In Pursuit of Flavor, Better Treatment of Animals and Land

A New York chef speculates that producing food responsibly makes it taste better.

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Whether you're an omnivore, a vegan, a meat lover, vegetarian, or something else (I'm what I call a fake vegetarian, since I eat fish but no other meat), there are certain principles we can all probably agree on: It's wonderful to have a good, flavorful meal with friends or family. Animals used for food should be treated (and killed) humanely. And it's wise to keep an eye on the impact our food choices have on the ecosystem.

I heard those principles come together this week, when I went to New York University to hear the chef and restaurateur Dan Barber speak to the Experimental Cuisine Collective. Barber is the co-owner of Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan as well as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located about 30 minutes from the city in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. For all the background on Barber, check out this profile from Men's Vogue. (The short version is that Barber's for-profit Blue Hill at Stone Barns, sits on the grounds of what used to be the Rockefeller estate, which is also home to the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a separate nonprofit venture devoted to sustainable agriculture.)

Barber said he's using a new test kitchen to test a hypothesis about food: that "there's a direct connection between pursuing the best flavor and animal welfare" and between flavor and what's best for the land. To that end, he's set his "vegetable guy," Jack Algiere, and his "livestock guy," Craig Haney, the task of experimenting with ingredients in the field the way a chef would experiment in the kitchen. Already they've discovered some things. Want better-tasting eggs? Let the chickens roam out of the coop and peck at a field after the sheep have grazed, giving them access to various grasses, bugs, and manure. Want sweeter greens in the dead of summer? Filter out some of the UV rays in the greenhouse to reduce the bitterness. More flavorful pork? Add some whey to the pigs' diet, make sure they don't eat too much grain, and don't confine them, Barber has found. To be kind to the Earth—and improve diners' experience—he has planted corn the way the American Indians used to, alongside beans and winter squash. The polenta he grinds from the dried corn is far more flavorful than the off-the-shelf kind, he said.

One far-flung example of the animal welfare-land-flavor connection is found in Spain: There, one producer of foie gras says he eschews the customary force-feeding of geese. Instead, taking advantage of the landscape, he says he allows them to graze the land and eat all the figs, olives, and grass they want, taking advantage of their natural inclination to stuff themselves before their migration south for the winter. "It was the best foie gras of my life," said Barber, who doesn't serve foie gras in his restaurants because of humaneness concerns. (The New York Times had a great article last year on the long-running controversy over foie gras.)

The experiment, he said, will continue, using both the latest agricultural technology and traditional animal husbandry. "The best ecological decisions and the most humane decisions for the animals get the best flavor," he said. "My hope is to have white coats and overalls on the farm without anyone knowing which is which."

Would you pay more for food produced with an eye to animal welfare and sustainability? How much more?