From Farm to Table

Thanks to the largesse of David Rockefeller and the culinary ingenuity of chef Dan Barber, the new Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester is changing the diners think about the food they eat.



From Farm to Table

 

The creators of Westchester¡¯s new Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture ¡ª and its Blue Hill restaurant ¡ª aim to change the way diners think about what they eat

 

By Jan Greenberg   

Photographs by Dyana Van Campen

 

¡°Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hands, and the mouth.¡±

 

These words of Italian philosopher, environmentalist, and peace advocate Lanza del Vasto introduce the menu (and the Web site) of the Valley¡¯s most talked-about new restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They were chosen by Dan Barber, the creative force behind Blue Hill, who believes the words best express a vision that has come to life on the site of what was once a working farm on the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills.

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture opened officially in May. It is an environmentally sustainable farm and a model for community-based food production. That it happened at all is the result of a meeting of two men with seemingly little in common except a fierce passion for maintaining working farms and open space. David Rockefeller, the 88-year-old grandson of John D. Rockefeller, and Dan Barber, the 34-year-old New York City chef (who Food and Wine magazine has described as ¡°pushing American food in new and unpredictable directions¡±) teamed up to create this unique educational center, farm, and restaurant.

 

First the background: David Rockefeller¡¯s late wife, Peggy, was among the founders of the American Farmland Trust. She also owned one of the nation¡¯s largest herds of Simmental cattle, which grazed on a portion of what had once been an extensive family farm. According to James Ford, executive director of the Stone Barns Center and a longtime Rockefeller employee, after her death in 1996 the family looked for ways to return the farm to agricultural use. They also hoped to maintain its Norman-style stone and wood barns, completed in 1932 for John D. Rockefeller Jr.

 

The original idea was to open a restaurant and catering operation with an adjoining greenhouse and a seasonal schedule of gardening programs. The family spoke to several ¡°celebrity¡± chefs and local restaurateurs before choosing Barber, who (with brother and business partner David; David¡¯s wife, Laureen; and what Dan calls ¡°a team of advisors¡±) proposed the much-larger and grander concept that has become the Stone Barns Center.

 

The $30 million project was financed by David Rockefeller, who also donated the 80 acres of land. (The Rockefellers own 4,000 acres in Pocantico Hills.) The project has three components: the not-for-profit farm, the educational program, and the for-profit restaurant, Blue Hill, which pays rent to the center and purchases much of its food from the farm. For Barber, who describes his food as ¡°ingredient-driven and locally driven,¡± the challenge is to make people aware that what they choose to eat affects the world, and at the same time create a truly pleasurable dining experience.

 

The farm is organic. There is a 22,000-square-foot year-round greenhouse developed by Eliot Coleman, creator of Four Season Farm in Maine. Using nominal heat, the greenhouse ¡ª the largest all-weather in-soil greenhouse in the United States ¡ª will produce over 35 varieties of cool-weather crops throughout the winter. During the growing season, farm manager Jack Algiere oversees three-and-a-half acres of fields planted with a variety of vegetables, including squashes, peppers, tomatoes, beets, eggplants, and onions.

 

The livestock manager is Craig Haney, whose Skate Creek Farm in Delaware County is a model for the increasing number of farms that are raising pasture-fed animals (free of grain, antibiotics, and hormones) that are humanely slaughtered. Two 10-acre fields house 2,000 broiler chickens, which peck at grasses; 300 laying hens that live in a mobile henhouse, which is regularly moved onto fresh pasture; 30 Holstein bull calves that are raised for veal; 40 Berkshire pigs, an English breed chosen for their marbling and flavor; and 40 sheep. There are five White Park cattle, an ancient British breed listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. (For the time being, they are grazing elsewhere.) Haney is also raising 75 heritage turkeys, Bourbon Reds and Giant Whites, entirely different breeds from the big-breasted white hybrids raised commercially and sold in supermarkets. ¡°They¡¯re difficult,¡± Haney says of his flock. ¡°They have minds of their own, but I have a particular fondness for them.¡±

 

Program director Daphne L. Derven has developed a series of educational activities. There are farm tours and leisurely afternoons of artisanal cheese and wine tastings. But there are also practical workshops on composting and organic growing as well as programs that address the issues of food and politics and their impact on communities.

