At an early springtime charity event last year, many of New York’s best chefs showed their culinary talent. Suckling pig was served with wild mushrooms and pickled ramps. Lamb confit was dished up with minted pea purée and preserved citrus. Attendees ate braised beef cheeks with parsnip purée and chicory sauce.
Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, handed out turnips.
They had been picked that morning. Barber had simply peeled them and sprinkled them with salt, and they were the hit of the party.
“People still talk about that. It’s so funny,” Barber says. “We hit it that week with really sweet turnips. We were lucky.”
The turnips were from Stone Barns Farm, part of a charitable organization set up by the Rockefeller Foundation to promote community-based, sustainable agriculture. Also part of the Stone Barns Restoration Corporation is a restaurant run by Dan Barber and his brother David. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is their second restaurant. The first, which opened in New York’s Greenwich Village  in 2000, happened almost by accident.
The Barbers had a high-end catering operation that served food made from local produce and livestock to New York’s elite.
“Our catering business was growing. I needed a big kitchen, and this was a big kitchen,” Dan Barber says, referring to his restaurant. “I thought originally maybe this could be an event space, but the economics didn’t really work.”
“At one point Dan was considering living here [in the dining room],” says David Barber, who operates the restaurants’ business side, “but one of the other big challenges in the catering world is tastings. You have to go to people’s houses to prepare a meal, and that’s labor-intensive and hard to pull off.”
Having an informal restaurant to invite their potential Park Avenue customers to for tastings would allow them to control the experience better and also streamline the process.
“We envisioned a neighborhood restaurant and another way to tell the Blue Hill story,” David Barber says. “It wasn’t designed to be our focus. It was designed to be a physical storefront that people could visit that would be a representation of the quality of the food we could do. The more upscale experience would be in the home.”
But the customers and critics weren’t treating it like just a cute, neighborhood restaurant.
“My wife [Laureen, who also is a partner in the business,] got involved in the interior, and I think it came out nicer than we thought,” David Barber says. “I don’t think it’s fancy by any means. I don’t think it evokes fancy when you walk in. But it wasn’t quite the tight-table, paper-on-the-tablecloths thing we had in mind.”
The white tablecloths are still covered with paper, and the guests run the gamut from jeans-and-T-shirt to business suits, neighbors to wealthy university benefactors. But Blue Hill also is unquestionably one of the New York food world’s favorite restaurants.
“Blue Hill joined the farm-to-table movement long before so many other restaurants got there, and in that sense it’s not just a terrific place to eat: It’s a trailblazer, a model,” says New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who last year gave Blue Hill three out of four stars. “I always think of Dan Barber, in the figure he cuts, in the food he cooks, as Manhattan’s answer to the Farmer in the Dell, and I’ll never forget watching him carry a dead, unbutchered lamb from the Greenwich Village street in front of Blue Hill back into the kitchen, through the dining room. While other restaurants distance you from the origins of your food, Blue Hill would have you eating next to your lamb chop’s mother, deep in a patch of the very herbs seasoning the chop, if it could. It’s an exemplar of bucolic gastronomy.”
Afarmer at heart
David and Dan Barber are New York City natives, but they spent a lot of time at their grandmother’s farm in the Berkshires after which their restaurants are named. She leased Blue Hill Farm to farmers who looked after the cattle and worked the land.
“I was responsible for haying the land, actually, and then storing it in the barn,” Dan Barber recalls, “and then I worked with these farmers really closely on their farm, which was down the road.”
“Dan’s passion for local agriculture dates back to early college and before, and also is tied to Blue Hill Farm and working on the farm as kids,” his brother says. “We watched [the farmers] struggle and go out of business with many other farmers as we got older.”
The idea of helping farmers and cityfolk alike by bringing terrific local ingredients to urban centers struck a chord with them.
Dan Barber’s cooking career started in college. While he was getting his bachelor’s degree in English and political science at Tufts University in the Boston suburb of Medford, Mass., he also had a small catering business.
Plans to travel abroad and write fell through, and instead Barber headed west. Arriving in Los Angeles, he walked into La Brea Bakery  and asked chef-owner Nancy Silverton for an internship. He baked at night and made breakfast at Silverton’s Campanile restaurant.
“But I wasn’t a very good bread baker, so I stuck more to the cooking end,” Barber recalls.
“I wrote, like, 50 letters and kept calling [Chez Panisse chef Jean-Pierre Moullé], and he finally said, ‘OK,’” Barber recalls. “The experience of being with the farmers that supplied Chez Panisse was an enormous influence on me.”
Moullé arranged for Barber to work in Paris, with Moullé in Bordeaux, and finally in Provence at Le Clos de la Violette.
He returned to New York in 1996 and worked at Bouley, which at the time was the Zagat Survey’s highest-rated restaurant for five years running. Chef-owner David Bouley closed his restaurant late that year and Barber started his catering business.
