Chef-activist Dan Barber challenges the eaters

Dan Barber cooks at Blue Hill restaurant in New York. “I encourage people to eat … unknown vegetable crops for the sake of diversity,” he said.
Dan Barber cooks at Blue Hill restaurant in New York. “I encourage people to eat … unknown vegetable crops for the sake of diversity,” he said. The Associated Press

One of the food world’s most outspoken chefs is coming to the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America, and he’s bringing a menu of controversial opinions with him.

Dan Barber is author of “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food” and co-owner of the farm-to-table pioneer Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan. He’s the keynote speaker for the Sacramento Public Library’s 11th annual One Book community reading event. His Oct. 6 presentation is at capacity, but the library will sponsor other related, free events through October.

“The Third Plate” makes the case for changing our eating habits to promote sustainable agriculture and proposes alternative methods of farming and food production (Putnam, $18, 496 pages). “It’s about our everyday diet reflecting proper land management,” Barber said.

“One goal of this year’s One Book is to help people understand the full life cycle of their food,” said Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library, in a statement.

The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, the main organizer of Sacramento’s Farm-To-Fork Celebration (continuing through Sept. 27), and the nonprofit Food Literacy Center partnered with the library to bring Barber to Sacramento. The Friends of the Sacramento Public Library raised the funds for the event.

Q: The farm-to-table concept is ancient, but its most recent incarnation is revolutionizing the way we eat.

A: While its intent is good – establishing a direct connection with the farms that grow your food, and the consciousness attached to that – the problem is it allows us to cherry-pick ingredients, (choosing) the high-value items (such as tomatoes and eggplant), as I did this morning at the farmers market, but it doesn’t go deep enough for the kind of food system (needed) for the future, (emphasizing) sustainability and replication.

Q: But isn’t the movement beneficial?

A: There has been an explosion in farmers markets in the last 10 years because people (foodies) attend them. But if we use farmers markets like grocery stores, they won’t last very long or expand beyond where they are.

The large money-crop systems (Big Food) have continued to grow in spite of the social food movement, and that’s ironic when you consider (the movement) has been so passionate and powerful. One of the contributing reasons it hasn’t made (more of an impact) is that the transformation of how we buy ingredients isn’t equating with how farmland is being used, and that’s in part because of cherry-picking ingredients. The movement should move beyond that luxury.

Q: Sacramento’s nickname is “Sacratomato,” so we have cherry-picking going on.

A: The tomato is the Hummer of the food world. It sucks soil fertility. From labor and real estate perspectives, it has enormous consequences (for the soil). My interest is more in, what are the (nitrogen-rich) leguminous crops that were planted in preparation to get the soil to the right fertility to grow a glorious tomato crop? And how do we incorporate those kinds of crops into our everyday diet?

Q: What kinds of crops?

A: (Plants such as) beans peas, buckwheat, millet, rye, barley and buckwheat, which improve soil conditions. Farmers can do quite well with these crops if they have the demand. It’s about us as responsible eaters creating (that demand) for a diet that encourages regional (farming) and (crops) the land wants to produce.

Q: What do farmers need to do to bring about such a game-changer?

A: I would rephrase that to, “What do diners need to demand?” The farmers aren’t the ones to take the lead on this. In my book, I put a lot of weight on chefs and others who care about good food. Chefs are having a cultural moment in a revolution that has given them the power to create dishes like never before, and the power to message that.

Q: In that regard, what are you doing at your restaurant?

A: I encourage people to eat more buckwheat and leguminous crops, and unknown vegetable crops for the sake of diversity, and unknown pollinators. I want to (offer) that diversity and ultimately create a demand for it that trickles down.

Q: For example?

A: One (seasonal) dish we serve is “rotation risotto,” made not with rice but with soil-supporting crops (such as) buckwheat, barley, cow peas, kidney beans or even nitrogen-fixing cover crops like clover.

Q: The subtitle of “Third Plate” alludes to the future of food.

A: I’m a pessimistic guy by nature – I’m from New York, after all – but I’m quite optimistic about that. As more people experience truly delicious food and become less disassociated from the farming landscape, they won’t go back.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

One Book Sacramento

The Sacramento Public Library has chosen “The Third Plate” by chef Dan Barber for its 11th annual One Book community reading and is sponsoring events related to the book throughout October. Those include cooking demonstrations, book club discussions, movie screenings, food literacy activities for children and more. See the schedule at 916-264-2920.