Note: The Starchefs ICC has grown over the years such that it is impossible for one or two people to cover everything in detail. As such, I will rummage through the notes and photos that I and my son, L.J. took during various presentations and present them as completely as possible, posting them in no particular order. I will do as many as I can over the next few months until I give up! The first one will be on Chef Dan Barber's Day Two presentation "A Recipe for the Recipe: Concept Building at Blue Hill." Though I will not be using quotes, the description below is a very close approximation of Chef Barber's words, thanks to the transcription skills of my son.
Blue Hill Stone Barns is about 35 miles from NYC. We raise pigs, sheep, chickens, geese, turkeys, honeybees, sometimes rabbits and ducks, and we have an education center that teaches children and adults about farming and agriculture. We have a cafe and a restaurant that buys everything at a fair market value. It also grows lots of vegetables. You come in here thinking this is going to be a farm to table talk about the pleasures of an heirloom tomato or a well-grown carrot, but that isn't this talk That story has been told many, many times. How many of you have read about a restaurant that's opening that focuses on market-driven menus? That's a terrific thing and there could be more of it but today we're going to talk about moving beyond that. While we're at it, we're going to try to talk about reconciling the divide between the farm-to-table chef and molecular gastronomy. Either you pray at the mantle of the farmers market or you are dedicated to all these molecular chemicals. It's a false divide, but the best of those molecular gastronomists do it in pursuit of flavor. Their transformations and experimentations lead us to understand food in a different way. What I'd like to talk about is doing those transformations/experimentations before you get into the kitchen. What I mean is you take a braised belly of lamb and instead of looking at a menu that looks at transforming that lamb into a delicious piece of meat, you think about growing that lamb from the ground up. We become participants in writing a recipe for flavor. Is there such a thing as a recipe for flavor? I think so, whether we're talking about a baby lamb or baby carrots.
A few loose categories: genetics, soil and diet (that what you're eating was eating), environment (things we can control) and technique (that happens in the field as well as in the kitchen). We're going to write a recipe using these four categories for 3 ingredients. 1: charcuterie pigs (speck), 2: tomatoes, 3: celtuse.
Charcuterie Pigs/cured meats: this is something that chefs hgave been working on for thousands of years. As we all know a really terrific cured piece of meat, done in the right way is phenomenal. Is there a way to affect that flavor before the meat gets into the kitchen? We'll look at it through the 4 categories.
Genetics: we raise 100% Berkshire pigs – not the best genetics, but they are very good. Raised for a variety of reasons – productivity, suitable to ecology, great fat distribution throughout the animal. It's been bred for that. We try to follow each pig from the moment it's born all the way to the kitchen – what it's eating, what it's health conditions are, the conditions of its family. We weigh that info with information that we get when we butcher the pig. Looking at color, texture and ultimately flavor. The best of the pigs, we track that back to the mothers so that they are not slaughtered for charcuterie and live to breed again. this type of selection improves flavor greatly, and has over the past 7 years since they've opened.
Diet: The pigs need grass, it's just as important as the acorns because on the way to the acorns the pigs are eating the grass. Scientists are now discovering that you cant just take a pig out of this environment and just stuff it with acorns and still expect to get jamon iberico. The grass stimulates appetite and it stimulates fat distribution.
Environment: We have 80 acres and about 40-45 acres is in forest- we need to better learn how to use the forest. So far we've taken the forest and thinned out the trees to let in sunlight, and we've taken the floor and planted our own buffet for the pigs so that instead of being trapped in the forest ecology they also have the benefits of a manicured pastureland. That's controlling the environment with a degree of respect.
Soil: What do we do with the trees that we've cut? We've launched a sizeable charcoal business out of them. We grill on this free fuel. We make something called biochar out of pulverized charcoal (after they've burned it) which serves as a natural amendment to the soil. It's a wonder supplement, inspired by the terra preta in Brazil, a sort of bicycle lane of great soil, whereas Brazil generally has poor soil for agricultural production. Nobody could figure out why this strip was so productive until the 70s. the theory goes that the Amazonians discovered this amendment 2000 years ago and made the biochar and planted it into the earth. Now, the terra preta is one of the most productive plots of land in the world. It's important to put the natural biochar underneath the top soil to allow the roots to get the best of it. It also helps to grow the vegetables 10-15% faster and makes them more flavorful – a lot of money over time.