While working at Bouley, Barber met Alex Ureña , who became Blue Hill’s co-executive chef with him when that restaurant opened in early 2000. He left after about a year and became the chef of Marseille  in New York before opening his own restaurant, Ureña, last year. Michael Anthony then took up that job, later leading the kitchen at Blue Hill at Stone Barns until he was hired to be executive chef of Gramercy Tavern  in New York, another Fine Dining Hall of Fame member. Now Barber is sole executive chef again.
The Barbers’ catering operations continued for a while, but cooking local, seasonal, sustainable food at weddings cost a lot of money.
“We were the most expensive thing going,” Dan Barber says, “and when you start doing that you get into this rarified world.”
He adds that the superrich can be difficult to work with and don’t always share his culinary or philosophical agendas.
“It’s not like they’re the evil empire and I’m right,” he says. “It’s just a philosophy and a feeling. But it was very personal for me, and I didn’t want to live my life like that.”
PHONE: (212) 539-1776
PER-PERSON DINNER CHECK AVERAGE WITH BEVERAGES: $80
BEST-SELLING DISH: “This morning’s farm egg,” poached and served with foraged mushrooms and lettuce broth
AVERAGE WEEKLY COVERS: 840
CHEF-OWNER: Dan Barber
PARTNERS: David and Laureen Barber
Besides, Blue Hill was turning a profit.
The nail in the catering coffin came when the Barbers were selected by the Stone Barns Restoration Corporation, a nonprofit organization established by the Rockefeller Foundation, to lease the restaurant at Stone Barns. Blue Hill at Stone Barns opened in 2004. Catering had to go.
“I couldn’t do everything,” Barber says, “and I’m glad I recognized that.”
Although Stone Barns Farm has an important role in the Barbers’ vision, it is by no means their only produce supplier. It’s only an 80-acre farm, after all. They have further developed Blue Hill Farm, where back-of-the-house staff makes an annual pilgrimage to tend crops and become familiar with local foods’ potential, and they also buy produce from throughout the area.
“We’re really trying to source from the Hudson Valley and celebrate the produce of the lower Hudson Valley,” David Barber says.
Dan Barber brought a farmer from Stone Barns to the charity event where he served the turnips, and he hopes to do that more often.
“Farmers come to the kitchen, and they get the cooks’ feedback, which is positive, but they don’t get what they could be getting, and that event was an eye-opener for me,” he says. “It really was a last minute thing, but [the farmer still] talks about it when he gives tours of the greenhouse. It’s a thing that he’s so prideful about, and I stupidly didn’t do that earlier, so I’m going to do more.”
Keeping the staff happy
Blue Hill turns enough of a profit that his employees get health insurance and other benefits—a fact that his staff says keeps turnover low.
Andrew Corliss has been a waiter at Blue Hill for more than two years.
“I think almost more importantly, I have no desire to work anywhere else,” says Corliss, who also writes screenplays and is working on a cookbook. He adds that the Barbers are the kind of guys who help promote his book and will call anyone they can to help him.
Each member of the staff can eat at either restaurant with a guest for free whenever they like, and Corliss says he has seen many occasions when employees fall on hard times and, without hesitation, the Barbers are ready to help them out financially or otherwise, such as helping cooks get visas.
“They’re really the most gracious and generous employers I’ve ever had,” he says. “I’ve never worked in a restaurant that’s so functional. There’s no yelling, not a lot of aggressive stances or unreasonable communication. Here, if you have a problem, you sit down and talk about it.”
|Stone Barns greens ravioli with arugula and pancetta $12 Fennel and Calville Blanc apple salad with apple purée and roasted fennel $12 Maine crab with celery root and fennel, blood orange and basil marmalade in citrus broth $16 Day boat sea scallops with grapefruit, paprika, shallots and Hudson Valley ramps $12 This morning’s farm egg with foraged mushrooms, Stone Barns greens and herb broth $14|
|Wild striped bass with pistou of local soybeans, asparagus and broccoli $28 Poached Chatham cod with cauliflower, currants and braised button mushrooms with herring caviar sauce $28 Berkshire pork with fromage blanc spaetzle, guanciale, ramp greens and Stone Barns Swiss chard $30 Grass-fed lamb with cracked wheat, parsnips, zucchini, ramps and Stone Barns Bibb lettuce $34 Rabbi Bob’s pastured baby beef with Jerusalem artichoke puree, foraged mushrooms and Stone Barns greens $34|
|Banana cake with chocolate and banana ice cream $10 Chocolate bread pudding with salted caramel, roasted peanuts and coffee ice cream $10|
Anice guy, too
Liz Neumark, founder and chief executive of Great Performances, an on-site company that specializes in providing foodservices for museums and performance halls, recently launched her own organic farm to help supply her operations.
She says Dan Barber is a great spokesman for the local and sustainable food movement.
“He sees outside the kitchen and garden walls. Food has never been more political than it is now, and he really does a great job at promoting the mission. It’s really probably the most important role he plays,” she says, adding that he’s not a jerk about it.
“He’s the most down-to-earth, open, sharing, humble, sweet, kind, funny individual I’ve met in this industry,” she says. “I said to him: ‘Where do you want to go with [his career], and he said, ‘You know, I just want to marry my girlfriend.’”