I follow restaurants with the same passion and interest that many others bring to following their favorite sports teams. When my niece Camille, then a student at the Culinary Institute of America, landed an externship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, it felt--to further extend the sports analogy--like she had been 'called up to the majors'. I was bursting with pride in her and excitement for her. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is, after all, considered one of the top restaurants in the US. It is also one of the most innovative. It is this profound spirit of innovation that Camille takes particular note of here in her review of a recent visit. Chef Dan Barber is out to change the world--and he appears to be making elegant and delicious headway. Do not be alarmed however if some of the dishes below are not your idea of fine dining. The service and surroundings are as serene and sophisticated as the food experience is revolutionary. Quite simply, Blue Hill at Stone Barns guarantees to amaze and most of all to delight your palate and your senses as Camille amply details below...
A week and a half into my four month internship at Blue Hill at Stone Barns I called my parents, trying to hold my composure. But my voice broke and betrayed my anxiety; “I don't know if I can do this,” I told them. I was still in culinary school, and had chosen BHSB to fulfill the internship requirement that came halfway through the program. This was my first experience in a restaurant kitchen, having mainly worked in relaxed small-town bakeries before school, and I had put myself in one of the most challenging, demanding, and high caliber restaurants possible. I was convinced I was in way over my head, but I was determined to somehow not fail miserably in front of these experience-hardened cooks and chefs. They were all so inspiring to me, their work ethic, dedication, and joy that they approached every day at the restaurant with were like nothing I'd ever seen before and I was hooked.
BHSB is located on the grounds of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, an educational farm that acts as a kind of community center. Locals walk their dogs on winding trails, families grab sandwiches at the Cafe (also run by the Blue Hill team) and play in the courtyard, energetic groups of kids from visiting schools “bah” back at the sheep in the pasture and snake their way through the greenhouse before taking educational workshops. An invaluable learning environment that is now so distant and foreign to most, is free and available to all.
In the restaurant Dan Barber acts as teacher, continuing the educational journey, though his class, entitled the “Grazing, Pecking, and Rooting Menu”, costs $218. It is worth every penny to participate in the completely unique restaurant model that Barber has created, a dining experience that you are unlikely to have anywhere else in the world. However, the ten-seat bar also offers a three course menu for a reasonable $58. In your own “field and pasture journal,” each month is outlined with what is being harvested and planted in different areas of the farm, with space in the back for your own notes. This also serves as a guide to the focus of your meal and the ingredients that will comprise it. After a conversation with your server about any dietary restrictions, aversions, preferences, and how gastronomically adventurous you're willing to be, this information is delivered to the chefs in the kitchen from which they customize a meal for your table of roughly 25 or more courses. Dan Barber is likely to structure your meal himself; even with a young child and another restaurant in New York City he is in the kitchen of BHSB almost every night it's open, which can be a rare thing for chefs with as much celebrity as he has.
If you are feeling daring, you may find yourself eating skin from a chicken's foot so carefully removed as to remain whole, nails and all, then fried light and crispy, holding its form so well that it looks like a chicken is standing on your plate, the phantom body invisible to the eye. Or you might be surprised when your server takes the candle off your table and pours some of the melted contents into a small saucepot, gives it a stir and spoons it over your plate, declaring that it was actually beef tallow. This dish: a variety of raw and cooked mushrooms, various cuts of pig, a puree of huitlacoche (a fungal growth found on some corn that is a delicacy in Mexico), and romaine lettuce that wilts once the tallow sauce hits it, began at Barber's NYC pop-up WastED, where he created a menu comprised of restaurant byproducts.
Almost half of the courses you'll eat at BHSB will be with your hands. Interaction and discovery is what this experience is all about; breaking down the wall that stands between you and your food. Barber wants you to know what your food feels like as well as how it tastes. We cut tender brussels sprouts off their still attached stalk and dragged them through charcoal mayonnaise, licking our fingers in delight. We lifted branches off a plate to uncover stunning chestnut tarts sitting in spiky, unfurled shells, filled with a hickory nut cream from trees on the Stone Barns property and mounded with finely grated dried venison liver. We plucked tiny puffball mushrooms fried in a tempura bone char batter from their bed of moss and marveled at their marshmallow-like texture and deeply earthy flavor. Even once the need for silverware arises, each diner picks their own from small waxed canvas and leather knife rolls on the table containing a number of knives, forks, and spoons.
