Blue Hill at Stone Barns: Behind the Scenes

Exploring one of the world's most revered and original restaurants.


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Photographs by Andre Baranowski

There’s nothing else like Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Not in Westchester, not in the country, not in the world. The restaurant has garnered a dizzying number of accolades: It skyrocketed to the No. 11 spot on the World’s 50 Best List in April, was named the Best Restaurant in America by Eater, boasts multiple James Beard Awards and an “Excellent” rating from the New York Times. It’s helmed by an award-winning farm-advocate chef who actually cooks in the kitchen most nights and is situated in the center of 80 acres of nonprofit farmland as part of the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. It also carries historic Rockefeller cachet and a $258-per-person price tag.

But what all these superlatives don’t explain is what it means to actually be there. That first moment — when you turn from the tree-and-farm-lined road into the main drive, where the stone barns rise up, flanked on all sides by fields of summer vegetables, patches of sunflowers, and lambs grazing on pastures — isn’t fully realized by any awards. An esteemed ranking doesn’t convey that a sugar-snap-pea cocktail, sipped in a high-backed leather chair at the bar, tastes like summer in a pale-green glass. Nor do they express how servers in custom-cut smocks and chefs in their aprons bustle through the dining room, carrying artfully arranged produce from the farm, escorting cuts of meat in copper braziers out to the grill and wheeling a cart with a drink dispenser of corn-cob lemonade from table to table. No number of stars will make you understand how satisfying it is to eat with your hands, choosing a sliver of experimental cucumber from a piece of glazed-stone serveware to drag through a pool of milky yogurt strewn with edible flowers.

Clockwise from left: A handful of beets pulled from one of the Stone Barns Center’s fields at the height of summer; everything grown on the farm starts with healthy soil, without added chemical fertilizers or pesticides; the 22,000 sq ft, in-ground greenhouse allows for four-season growing.

The Pocantico Hills restaurant doesn’t bask in the glory of its own acclaim. Instead, it continues to look outward, asking important questions about food and farming in America. It is these types of questions — What if we could create a way of eating that supported small-scale agriculture, with healthful farming practices, and it led to better-tasting food? What if you could get a chicken to lay an egg with a red yolk, and it wouldn’t just look cool but would also be the opening line of a conversation about what chickens eat? What if we could get customers to truly engage with the food in front of them? What if a restaurant could make people think differently about food, even if it were only for a few hours each night? — that make Blue Hill not just one of the most interesting places to eat but also one of the most important. The questions are also what define Blue Hill’s cuisine, pushing it beyond the conventional farm-centric boundaries that have become so common, to discover new flavors and a new mindset for achieving excellence. It’s a style of dining that’s meant to be thought-provoking, so that over a four-hour, menu-less meal of roughly 25-plus courses, diners will find both questions and answers of their own.   

 

What if We Could Change the American Food System

Farm Director Jack Algiere

Dish No. 1: Vegetables on the Fence
Seasonal vegetables from the farm, lightly seasoned.

The amuse-bouches come out of the kitchen rapid-fire. First are seasonal vegetables — sugary-sweet husk cherries, crisp baby bok choy, tiny lettuces, cherry tomatoes on the vine, and snack-sized peppers — standing upright on little spikes. Next comes kohlrabi presented on a cake stand with plum and nasturtium purées. Diners forage for mushroom-sumac tarts under a canopy of leaves and use sticky fingers to enjoy jammy roasted nectarines sprinkled at the table with seeds from the dried stem of a poppy.

Many of the ingredients draw your attention to the surrounding farm, and that’s important because, in many ways, its partnership with Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture is at the core of what Blue Hill is. This is true not just because the Center rents the restaurant space to co-owners Dan, David, and Laureen Barber (Dan, who is the chef, and David are brothers, while David’s wife, Laureen, serves as design director), but because the extensive collaboration allows both entities to delve deeply into issues regarding food and farming in America. “We talk about changing the way America eats and farms,” says Stone Barns Center CEO Jill Isenbarger. “How do we create healthy soils? How do we farm in a way that is replenishing the place we are in? In order to do that, people have to eat the kinds of things farmers have to grow to get healthy soil.”