 

But it¡¯s the restaurant and caf¨¦ that are the centerpiece of the Stone Barns, and in which Dan Barber and his brother and sister-in-law have so much at stake. Barber and his family own Blue Hill restaurant in New York City¡¯s Greenwich Village, which has championed local producers and growers. It is among the handful of restaurants in the city whose chefs regularly visit the Greenmarket, hand-picking the ingredients that will be featured on the day¡¯s menu. Farmers delivering to the restaurant are regularly invited to eat dinner at the ¡°farmer¡¯s table¡± in the kitchen. In its first year, Blue Hill received a James Beard Foundation Award nomination for Best New Restaurant. In 2002, Barber and chef de cuisine Mike Anthony were named among Food and Wine¡¯s Best New Chefs, two of only 11 chefs accorded that honor.

 

Growing up, Barber spent summers at the restaurant¡¯s namesake, Blue Hill Farm, his grandmother¡¯s 700-acre spread in the Berkshires. ¡°I actually don¡¯t remember loving it,¡± he says, ¡°But those kind of experiences become part of you in ways you don¡¯t consciously recognize.¡±

 

After graduating from Tufts, he began baking bread while he ¡°tried to figure out what to do with my life.¡± He worked at La Brea Bakery, Campanile, and Chez Panisse in California and apprenticed in France, returning to New York to work at Bouley before opening Dan Barber Catering. There was no, as he says, ¡°aha¡± moment about how he would operate his business. The closest was a symposium he attended where a very well-known chef (who shall be nameless) stated: ¡°I don¡¯t really care where my food comes from as long as it tastes good and the price is right.¡±

 

¡°I knew that he wasn¡¯t saying that he didn¡¯t want good-tasting, top-quality food,¡± says Barber. ¡°But it was a watershed moment for me. I felt very much that this was not a fraternity that I wanted to join.¡±

 

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is housed in the former cow barn, and what used to be the dairy is now the bar. The main dining room seats 88 and has outdoor seating for 48. Visual reminders of where dinner comes from are all around. Visitors pass the fields of grazing livestock and park in view of the greenhouse. Directly outside the dining room is a carefully planted herb garden, and from inside, the vegetable fields can be seen in the distance.

 

The main dining room has Venetian-style, hand-applied plaster walls. The stone beams are intact and the old pine flooring has been restored. A converted garage is now the caf¨¦, which sits across the courtyard from a hay barn that serves as the education center. The old storage silo has been transformed into the coat check room, and the root cellar also serves as the wine cellar. The new kitchen, a chef¡¯s dream ¡ªand far cry from Barber¡¯s first, with its single four-burner stove ¡ª consists of separate meat, pastry, vegetable, and garde mange stations. There are a series of ¡°walk-ins,¡± including a meat locker for aging and storing beef, and a dairy and pastry area. A door from the ¡°pre-prep¡± room leads to the herb garden. Large compost containers stand at every station, a constant reminder that, as Craig Haney points out: ¡°This is based on farm to table and back to the farm.¡±

 

In the kitchen, Barber has assembled a diverse group of people. Some ¡ª including Alfonso Zhicay, who manages the caf¨¦ and is also the head catering chef, and Joel de la Cruz, one of the pastry chefs ¡ª have worked with Barber for years; others are more recent additions to the Blue Hill family. All share an enthusiasm that suggests that cooking and working in this kitchen is truly more a calling than a job.

 

Barber himself divides his time between the New York and Pocantico Hills kitchens. The executive chef working full time at Stone Barns is Mike Anthony, who trained in Japan and has known Barber since the two met in Paris in 1994. ¡°I heard about this project three years ago,¡± Anthony says, ¡°and it¡¯s a dream, but it is also rather intimidating. There¡¯s a huge responsibility to live up to everything that has been put in front of us.¡± ¡ö

 

The new Rockefeller Estate Life Tour, offered by Historic Hudson Valley, includes a visit to the house and gardens at Kykuit as well as the Stone Barns. For more information, call 914-631-9491 or visit www.hudsonvalley.org.

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