Meat is occasionally the focus of a dish at BHSB, like the simple and delicious fennel and pork salami, a product of their amazing charcuterie program run by Adam Kaye, the small link served whole on a cross-section of a tree trunk, a knife stuck point-down in the wood, an invitation to carve it and serve yourself. But more often, animal products are used to enhance and accent other ingredients. Unless you specifically request a meat entree course, you might not get one. Over the past few years Barber's interest and emphasis on sustainable agriculture has grown stronger, and today he is one of the most forward-thinking chef advocates in the discussion on the future of the American food system, which is the focus of his recent book The Third Plate.
Barber's passionate research and inexhaustible curiosity has led him to some notable collaborations. He has been working with agricultural experts to reverse the effects that the industrialization of agriculture in America had on the quality of our soil and what is grown in it. With the help of Michael Mazourek, a plant breeder at Cornell University, Barber is breeding vegetables specifically for nutritional content, concentration of flavor, and the ability to withstand specific cooking techniques.
In yet another surprising twist to your meal, a moment will come when your server tells you, with a twinkle in their eye, that you are going on a field trip. You may be lead to have a course in the kitchen, out on the patio by the grill, in the candlelit shed by the compost circulator, or in our case, the bread lab. It is the counterpart to The Bread Lab at Washington State University, where for the past three years Stephen Jones had dedicated himself to finding and breeding varieties of wheat whose flour produces wholesome, nutrient-rich, and delicious bread. A collaborator of grain-geek chefs across the country like Dan Barber, Marc Vetri in Philadelphia, and Chad Robertson in San Francisco, Stephan Jones has gained almost immediate recognition for his work. Jones' resident baker at The Bread Lab, Jonathan Bethony, is currently doing a stint at BHSB, working with Pastry Chef Bobby Schaffer to continue research and testing for their bread program. I met them both there over a course of soft and flavorful 100% whole wheat brioche, served with house-made ricotta and a relish of spinach and green tomatoes.
Waitstaff and cooks from the kitchen bring food to your table equally as often, both acting as Barber's teaching assistants. Two whole eggs and a sharpie created an intriguing introduction to one course. Each of us marked an egg with our name as we were told the story of a farmer who noticed that his hens were going wild for the red bell peppers in his garden and yielding an alarming result: some of the eggs they laid had red yolks! Dan Barber decided to conduct the experiment himself with the hens at Blue Hill Farm, his family farm in Massachusetts that is one of BHSB's main purveyors. The cracked egg shells returned from the kitchen accompanied by our claimed egg cooked sunny-side up, revealing that my friend Charlotte had chosen a red pepper egg, her yolk bright orange streaked with red, while mine was the yellow-orange you would expect from a common egg. Encircling the eggs were condiments representing “everything a chicken eats:” red peppers, rye grains, herbs, onions cooked in whey, garlic scapes, corn, and pickled blueberries.
One of the most incredible things about working for Dan Barber is that the continual learning and collaboration of his employees is just as important to him as the education of his diners. The cooks each work on the farm one morning a week before going to the kitchen for their normal fourteen hour shift. Each Thursday the entire team gathers during 4pm staff meal for a talk from a guest farmer or purveyor. On the two days that the restaurant is closed, Monday and Tuesday, there might be a field trip to go ocean fishing, participate in a goose-slaughter, or forage for ramps in the woods. The F.A.R.M.S. apprenticeship is an intensive program that includes dining room service, farm work, and class assignments. These are just the opportunities offered through the restaurant; even more are available through Stone Barns Center.
I ended up thriving at Blue Hill, the experience being intensely demanding but just as intensely rewarding. I visited the newborn lambs on my way up to the kitchen; I watched sunsets from the windows of the pastry kitchen in the hay loft of the barn; I worked in the greenhouse on my day off. Those few months were a crucially significant and influential beginning to my career and and I can never be grateful enough that my introduction to the restaurant industry was through such a thoughtful and holistically-minded mentor and community. Dan Barber isn't just slapping a farm-to-table label on his restaurant to pat himself on the back; he is actively pursuing a tastier, healthier, and more earth-friendly food system. You will leave Blue Hill at Stone Barns not only satiated by the incredible food but also invigorated by the conversation it started.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Rd.
Pocantico Hills, NY
Wed – Sat: 5-10pm
Grazing, Rooting, Pecking: $218
3 course Bar Menu: $58