Getting someone to care about soil health as they sit down to dinner seems like a hard sell. No one asks a server for a soil analysis of the vegetables in their salad. And yet, increasingly, diners are interested in sustainability, in organically grown produce, and in pesticide- and antibiotic-free foods — all of which are only possible if the food system prioritizes what a farmer needs to grow for soil health over consumer demand.

Compounding the issue, farming remains an extremely challenging profession. The average age of the American farmer is 58.5, and, despite mainstream interest in eating locally, Big Agro has only gotten bigger over the last decade. Founded as a nonprofit on land donated by the Rockefeller family in 2003, the Stone Barns Center looks for ways to help small- and mid-size farms succeed through regenerative farming practices emphasizing the importance of diversity and crop rotations. “Stone Barns is a place to reestablish a relationship with the food system,” says farm director Jack Algiere. “The more informed we are, the more enjoyable food becomes.”

Clockwise from above: Loaves of chocolate-cherry bread being shaped at the new on-site bakery; Blue Hill pickles and preserves throughout the year, making dining here in winter a dynamic experience.

On the 80-acre farm, a team of 19 farmers and apprentices manage an ecosystem of more than 500 plants and animals, including experimental trial varieties like the sunset-hued Badger Flame Beet. “Beets, if you eat them raw, have a compound that makes your throat very scratchy,” explains senior programs manager Jessica Lutz, during a farm tour. “Can you have a raw snacking beet without that scratchy feeling? That’s what's being grown here.” The idea is to open up a new market for beet consumption. “Right now, beets feel like this inconvenient thing that take an hour to roast,” adds Erica Helms, director of strategy. “If you can make them easier to eat and quicker to prepare, would more people include beets in their diets?”

 

What if a Chef Approached Food Like a Farmer?

Dish No. 28: Barber Wheat Bread and Single Udder Butter
100% whole-wheat bread made with a variety of wheat — bred for Blue Hill — served with two butters from Blue Hill Farm, each made with milk from a single cow.

When the Stone Barns Center began looking for a restaurant partner in 2000, the Barbers were uniquely suited to the project. The family owned Blue Hill Farm, a dairy farm in the Berkshires that had belonged to Dan and David’s grandmother and where the brothers spent many of their summers and weekends growing up. They’d also seen firsthand the challenges facing small farms. “As agricultural policies changed, and big farming became the wave of the future, farming on the East Coast was really decimated,” says David. “I was curious about those issues and why it happened.” In 2001, David Rockefeller approached the Barbers — who were running a farm-centric restaurant in Greenwich Village named for Blue Hill farm — to pitch a restaurant concept for the Stone Barns space. “We didn’t put much faith in the idea we would actually get it,” recalls David Barber. “They wanted something for the region, something that had public good associated with it and a program that justified that kind of philanthropic investment. We pitched our view of how that would look, and, in the end, they picked us.”

By 2005, roughly a year after Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ doors swung open, the restaurant was gaining traction by going outside farm-to-table’s usual fruit-and-vegetable confines to focus on locally grown wheat from Klaas Martens’ Lakeview Organic Grain farm in Penn Yan, NY. “We were milling it and making this incredible bread, and I went up to [Klaas’] farm, to essentially tell the farm-to-table story,” says Dan, who was working on his book, The Third Plate, at the time. What he found at Martens’ farm was that the nearly 2,000 acres weren’t planted with wheat but with less-coveted crops, like buckwheat, rye, barley, clover, and cowpeas. “What I realized at that moment was that he was rotating all these crops to get the soil ready for the wheat. It struck me that here I was, a farm-to-table chef celebrated for talking about local wheat, but I wasn’t talking about 95 percent of the crops that he was [growing] in the rotation for the soil to make that wheat taste as good as it did. That was an important lesson for me.”

