TED Radio Hour: Dan Barber: Does Good Flavor Equal Sustainability? Chef Dan Barber chronicles his pursuit of a sustainable fish he could love and the foodie honeymoon he's enjoyed since discovering an outrageously delicious fish raised using a revolutionary farming method in Spain.
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Does Good Flavor Equal Sustainability?

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Does Good Flavor Equal Sustainability?

Does Good Flavor Equal Sustainability?

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.


UNIDENTIFIED RESTAURANT WORKERS: Here you go...very rare....two Kobi, one medium-well, one medium...one wheat ...

STEWART: At Blue Hill Restaurant in New York City, the food is fresh from nearby farms.


UNIDENTIFIED RESTAURANT WORKERS: You guys supposed to give me the two soup...one salad... one pasta, beef burger, spring salad...yes...

STEWART: It's a celebration of local agriculture. The menu is a bounty of organic vegetables and proteins.

DAN BARBER: My name is Dan Barber. I'm the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

STEWART: Dan is very conscious about the integrity of the ingredients that go into his dishes, which makes his story all the more interesting. We'll be talking to Dan in just a few minutes, but let's start with the beginning of his 2010 TED talk, where he made a peculiar confession.


BARBER: I've known a lot of fish in my life. I've loved only two. That first one was - it was more like a passionate affair. It was a beautiful fish - flavorful, textured, meaty. The best-seller on the menu; what a fish. Even better, it was farmed-raised to the supposed highest standards of sustainability. So you could feel good about selling it.

One day, the head of the company called and asked if I'd speak at an event about the farm sustainability. Absolutely, I said. Here was a company trying to solve what's become this unimaginable problem for us chefs. How do we keep fish on our menus? For the past 50 years, we've been fishing the seas like we clear-cut forest. It's hard to overstate the destruction.

Ninety percent of large fish - the ones we love; the tunas, the halibuts, the salmons, swordfish - they've collapsed. There's almost nothing left. So for better or for worse, aqua-culture, fish-farming, is going to be part of our future. A lot of arguments against it. Fish farms pollute - most of them do, anyway. And they're inefficient.

So here, finally, was a company trying to do it right. I wanted to support them.

STEWART: The day before the event, Dan put in a call to the company's PR person, to get some talking points. So he asked, what do you feed your fish? The answer: sustainable proteins.


BARBER: And that night, I was lying in bed and I thought, what the hell is a sustainable protein? )


BARBER: So the next day, just before the event, I called Don. I said Don, what are some examples of sustainable proteins? Said he didn't know; he would ask around. Well, I got on the phone with a few people in the company. No one could give me a straight answer. Until finally, I got on the phone with the head biologist. Let's call him Don, too.


BARBER: Don, I said, what are some examples of sustainable proteins? Well, he mentioned some algaes and some fishmeals, and then he said chicken pellets. I said, chicken pellets? He said, yeah, feathers, skin, bone meal, scraps dried and processed into feed. I said, what percentage of your feed is chicken? Thinking, you know, 2 percent. Oh, it's about 30 percent, he said.

I said, Don, what's sustainable about feeding chicken to fish?


BARBER: There was a long pause on the line and he said, there's just too much chicken in the world.


BARBER: OK, I fell out of love with this fish. No, not because I'm some self-righteous, goody-two-shoes foodie. I actually am. No, I fell out of love with this fish because I swear to God, after that conversation, the fish tasted like chicken.


STEWART: That's the big laugh line. And I can't let that last line go without asking, did it actually taste like chicken? Or was it - was the idea so disgustingly memorable that you...

BARBER: Yeah. That's the question.

STEWART: ...think you tasted chicken?

BARBER: Do we think we're tasting something, or actually tasting it? I - you know, I do remember the afternoon - the early evening that this happened. I mean, it was one moment where I had just had this conversation with Don and it was a very, very warm evening. And the kitchen was just sort of impossibly hot. And so I remember reaching over to where we prepare raw fish and there it was, on the board.

And I just remember, because of the heat, I was sweating terribly; all the cooks were sweating terribly; but it's sort of like the fish was sweating. And it just had this like, sliminess feel to it. And it was just - it was just a day after the conversation with Don, so I sliced it and put it in my mouth. And I was just like wow, I can never eat this again. And that was it. That was the end of my relationship with that fish, and with the company.

STEWART: After hearing this story, it made me think OK, Dan Barber is so knowledgeable about this. This is his business, he's passionate ...


STEWART: ... about this, he's an advocate, and even he ended up not making a good choice.


STEWART: So me and everybody else...

