Cookbook Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin 2014) is not your standard cookbook in any way, and yet it might very well prove to be the most important cookbook in all of food culture this generation.

With the very steep premise boldly stated on the back cover, that “Today’s farm-to-table revolution has a dark secret: The local food movement has failed to change how we eat. It has also offered a false promise for the future of food,” there is obviously a lot of ground for Dan Barber to cover in this 450-page future of food manifesto, which has been called by other observers The Omnivore’s Dilemma 2.0.

One of things that separates The Third Plate from its famous predecessor is Barber’s even more hand’s on participation in the subjects of soil, land, sea and seed, as both chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Restaurant in Manhattan, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located within the nonprofit farm and education center Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.

After years of menu experimentation at his own restaurants, much research, a dedication to relationships with other leading food experts, and a strong tie to food culture in Spain, among other places around the world, Barber makes the case over and over again that the next step towards sustainability will have to do with taking at least one step back in time for the sake of observation along the way to making culinary leaps into the future.

The Third Plate concept becomes what is called whole farm cooking, an ancient concept that farmers have been doing for thousands of years, developing “cuisines that adhered to what the landscape offered,” not the other way around. The essential question no longer is how to coerce nature to the chef’s demands for the menu, but for the chef to relinquish control to the workings of nature and create menus accordingly. When produce, grains or meats are allowed to more truly express their surroundings, they begin to regain flavor and nutrition, demand expands, and new but sustainable markets are formed, this time at least two sides benefiting.

At the very end of the book, we do get some recipes, including both a carrot and a parsnip steak, as well as a “Rotation Risotto and 898 Squash” (named after an experimental winter squash with line number 898) among many other items for what Barber describes as “A Menu for 2050.” It starts with Milky Oat Tea and Cattail Snacks.” Why oat tea? Many farmers grow oats as a crop cover, “mowing them down before maturity so they can enrich the soil and become fertility for the next crop. Without restoring fertility to the soil, delicious food is not possible.” This is a mini example, but reflects a new ‘take half, leave half’ equation. “If this works– which means if the tea is delicious and memorable – we may well create a market for cover crops, incentivizing more growers to incorporate them into their farms. But more important, we’ll create a consciousness about feeding the soil that feeds us.”