Chefs perform farm chores in a field at the Stone Barns Center.

 

What if the Farm Determined the Cuisine?

Dish No. 15: Sunflower Marrow with Sunflower Pancake, Tempura Petals and Immature Sunflower Seeds

In early August, it seems like squash in every shape and size is what’s coming off the farm. Long-necked tromboncino cured in beef tallow are seared and served like sliced steak; dime-sized rounds of yellow and green zucchini shingle across the top of a cracker-like pizza spread with zucchini marmalade, and a snacking varietal called tonda is served raw with smoky speck. Although all of these dishes come from the farm, Blue Hill is not a farm-to-table restaurant. “Farm-to-table is too passive,” says Dan. “It treats the farm like you would a supermarket. I want some zucchini, some eggplant, and some tomatoes, and I can go home and say, ‘I’m a farm-to-table chef.’” But what about the rest of the farm? What about the cowpeas and buckwheat Martens has to grow for his wheat? What about the other plants that Stone Barns rotates in, to prepare the soil to grow those Vegetables on the Fence?

The answer is what Blue Hill calls farm-driven cuisine. The idea is to look at the farm in the same way whole-animal butchery looks at nose-to-tail eating. Just as there’s an obligation to eat organ meat if you also want to enjoy prime rib, consumers need to eat everything a farm produces, not just the tomatoes and squash. “Isn’t it our responsibility to use it?” asks Dan. “The job of the chef is to create something delicious out of what is immediately not coveted.”

In another nearby field, tall sunflowers — planted as a rotation crop and as a natural deterrent to weeds — sway gently in the breeze. Other restaurants might pick them to decorate the dining room or to harvest the seeds, but not Blue Hill. “It’s wasted space if you’re not eating it,” says Dan. “You could sell the flower, but there’s no market for the stalk, and the stalk is like 70 percent of the plant. That got us thinking: Is there a use for the stalk?

Turns out there is. Certain varieties of sunflowers have meat inside the stalk. Cooked and puréed, the resulting “marrow” is silky and rich, with a mild vegetal flavor that’s akin to artichokes. To riff on bone marrow, hollowed-out stalks are presented in a traditional vice. “Can we create a revenue stream for the farmer to grow the right crops? That’s what it comes down to,” explains Dan. “If we can create a culinary value off of the sunflower stalk, that means more revenue for the farmer and these new, delicious flavors for us.”

Similar experiments are done with zucchini vines, using a varietal bred to have sweet, tender vines in addition to good squash. The vines, which account for the bulk of the plant, are cut into short lengths that resemble penne and are cooked like pasta, then dressed with a ragù of pork and Bolognese squash.

To make an impact for farmers, however, people need to cook with sunflower stalks and zucchini vines at home. It sounds like a stretch until you consider that gluten-free alternatives are big business right now. Home cooks buy spiralizers to turn zucchini into pasta, and cauliflower rice is so popular that some Trader Joe’s locations in New York and Connecticut have to ration sales. Why shouldn’t zucchini vines be next? “For me, that’s a very exciting thing about American food culture,” says Dan. “We adopt things with a kind of dizzying speed and in a way that other cultures don’t.”

 

What’s for dinner?

Each night, Blue Hill serves a different meal to each table. Here’s just some of what we had.

What if We Could Make Fine Dining Approachable?

Dish No. 20: Squash That Wants to Be an Avocado
A riff on guacamole and chips: minced zucchini with cilantro and seasonings, served in an avocado-shaped squash with levain crackers

How do you get people excited about sunflower marrow and zucchini vines? Presentation can be the first step to piquing a diner’s interest, and the serveware at Blue Hill is often unexpected. A single baby fennel with dramatically long, wispy fronds is offered in a vase like a flower; a mound of hay conceals cheddar breadsticks, waiting to be discovered like needles in haystacks; and a creamy minced zucchini is disguised as an avocado. For the first dozen-or-so courses, there are no utensils. “We’re a fine-dining restaurant, but we still want to be approachable,” says co-owner and design director Laureen Barber. “Dan felt really strongly that [people use their hands] and that those senses should be incorporated. It adds a fun element and breaks down barriers.”

