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Barber Grows into a Farm-to-Table Darling

Barber Grows into a Farm-to-Table Darling

Chickens at Blue Hill Farm (photo by Creative Commons User WalkingGeek)

Mark Kennedy | Associated Press

NEW YORK – Dan Barber emerges one recent afternoon from the Union Square Greenmarket with a spring bounty: asparagus, purple kohlrabi, ramps, fiddlehead ferns and dandelion greens.

They’re luscious, fresher-than-fresh and Barber can’t wait to get them into the kitchen. When he does, what will he do with them? The answer is pure Dan Barber.

“Not a lot,” he says with a smile, sipping iced coffee near the market. “As I get better and better as a chef, I’m doing less and less.”

Doing less is a hallmark of Barber, 39, who’s emerged as a leading figure in the farm-to-table movement, championing local, delicious ingredients and responsible agriculture.

His two New York restaurants – Blue Hill New York in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns some 30 miles north of the city in Pocantico Hills – have become beacons for foodies eager to dig into his clean, often playful dishes, like a farm-fresh egg served over local mushrooms and greens, surrounded by caramelized pieces of gooey, crispy-skinned chicken wings.

This month, Barber is enjoying the kind of spotlight he usually reserves for his ingredients: He’s won the James Beard Award as the nation’s top chef and made his debut on Time magazine’s 100 World’s Most Influential People, alongside Ted Turner, George Clooney and Michelle Obama.

Such praise would surely make a chef’s narcissism rise like a souffle. But while Barber confesses to a healthy ego, he feels he’s merely become a figurehead for a movement that’s become mainstream. Chefs, he insists, have been articulating his message for years.

“As a chef, if you are chasing after flavorful food, which is what chefs should be doing, you are by definition an environmentalist and you are by definition a nutritionist,” he says. “And you are by definition a kind of activist.”

The food-to-table philosophy traces its roots to pioneer chefs like Alice Waters in the 1970s and has been popularized by writers like Michael Pollan and chefs such as recent Beard winner Rick Bayless. Even the White House now has a vegetable garden.