Chef Dan Barber is a man on a mission

Cancer led him to the kitchen. Now he aims to save the rest of us — and the planet too
Chef Dan Barber
Chef Dan Barber in the kitchen Photo courtesy of Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Chef Dan Barber has a straightforward reason for accepting an invitation to speak at a cancer center fundraising dinner.

“I’m a cancer survivor,” he said. “I have a stake in the game here.”

In fact, it was after surviving testicular cancer at 24 that Barber decided to become, ­as he puts it, ­a cook. He was driven in part by questions many cancer patients ask: What caused his cells to go rogue? Was diet involved? Could he keep it from happening again?

The James Beard Award-winning executive chef and co-owner of New York’s two renowned Blue Hill restaurants will give the keynote talk Sunday at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s sold-out Premier Chefs Dinner. The annual fundraiser, which brings together Northwest celebrity chefs and wineries, has raised more than $6.7 million to support cancer research at the Hutch during the past 24 years.

But do not expect the man who has been called “the moral compass of the restaurant industry” to talk about his own cancer story or of the other ways the disease has shaped his life, stealing his mother (breast cancer) when he was just 4 years old and his father (bladder cancer) four years ago.

Barber, now 46, is a man on a mission, and his mission is to change how we eat for our own health and for the health of the planet, which he sees as intertwined. This is the subject of his 2014 book, “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” and a message he’s preached in two popular TED talks, on a Netflix series and in op-eds in the New York Times and other major newspapers. It’s a belief he puts into practice at his restaurants in Greenwich Village and at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York.

“We’re never going to get to a place where our diets are consistently preventative of diet-related cancers if we don’t figure out a new relationship with plates of food ­— not single-bullet ingredients but a suite of ingredients and flavors that work in tandem with the landscape,” he said in a phone interview. “The landscape has to be healthy if we’re going to be healthy.”

A rocky path

The path from cancer to the kitchen was not an obvious one, at least for the kind of cancer Barber had. His search for why he developed testicular cancer yielded no answers, but at least diet —­ cooking and eating — ­ was something he could control and something that helps overall health.

“In a roundabout way, [cancer] made me think of prevention — ironically, because I’m a great example of intervention and the advances of intervention in medicine,” he said.

Barber was treated half his lifetime ago at Indiana University Simon Cancer Center by Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, the oncologist best known for curing cyclist Lance Armstrong of testicular cancer. Einhorn was the first to confirm the potential of the platinum-containing drug Cisplatin, turning what had been an almost universally fatal type of cancer into a curable one.

“Before he did it, [Cisplatin] was considered too toxic,” Barber said. “If you can withstand it — and as a young person, in relatively good shape, I did — that’s what cured the cancer.”

Before his diagnosis, he had dabbled in cooking. A native of New York’s Upper Eastside, he grew up spending time on his grandparents’ farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was an early tie to the farm part of the farm-to-table movement he would champion for a time, ­ a movement that is the second of the three plates in his book title. At Tufts University near Boston, he catered dinner parties with a friend while studying English and political science, graduating in 1992 with no clear idea what to do until “dealing with this cancer issue” lit a fire under him.

He put in stints at such career-shaping restaurants as Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and Nancy Silverton’s Campanile in Los Angeles. At Campanile, he failed so spectacularly at baking bread, he said, that Silverton fired him. Back in New York City, he graduated from the French Culinary Institute in 1994 and found his footing as a chef, but the restaurant where he worked went out of business.

Failure both taught him lessons and spurred him on — as the scientists in the audience Sunday will likely appreciate.

“Cooking is all about failures because you’re experimenting all the time,” he said. “It’s called the culinary arts, but it’s really the culinary sciences.”

In 2000, he teamed with his brother David to launch his biggest experiment yet: his own restaurant.

