The dish Dan Barber holds most dear? Good ol’ scrambled eggs
His progressive views on sustainable eating have made him a hero in the culinary world. Here, the chef and co-owner of New York’s Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns reflects on the dishes that have shaped his life.
The first revelatory dish I ever had was a plate of scrambled eggs. I was about 12 and had a horrible bout of strep throat. I was home from school so my Aunt Tobé came over to look after me. Unlike my father, who could barely make toast, she was a wonderful cook. The last thing I wanted to do was eat but she insisted on making me scrambled eggs. Until then, the only eggs I’d eaten were my dad’s – his go-to dish after my mom died [eight years earlier]. My dad did the best he could with cooking but those eggs were tough to stomach – made with margarine, no salt and cooked to the point of no return.
When my aunt suggested she scramble some eggs, I envisioned a spoonful of sawdust coming my way. But I’ll never forget watching her make them, whisking over a double boiler and finishing with French butter and tons of herbs. They were unbelievably soft and delicious. In that moment, they brought me back to life. Looking back, I realise I couldn’t have had one without the other: my dad’s eggs made me appreciate my aunt’s.
Years later, I was working in Paris as a line cook. That was a whole other type of miserable. To this day, I don’t think there is any greater training for a chef than cooking in a French kitchen; there’s a certain discipline you won’t find anywhere else. I was 24 and had spent the year getting the life beaten out of me as a lowly line cook. My only glimmer of hope was that, at the end of my employment, I was going to make a pilgrimage south to eat at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant, Le Louis XV, in Monaco. I saved just enough money for the TGV [high-speed train], one night at a youth hostel and this meal.
I dined alone at a corner table and my lunch lasted four hours. I still remember the taste of the pea soup – an ode to a special pea of the region, impossibly sweet, triplepeeled and puréed. I had never tasted anything like it; I doubt I ever will again. The fraises des bois [wild strawberries] with mascarpone cheese sorbet and warm strawberry sauce almost made me weep because of its simplicity and sincerity. In many ways, I think that was the meal that convinced me the hard work might pay off; that if I could one day cook a meal half as delicious as this, it would all be worth it.
The only meal that has been as transformative was at Aponiente in Cádiz, Spain – as much for the food as Ángel León himself. I have never known a chef to eat in their own dining room but Ángel joined me at the table. I wonder if the meal would have been as poignant if he hadn’t. Probably yes, considering the slice of phytoplankton bread, dark green and perfumed with the sea, and the single, perfect clam poached so lightly that it appeared raw. And there was something about sitting and speaking with Ángel that stuck with me – a man as mysterious and complex as his cooking.
These days, what makes me passionate about food is watching my daughters eat. Frieda, my youngest, will try just about anything but Edith has a slightly more… discerning palate. They both go nuts for fresh milk from Blue Hill Farm, my family’s dairy in the Berkshires [in Massachusetts]. The cows are 100 per cent grass-fed and we go to great lengths to ensure the health of the pasture so the milk is pretty exceptional. When we’re at the farm, the girls wake me at dawn – not that they don’t do that anyway – to milk the cows. Then we run back to the house to have a glass of creamy, sweet, still-warm milk. It doesn’t get much better than that.