To reinvigorate diners after a couple hours in one spot, captains take guests on “field trips,” to enjoy a few courses in another area of the restaurant. Perhaps a trip to the manure shed (it’s been turned into a romantic space, with a farm table, candles, and greenery) or a stop in the kitchen to observe the hustle and bustle of service. Maybe guests are taken out to the patio to stretch their legs, with casual beet-and-pork hot dogs by the grill. Where and when you’ll go — just like what you’ll eat on any given night — is individualized to your table. “Each table is designed on the fly, based on a conversation between the captain and the guest,” says David. “Grandma visiting from the Midwest may not be so interested in the wild parts of the animal, but hipsters from Brooklyn who have been reading about this place for three months? If we don’t feed them offal, then we’re totally full of s**t.”

There’s also an emphasis on bringing the outside in. “Unfortunately, for a big part of the year, it’s dark when people come to eat,” explains Laureen. “They’re coming to this spectacular place, and there’s definitely a desire to experience the farm.” So the staff brings bits of the farm into the dining room. Servers might lay a couple squash on your table, as a preview of what’s to come, or bring a seven-foot-tall sunflower to the table with your marrow. “One hundred percent of the time, if you’re in the dining room, you’re going to see a server with something that came from the farm, and they’re going to share it with the diner,” says Laureen. “We’re going to create an event,” promises Dan. “Can we give you an experience that has a value beyond just the gastronomic?”

A summer cocktail made with sugar-snap peas; Chef de Cuisine Bastien Guillochon and a captain write a progression of dishes for a table.

 

What if Chefs did more than just cook?

Dish No. 16: Green Garden Gazpacho
Chilled soup of green vegetables from the fields, finished with yogurt sorbet

Both the kitchen and front-of-house staff are disproportionately large for a restaurant of Blue Hill’s size. While it gives the kitchen the luxury to experiment with new flavors and ideas, it also gives chefs and cooks the ability to spend time on the farm — and in the dining room. Every week, members of the 25-strong kitchen staff get their hands dirty with farm chores, whether it’s joining Jack Algiere on a wheat harvest, checking in with the waste-fed pigs or visiting other local farms. On Thursdays, chefs, farmers, and servers attend an all-farm family meal, featuring guest speakers ranging from food-policy writers, like Marion Nestle, to visiting chefs, like Rick Bayless. It’s a good job perk, but it also pays off in interactions with guests. “This is a unique laboratory of the future of food in an absolutely gorgeous setting,” says Philippe Gouze, the director of operations. “I think there is an ingenuity and excitement that comes from chefs that is very hard to emulate, even from the best waitstaff.”

In a chefs’ meeting, Dan echoes that sentiment, encouraging the cooks to take a dish like green gazpacho — a blend of summer cucumbers, zucchini, and green peppers — and make it their own. “It’s not about making something nice; it’s about making something personal. Why are we doing this green-garden thing in the summer? Why am I excited about this? How can we get you to taste a gazpacho in a different way that is maybe revealing and memorable?”

 

What if We Could Make a Lasting Impact?

Dish No. 32: Chocolate Bread
Whole-wheat sourdough with cocoa powder, cherries, and honey, served warm

After a spread of crisp milk crêpes and macerated stone fruits, a slice of bread — albeit one that tastes like a rich brownie — rounds out the meal. Along with the taste of chocolate, what else lingers after dinner?

“I just want people to say that it was an unbelievable time,” says Dan. “The next morning, I’d love them to still be thinking about it, trying to replicate it in their own homes or asking for it in other restaurants.” As for the awards and recognition, they’re important, largely because they recognize the people who make this experience possible: the staff. “I don’t think we set out to be the number-one restaurant,” explains Dan. “We just keep pushing ourselves with this curiosity about what’s possible.”