BARBER: No, I think you're exactly right.

STEWART: ...as a normal person...


STEWART: ...it's so overwhelming. Like, how am I supposed to - is it farm? Is it not? Do I tuna, dolphin, what?

BARBER: It's such a great question, because it's humbling, you know. Because I spend my life thinking about what my tomato's eating or what, you know, the lamb is eating, what the chicken's eating, I never thought about what the fish was being fed, which is just crazy.

But I think it's instructive in a larger sense, and I think you're right to zero in on it. Because what I learned from this lesson, if there's a sort of ultimate lesson in this whole story of Don and his company, is that we really - we, eaters, chefs - should really be guided by great flavor. Because when we're guided by great flavor, truly, truly great flavor, not what a company will tell you is great flavor, but truly deliciousness, you end up supporting the right kind of fish farming.

STEWART: We're here with chef Dan Barber, talking about his 2010 TED talk and we should remind listeners, this is a story about falling in love with two different fish. We just heard about the first. Now let's go back to your TED talk and hear about the second.


BARBER: The second fish... well, it's a different kind of love story. It's the romantic kind.

The kind where, the more you get to know your fish, you love the fish.

I first ate it at a restaurant in southern Spain. A journalist friend had been talking about this fish for a long time. She kind of set us up.


BARBER: OK. It came to the table a bright, almost shimmering, white color.

The chef had overcooked it, like twice over, OK? Amazingly, it was still delicious. Who can make a fish taste good after it's been overcooked? I can't, but this guy can. Let's call him Miguel. Actually, his name is Miguel.


BARBER: And no, he didn't cook the fish, and he's not a chef. At least, in the way that you and I understand it. He's a biologist at Veta La Palma. It's a fish farm in the south-western corner of Spain. It's at the tip of the Guadalquivir river.

Until the 1980s, the farm was in the hands of the Argentineans. They raised beef cattle on what was essentially wetlands. They did it by draining the land. They built this intricate series of canals and they pushed water off the land and out into the river. Well, they couldn't make it work. Not economically; and ecologically, it was a disaster. It killed, like, 90 percent of the birds which, for this place, is a lot of birds.

And so, in 1982, a Spanish company with an environmental conscience purchased the land. What did they do? They reversed the flow of water. They literally flipped the switch. Instead of pushing water out, they used the channels to pull water back in. They flooded the canals.

They created a 27,000 acre fish farm. Bass, mullet, shrimp, eel. And in the process, Miguel and this company completely reversed the ecological destruction.

STEWART: You went to visit Miguel on the farm and he gave you a tour and explained how it all works. Let's listen.


BARBER: ...had the night before. So I interrupted him and I said, Miguel, what makes your fish taste so good? He pointed at the algae. I know, dude, the algae, the fighter plankton, the relationships. It's amazing, right? But what are your fish eating? What's the feed conversion ratio?

Well, he goes on to tell me it's such a rich system that the fish are eating what they'd be eating in the wild - the plant biomass, the fighter plankton, the zooplankton. It's what feeds the fish. The system is so healthy, it's totally self-renewing. There is no feed.

Ever heard of a farm that doesn't feed its animals?

Later that day, I was driving around this property with Miguel and I asked him, I said, for a place that seems so natural, unlike any fish - unlike any farm I'd ever been at, you know, how do you measure success?

Well, at that moment, it's as if a film director called for a set change and we rounded the corner and saw the most amazing sight: thousands and thousands of pink flamingoes. A literal pink carpet for as far as you could see. That's success, he said. Look at their bellies - pink. They're feasting. Feasting.

I was totally confused. I said, Miguel, aren't they feasting on your fish?


BARBER: Yes, he said.


BARBER: We lose 20 percent of our fish and fish eggs to birds. Right, well, last year, this property had 600,000 birds on it. More than 250 different species. It's become today, the largest and one of the most important private bird sanctuaries in all of Europe.

I said, Miguel, isn't a thriving bird population, like, the last thing you want on a fish farm?


BARBER: He shook his head. No, he said. We farm extensively, not intensively. This is an ecological network. The flamingoes eat the shrimp, the shrimp eat the fighter plankton, so the pinker the belly, the better the system.

STEWART: Something I'm interested about Miguel's farm fishing career: Is this the way he's always done it, or did he arrive at this methodology because he was involved in farming, that he didn't like the practices?

BARBER: Yeah, no. He actually had never farmed fish before, which I was - I found that amazing. He was a researcher in Africa, in the Mikumi National Park...