Back to pig diet – we make this buffet of grasses for the pigs, and then they are let loose to go to town on the forest. It makes for happier pigs and better charcuterie because of the diversity of diet. You cannot take the jamon iberico out of its natural environment and have it taste like it should, but we're doing our best. We take ultrasounds across the rim of a pig and figure out the fat distribution before it comes into the kitchen! This prediction ability is an amazing opportunity not just for pigs – it allows us to know before the slaughter what the fat distribution of that pig or animal is. This allows us to prevent the animal's slaughter in favor of breeding, and also allows us to adjust its diet and environment in case the distribution is not satisfactory.
What about pig bones? The charcoal guy got an idea from the charcoal, and he carbonized the pig bones to make pig charcoal, and then did the same with corn, and then with lamb skulls, etc. What we're trying to do now is create a recipe for charcoal making so that we can perfect the technique and get actual flavor from the bones – in cooking pork shoulder over pork charcoal, you are able to infuse your pig with pig; or your corn with corn – all of this is post-sauce broth/sauce making, so that you get all of those benefits and then you carbonize.
Our first dish today is a squash that we grow out on the farm, wrapped in a strudel which is made with a drying corn called 8-row flint corn which we then smoked over corn biochar. So it should have a smokey flavor in the strudel, we have the cured speck, and a sauce made with those bones before they're biocharred, and the sauce is essentially a charcuterie sauce.
Amazing tomatoes – the credit lies not with the heirlooms but with the scientists at the land-grant university. The most important part of these universities are the genetics programs. These geneticists are men and women who totally feel the love of the environmental movement, and their interest is in food and flavor. The problem is that nobody is interested in supporting them EXCEPT for big agribusiness. These great geneticists who are foodies who come to the restaurant looking for new flavors and new experiences have literally new varieties of tomatoes in their desk drawers. Most of these people are waiting to retire, and these genetic traits are on their way to the garbage. At Stone Barns we've been lucky enough to link up with one of these geneticists at Cornell and have been given the opportunity to grow more than 10 different strains of tomatoes – with no names! These are grown for flavor, not yield – a lot of them we love. These work in ways that heirloom tomatoes don't even approach – agribusiness is not concerned with flavor, they're concerned with how long the tomato will last in a trip across the country.
We make high-quality compost, we have invested in this machine called the sandburger which makes sure that the soil is cooking at the proper temperature. It's important because if you allow the compost soil to heat above 170 deg then you start killing good bacteria. Anything below 142 deg according to the FDA then you start having bad bacteria, so instead of over-heating it you manage to hit the sweet spot and get the good biology of the soil. The difference in flavor is enormous – it is the difference b/w an heirloom tomato and a supermarket tomato – it's that big. OUR GREENHOUSES ALLOW US TO EXTEND THE SEASON – we can go into mid-october and still get great, sweet tomatoes because of this cheap plastic equipment. We can also get them early. We harvest our tomatoes with a refractometer – what about measuring ppb of sugar in the field? Why do it in the field? I'd like science to give a more accurate prediction of what we're going to taste when it comes in the kitchen. Basically we're picking the vegetables based on a number that the brix is giving us. We have a history of 9, 9.1, 9.2 and we know then that it's time for harvest – if we-ve got 8.5, 8.6 then we leave our vegetables on the plant. It's a way of modernizing our technique, just the same as the molecular gastronomists do in the kitchen, except it's out in the field. Here's an unnamed variety of tomato from a Cornell geneticist. I don't know how to tell you what is the best tomato. I just know that if we keep working with this geneticist then we will be able to achieve a far superior tomato within just a few years.
Celtuse: we talked about this before, and we're increasingly excited about it.
Genetics: it's very hard to get celtuse seeds that will reproduce in our area. The stuff that's being passed around is what's been selected over years – we pick the best celtuse to go to seed instead of eating it, which allows us to naturally select and regionalize celtuse so that it becomes better every year. The energy of the breakdown of the vegetables heats the water, giving us free heat. In breaking down the vegetables and heating the water, it keeps our seedlings warm (in the greenhouse) before we put them out into the soil. What do these hazelnut guys do after they press the nut refuse for oil? The president of this company is now sending us this hazelnut pulp so our farmers have been experimenting with putting the pulp with the celtuse. What we get is hazelnut celtuse – I'm not saying it's a blatant flavor, but if you crack it open and want to smell the hazelnut, you'll be able to smell it. You are in our little experiment, right now (bundles of celtuse were passed around the audience.
What is the role of the chef in all of this? This divide is not good for the industry, because it makes us choose between who's going to be the mad scientist and who's going to be the faithful traditionalist. I want to take that transformation and experimentation and put it into the field. Maybe there's a new way to look at this collaboration in the future. A good portion of what you've just looked at was started with farmers at the farmers' market, so it's not just because this farm is outside our front door. In fact, the farm doesn't even belong to us – it's all about collaboration and when you can take advantage of it.