful but still frighten and concern many people.
“We’re making crosses within the same species, and we’re doing it the way it’s been done for 300 years,” said Dr. Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder from Washington State whose accessibly folksy lecture had the room transfixed. “There’s no forcing here. We put these plants together and we let them mate.”
During a lunch break in a sunny Stone Barns courtyard, several chefs said that they had rarely considered the seed-curating side of their craft, but that their minds were now brimming over with gastronomic possibilities. Mr. Cardoz, of North End Grill and formerly of Tabla, spoke about a curry dish called rogan josh and the difficulty of achieving its red hue and spicy flavor in the United States because the dish requires hard-to-find Kashmiri chile peppers. “You don’t get anything like it here,” he said. “That is something that I would like to grow for sure.”
Mr. Kinch, of Manresa, qualifies as a farm-to-table purist, because he gets his core ingredients from a terraced farm a few minutes away from the restaurant. But the idea of bringing in the perspective of breeders intrigued him. “As a chef, it gives me more control over my product,” he said. “We’re flirting with the idea of opening up a bakery, and I’m fascinated by wheat.”
What if traditional Northern California sourdough could be even chewier and tangier? “Let’s build on that and let’s do it with some artisanal grains,” Mr. Kinch said.
Mr. Telepan and Ms. Bloomfield savored the idea of improving the flavor of the East Coast tomatoes that are available to them. Mr. Humm, of Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad, seemed dazzled (and maybe a tad daunted) by the notion of using science to upgrade the arsenal of countless ingredients at his fingertips. “What would you not want to work on?” he said. “It’s pretty inspiring.”
And a few chefs half-joked that it may not be long before restaurants start hiring their own seed sommeliers.
“I think breeders are the way of the future,” Ms. Bloomfield said. “And now that I know this, I’m going to go in search of my own breeder.