Chef Dan Barber on His Restaurant, Blue Hill
Steps from a farm but thoroughly modern in spirit, the Blue Hill restaurant in upstate New York powers its agrarian ideals with technology.
Restaurant: Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Location: Pocantico Hills, New York
Dan Barber: Control—it’s all about control. That’s what all of this is set up to do. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s to control the ingredients, to control what’s happening to the ingredients from the time they come in to the time they leave the kitchen.
This was all designed around a milking barn, so we fit the space to that. We have the luxury of being in an environment where you don’t have to feel claustrophobic. The ceilings are very high. And I just had this idea that asking the cooks to treat the ingredients with the kind of refinement and respect they deserve, whether it’s a chicken from our field or a carrot from our greenhouse, is hard to do if you’re not in an environment that treats your cooks with respect. So the lighting is generous and friendly. There’s natural light. And the space is not cut off; it’s open. All of those things—unconsciously, I think—connect to how you cook, how you feel. I don’t want to get too meta about it, but it’s a part of the process, and those things are important. When you come in, you feel like you’re part of a place that you’re excited to be in. And that should then extend to how you prep the carrots.
There’s nothing to disrupt sight lines in the kitchen. Most kitchens have shelves, heat lamps—I don’t like that. So even though one guy is taking care of vegetables for the meat, he should know what’s going on, somewhat, in the pasta section. He doesn’t have to hear anything; he’s just aware. In most kitchens you’re on a line and you have no idea what the guy down there is doing—you’re relying on somebody else. In this kitchen, we’re trying to create a sense of community during the service.
I don’t call the tickets and run the service, because I’d rather be cooking. And I think I can get more done by running the different stations. So that’s what we end up doing. I think that’s highly unusual. I know of no other kitchen where it works like that. Most chefs—and it’s not a negative—stand there and see the final plate before it goes out of the kitchen. And I think there’s some good sense in that. But I think you miss a lot too.
At the same time, I don’t think the cooks look at me as a real community member. I’m not that cozy paternal figure. I’m always doing different things, and it creates this atmosphere where the cooks are on the balls of their feet. They’re thinking, Where’s he going next, what’s happening next? There’s a little bit of confusion. I think that’s good. It’s hard to articulate, because you think of the kitchen as very organized; and, like I said, the more control you have, the better. But a little bit of chaos creates tension. And that creates energy and passion, and it tends to make you season something the right way or reach for something that would add this, that, or the other thing.
A lot of what we cook here is in sous-vide [vacuum-sealed] bags. And then we steam it in combination ovens at a very low temperature. We’re cooking at 132 degrees Fahrenheit—it’s like a bathtub. This is highly technologically advanced; it’s the future of cooking. And ultimately what we’re doing is trying to create this dichotomy between the old-world agrarian ideals of growing your own food—and growing it sustainably, organically, locally, all of that—but then coming into a kitchen where there’s modern technology, and using techniques that are innovative and technologically advanced. Some people would view that as contradictory, but I see it as one and the same. And this kitchen and this space and this restaurant and this food—it’s not harking back to some ideal of what food should be in an effete, backward way. It’s very forward-looking.
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