BARBER: ...and he studied zebras and their mating practices for many, many, many years. I asked him what was your training in fish? And he said, I've never examined fish before. I knew nothing about fish. I am an expert on relationships. Because it's in the ecology, it's in the relationships that one produces the most delicious food and the most sustainable.

You know, that to me was the moment of clairvoyance in this whole thing. You're not raising fish. You're raising fish as part of an overall system of health. And without the overall ecological health of the farm, then the fish aren't going to be healthy. And that's why the flamingoes, which are really a predator to this whole system, are actually looked at as part of the health of the system.

And that's a whole different way of thinking about, really, everything that we as Americans think about. Which is, you know, intensity, efficiency. You know, nature's not efficient. It's quite inefficient and it's built that way in part because that's what gives it its resiliency and its ecological health, and we have to think about that if we really want great flavor for the future.

STEWART: There's one line from your TED talk, Dan, that keeps sticking out to me. Let's hear it.


BARBER: What we need now is a radically new conception of agriculture, one in which the food actually tastes good.

STEWART: What do you consider radical?

BARBER: Well, I would consider radical this idea of ecological thinking, that we can no longer afford an industrial application to farming, which is inputs in and what we want farmed out. Most of the food we eat is mired in that kind of mindset and that's quite unfortunate. We're seeing the unfortunate consequences on - effects on the environment.

I'm talking, and I think chefs are talking in general, about the effects on how food tastes, because it never has produced delicious food and it never will. So we need to move out of this industrial paradigm, this, again, inputs in and food out, and look more at this ecological, at the relationships between what makes food truly delicious.

And that's both very simple and quite radical, because it's radical in the sense that we have a long way to go and I think we need to look to people like Miguel to get there.


BARBER: We're not realists, us foodies. We're lovers. We love farmers' markets. We love small family farms. We talk about local food. We eat organic.

And when you suggest these are the things that will ensure the future of good food, someone somewhere stands up and says, hey guy, I love pink flamingoes, but how you going to feed the world? How are you going to feed the world?

Can I be honest? I don't love that question. No, not because we already produced enough calories to more than feed the world. One billion people will go hungry today. One billion. That's more than ever before. Because of gross inequalities in distribution, not tonnage.

Now, I don't love this question because it's determined the logic of our food system for the last 50 years. Feed grain to herbivores. Pesticides to mono-cultures. Chemicals to soil. Chicken to fish. And all along, agri-business has simply asked if we're feeding more people more cheaply, how terrible could that be?

That's been the motivation, it's been the justification. It's been the business plan of American agriculture. We should call it what it is - a business in liquidation. A business that's quickly eroding ecological capital that makes that very production possible. That's not a business and it isn't agriculture.

STEWART: Can agri-business and the kind of food production that you advocate, can they coexist?

BARBER: Yeah, I mean, can you have industrial size with the kind of sustainability practices of (unintelligible) and I think the answer is yes. I don't think that size is the determining factor. I think what's a determining factor is the mindset. You know, what's the mindset?

And that's why I think chefs play, and people who care about food, play such an important role here, because we can be arbiters for what the mindset should be. And the mindset, if you're really, truly after great food and not just cheap calories and bad nutrition; if you're after something that tastes good and that's good for us and that's good for the community, we can demand it through farmers like Miguel. And again, I think this is a much wider discussion than just fish. I think it applies to everything we eat.


BARBER: Our bread basket is threatened today, not because of diminishing supply, but because of diminishing resources. Not by the latest combine and tractor invention, but by fertile land. Not by pumps, but by fresh water. Not by chainsaws, but by forests; and not by fishing boats and nets, but by fish in the sea.

Want to feed the world? Let's start by asking how are we going to feed ourselves? Or better, how can we create conditions that enable every community to feed itself?

To do that, don't look at the agri-business model for the future. It's really old and it's tired. It's high on capital, chemistry and machines and it's never produced anything really good to eat.

Instead, let's look to the ecological model. That's the one that relies on two billion years of on-the-job experience. Look to Miguel, farmers like Miguel, farms that aren't worlds unto themselves. Farms that restore instead of deplete. Farms that farm extensively instead of just intensively. Farmers that are not just producers, but experts in relationships, 'cause they're the ones that are experts in flavor, too.

And if I'm going to be really honest, they're a better chef than I'll ever be. You know, I'm OK with that, because if that's the future of good food, it's going to be delicious. Thank you.

STEWART: Dan Barber. He's the executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. To find out more about Dan's farm and Miguel's fish farm in Spain, go to ted.npr.org. And you can watch dozens more TED talks about food, glorious food. Go to ted.com.

I'm Alison Stewart. You've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

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