Dinner: Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Coming off our farm tour with Stone Barns Livestock Manager, Craig Haney, we were introduced to Adam Kaye, Vice President of Culinary Affairs, Chef, and Kitchen Director—quite the title indeed. Adam took us right into Blue Hill’s amazingly well-equipped kitchen for a tour of the back of house operations. Blue Hill cooks and stages were buzzing around prepping for dinner with energy that would seemingly make most people’s head spin right off.
Upon leaving the root cellar-turned-wine cellar, who did we finally see coming up the road, but the Shepherds and Mr. Basye? I was reminded that Justin spent nine months of his life as an extern, cooking at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. After pleasantries were exchanged between Mr. Kaye and Mr. Basye, we were left to our own devices until our 7:00pm reservation. We chatted as we walked into the courtyard toward the kitchen and restaurant when Mr. Basye suddenly became uncomfortably quiet—stricken with grief and memories of being yelled at “there, there, there, and there” –pointing through the kitchen window as he softly spoke. If only they could see him now.
Recollections aside, we were seated about a quarter hour before our reservation. The dining room at Blue Hill is beautifully set. Large, curved steel beams span the width of the space and eventually help draw the eye downward to take in the dining room as a whole (at least that’s the dramatic way my wife would describe it). In the middle sits the service table with enormous flower arrangements and all the accoutrement needed to help a meal flow seamlessly from course to course. Windows that look out onto the property surround the dining room on three sides. It must be a fantastic experience to sit by one of them while there is still daylight, munching on vegetables that were grown only a few feet away, and harvested earlier that morning.
To read the press surrounding Dan Barber and the Blue Hills in Manhattan and at Stone Barns, one might think all of the “farm to table” talk is pure marketing shtick. There is no doubt that they have capitalized on the idea, but they take it much further than anything I’ve experienced. Their commitment to bringing the outdoors in, is mind-blowing. At one point in our meal, a waiter passed by our table with a tray holding a block of soil which still harbored rutabagas. An explanation ensued, informing the table of how long it spent time in the ground, the changes that it went through to become the starch that they would soon be eating. As I write this, I see how one might think something like that could come off hokey or unreasonably over-the-top, but the sensitivity that was used to explain the whole process was nothing short of amazing and couldn’t have been more relevant.
We all agreed that service at Stone Barns is unlike anything any of us had ever experienced. I know people that are able to completely separate the quality of service from their experience with the food and come out with enjoyment even if said service left much to be desired. To separate the quality of service from the quality of food though, would leave one not truly experiencing Blue Hill to its fullest. The quality of service is so completely commingled with the quality of the food that I couldn’t even imagine having one without the other. Not once did we ask our captain or our servers a question for which they had to “go check with chef”. In fact, it was like they took great pride in the fact that they could pretty much field any question that was thrown their way, from how long the tomatoes had been hanging and drying in the wine cellar to what blends of grain the chickens ate in the summer versus the winter—truly impressing.
Another impressing bit of trivia that Adam bestowed on us before our dinner was his estimate that a staggering 85% of the protein used at Blue Hill comes from whole animals—many are obviously their own. Since there is no menu at Blue Hill (only a list of ingredients that may be used throughout the meal), it enables the kitchen to somewhat fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to customizing plates for certain tables. Adam said that many times, the kitchen relies on the wait staff to “feel a table out” regarding their will to be adventurous during the meal. This allows them to use parts of the pigs, lambs, deer, etc., that might normally be looked at as useless.
I think we counted nine amuse bouches that came out before a real plate of food ever hit the table. Truth be known, if they would have set the check down at that point, none of us would have been disappointed. From garden vegetables that were either pickled, or simply drizzled with oil, sprinkled with salt, and served raw, to more complex items such as cured embryonic egg yolk-shavings (from their chickens, of course), atop a poached egg accompanied by quinoa, everything that left the kitchen had tons of focus and intent.
Adam Kaye’s charcuterie was one of the real highlights of the meal. We were all obviously on this trip to learn more about the pig and how to utilize it better. It’s no secret that we’re all really into cured meat. About midway through the meal, when those plates of charcuterie came out of the kitchen, we were reeling in anticipation. Ryan and I got a teaser before dinner when Adam showed us the charcuterie cooler inside the wine cellar during the tour. If a perfumer could capture that aroma, I would be totally comfortable buying it and wearing it—it was intoxicating to say the least. [“Do you smell that? He smells like delicious salted pig parts!”]
From the fantastic speck, to the goose breast prosciutto tarts, and the braesaola, to the jamon with date and nut bread, the textures that they were able to achieve made us all a bit weepy. At one point Shepherd looked like he was going to fly into a jealous rage and sabotage their charcuterie closet altogether. Instead he just stole a handful of their really cool bone marrow spoons*. That’ll show ‘em, Chris.
Dinner ended beautifully with some passion fruit and chocolate desserts, as well as a citrus dessert of which I failed to take a picture, and therefore can’t really remember what all it was composed of. Give me a break, we had a lot of food. Bon bons of chocolate truffles, caramel brittle with buckwheat, and unbelievably light and flavorful, yogurt marshmallows capped the evening.
And now for the reflection/semi-rant:
A couple of nights after our meal, I read on Twitter that Justin Basye made the statement that Blue Hill at Stone Barns is one of, if not the most important restaurant in the country right now. Strong sentiment indeed, but I tend to mostly agree, at least in principle. Personally, I feel (and this is not necessarily any profound thought), that there is a lot of mediocre crap available for us to eat when the whim strikes us—whether it’s a craving or out of quick necessity. It might be slamming back some Chicken Crispers at Chili’s or, help us, popping a Totino’s pizza in the oven. Every time we sit down to eat that sort of food, we become contributors to the problem. We create a demand for companies like BPI or Cargill or their consultants to come up with absurd processes like ammonia-ating hamburger meat filler to curb e.Coli problems. Really???
Now, obviously Blue Hill at Stone Barns is not the type of place that one just pops into for a quick, cheap, no-fuss dinner, but what they do so well is show that restaurants can exist and do well by supporting slow food. If the general public would demand it, restaurants, grocers, and anyone else involved in food production would surely respond. Most recently in Houston, Feast went very public with a statement that they were no longer supporting any factory-farmed food. I completely understand that certain places simply can’t do this with EVERYTHING. A number of restaurants all over town and in varying price ranges though, ( Catalan, Haven, The Grove, Ruggles Green, Chiptole, etc.) are already making the choice to forgo purchasing Chernobyl chickens for birds that were raised with decency in our area.
After having a week’s separation from our meal, and after mulling over everything we experienced, I must say that I feel Blue Hill and the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture have created a seemingly realistic model for other places to follow—and that is where I feel Justin was coming from in his statement about Blue Hill’s importance and relevance as a restaurant as it relates to the goings on with the sustainable agriculture and slow food movements happening across the country. They are not the be all and end all. I’m sure there are people that would completely disagree with me, and I’m okay with that. Obviously not everyone has the benefit of having the Rockefeller Foundation behind them to get the whole thing going, but my point is simply that farms could and should work more closely with restaurants and vice versa, in order to help promote change in the ways that the country doesn’t just eat food, but approaches it in general.
*This was a joke to add some relief to what might otherwise be a dull recap of a great meal. No utensils and/or plates were stolen during or after our meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Sleep soundly tonight Dan Barber.