The scholar-chef

Blue Hill soared to fame with a farm-to-table focus on seasonal, regionally grown food prepared in innovative ways. Ferociously driven, Barber started racking up James Beard awards: Best Chef, New York City in 2006 and Outstanding Chef for the whole country in 2009. On at least one occasion, the Greenwich Village restaurant was the setting for a date night for President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.

But commercial success didn’t quell Barber’s drive to understand diet. Even as he opened a second restaurant at Stone Barns, a working Hudson Valley farm 30 miles north of Manhattan, the scholar-chef set out to research the healthiest diets in the world.

The seed for the project may have been planted by his dad, with whom he was very close. A terrible cook (his son recalls dry scrambled eggs that tasted as though they’d been on a buffet table for hours), the elder Barber was nonetheless a talented taster who introduced his two sons to a wide array of different cuisines and traditions. Barber credits this with sparking his interest in how different cultures “soak up their landscapes.”

The project took 10 years and led to a revelation ­— and a book —­ about ecological agriculture and its connection not only to flavor but to health. The notion that if something tastes good it must be bad for you, and vice versa, is “grossly mistaken,” Barber said.

“These two things are one and the same,” he said. “Never is there an example of a culture or a group that decided something had to be healthy. Agriculture was always the pursuit of delicious and what could be eked out of the landscape. That was the constraining factor.”

Unlike the dry, rocky Mediterranean region — the reigning rock star of the diet world — much of the United States has no constraining factor. And that, Barber concluded, was part of our problem.

‘The plate needs to change’

In Europe, people had to figure out how to farm an often hardscrabble landscape in a way that would provide for generations. But here, “You threw the seed into the ground and you got the loaves and fishes,” said Barber. “We farmed land that was incredibly abundant, and because of that abundance, it never forced us into the negotiation with the landscape.”

The obesity epidemic, he believes, is directly tied to that abundance.

“In no other culture is there 7 ounces of protein seven days a week,” he said. “That’s an American conception of dinner. If you did a chart comparing the rise of the obesity epidemic and the rise of certain cancers and the protein-centric concentration on the plate, you’ll see some real connections. The plate needs to change.”

His book describes the first plate as a 7-ounce, corn-fed steak with a baked potato and small salad — the classic American dinner for generations. The second plate was the farm-to-table version: Grass-fed steak and local, organic, heirloom vegetables.

But the trouble with farm-to-table, Barber came to believe, is that it’s not sustainable: there is not enough grass-fed steak and heirloom tomatoes to go around.

To find a sustainable “third plate,” Barber brought the table to the farm. Gone is the steak entirely except as a sauce or a flavoring because only so much beef can be raised on grass, so you have to stretch it to make it go farther. Vegetables rule, but not the types that require loading the soil with fertilizer. (Sorry, tomato lovers.) And we’re going to have to get used to eating food parts we typically discard — carrot leaves, cauliflower stems, organ meat  —  at least according to the man who once experimented with a pop-up restaurant that focused on eliminating food waste.

A mandate to speak out

Barber’s drive to grow what the land can support doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have a few experiments up his sleeve. Fertilizer and pesticides are out, but he’s been working, for example, with plant geneticists to breed better tasting and more nutritious crops.

One of them is Washington State University Mount Vernon’s Dr. Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and the director of The Bread Lab. The think tank/baking laboratory focuses on developing new varieties of wheat that favor taste and nutrition rather than blandness and yield. The man who once got fired for failing spectacularly at baking bread now has a wheat variety — Barber wheat — named after him.

Barber neither suggests — nor serves — a top-10 list of healthy things to eat. Instead, he emphasizes variety and innovation. His extensive research has taught him that just as there is no single healthy diet — Inuits who eat whale blubber are as healthy as the olive-oil-loving Mediterraneans — there is no single super food that is going to save us but rather a pattern of eating over a lifetime.

“Cancer takes a long time to develop, and the best way to affect its onset is through a lifetime of eating,” he said. “That’s why a chef should be talking about these issues.”

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Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.

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