Co-owners David and Laureen Barber outside the manure shed.

Does the message resonate? Knowing for sure — and seeing change in our food system — is something that will take decades, or even generations, if it happens at all. In the meantime, it’s clear that people are interested in hearing the message, proven not just by how hard it can be to get a reservation but by the 60,000 people who visit the Stone Barns Center every year. “We’ve seen farmers’ markets grow, and sales of organic food have doubled over the past decade,” says Isenbarger. “But the truly deep cultural change… I think we are just at the beginning.”

At the very least, diners go home after a meal at Blue Hill a bit more informed than they were before. “I think people leave with a sense of what the Hudson Valley is about at any given time of year,” says David, “and they can decide if they want to eat that way every day, once in a while, or never.” Nearly 14 years after opening, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, with Blue Hill nationally recognized as both an award-winning restaurant and an institution of cultural significance. “We have achieved more success for the restaurant than I ever could have imagined,” says David. “Every day at five o’clock, when the curtain goes up, all that stuff is on the line.”   

 

The dining room, housed in a former dairy barn, was designed to feel warm and comfortable.

A Perspective on Price

We asked Chef and co-owner Dan Barber to share his point of view on the $258-per-person price tag.

“I think about it a lot. It’s a really substantial amount of money for a meal. If you look back at social movements — women’s suffrage, the environmental movement — they all started with the elite. The idea that these high ideals start from the bottom up is nice, but I don’t see it in American history. If any of our ideas are successful and end up becoming mainstream, then that’s probably the best defense. [From the diner’s perspective], we’re going to create an event. Spend $200 on a ticket to the theater with dinner, and you end up spending the same thing on a meal at Blue Hill.”

Chef and co-owner Dan Barber preps mushrooms at the beginning of Friday night’s dinner service.

 

By the Numbers

$258  Per-person cost of dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

60,000  Visitors at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture each year

43  Seed varietals trialed at Stone Barns Center in 2016

25  Approximate number of dishes served to each diner as part of the menu-less tasting menu, Blue Hill’s only dining option

24,142  Number of guests who dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2016 (excludes events)

8  Farm apprentices currently training at the Stone Barns Center, for careers in sustainable agriculture

500+  Crops in Stone Barns Center’s catalog

100%  Whole grains, milled on-site, make up all of the breads baked at the bakery.

2  Months in advance it’s recommended to make a reservation

250  Farmers expected to attend Stone Barns Center’s 10th Annual Young Farmers Conference this December

 

A Taste of the Stone Barns Center

Curious about what’s happening on the farm? Here’s how to find out more.

Whether you’re dining at Blue Hill or not, the Stone Barns Center is worth a trip. The 45-minute Getting Grounded tour (it’s free!) gives an introductory overview of what’s happening at the Center, while the intensive Insider’s Tour, often led by a member of the Stone Barns staff, delves deeply into everything from soil health to livestock. Make a point to stop at the Grain Bar for a casual bite (the 100% whole-wheat croissant, with its sweet, nutty flavor, is a revelation), or pick up some produce from the Farm Store. 

Note: weekend visits require admission, though free passes can be found at many Westchester County libraries. For more information on tours and passes, visit www.stonebarnscenter.org 

 

Awards and Accolades

It’s not just Yelpers who are raving: Blue Hill and the Stone Barns Center generate some serious industry buzz, too.

• No. 11 on the World’s 50 Best List, 2017

• James Beard Award for Outstanding Service, 2017

• Stone Barns Center CEO Jill Isenbarger (right) named to Food Tank’s list of Inspirational Women in Food and Agriculture, 2017

• Wine Spectator Grand Award Winner since 2016

• Eater’s “Best Restaurant in America,” 2016

• James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant, 2015

• James Beard Award for Writing and Literature for The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber, 2015

• Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Champion Award  to the Stone Barns Center, 2015

• Excellent Rating from the New York Times, 2014

 

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