Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cultivating Flavor with Dan Barber, Is there a moral dilemma here?

As you may have heard Harvard University has added a new course looking at the Science of Food to their curriculum this semester.  Within this series  they invited several prominent chefs to come and speak about their experiences and applications with using science in the kitchen.  Being the wise individuals that they are, they opened a few tickets to the public of Boston, and I was lucky enough to attend two of these lectures.  The first I wrote about a few weeks ago, which was led by Wylie Dufresne and concentrated on the idea of Meat Glue, a subsection of Molecular Gastronomy.  The second lecture I attended took a wholly different approach, and explored what happens before food even enters a kitchen.

Chef Dan Barber, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Blue Hill in New York, presented.  Blue Hill is a restaurant which sits on acres of farm land, the majority of the output of which is earmarked for use in the restaurant.  This gives the restaurant staff a unique view of the produce and the meat that they are using, and allows the animals raised there to be raised to be their most succulent.

Barber holds that while manipulating food In the kitchen is of course a fine practice, he believes that the manipulation ought to start in the ground, and end with purity within the kitchen walls.  The premise is that if the quality of the food is at it's best, then there shouldn't be a reason to add a lot of other flavorings or chemicals.  

Of course this isn't a new idea, in fact it more closely resembles "going back to basics".  Barber holds that animals taste best when they have been exposed to the proper nutrients for their individual  make ups.  Feeding every type of animal the same diet, as many farms are now doing with a mix of grains and grass, doesn't take into account the biological make up of the animal.  Some, such as lambs, don't have the correct organs to digest grain properly and thus results in a much fattier, less flavorful, end product than a lamb who feasted on the proper nutrients.

The grass versus grain diet however isn't the only contributing factor.   At Blue Hill they concentrate not only on the grass diet, but further, on the types of grass, the length and age of the grass and are continuously adjusting the animals position so their grazing incorporates all of the best nutrients.

The idea behind this really stems from the concept that flavor starts from the moment the animal begins it's digestion process.  Every nutrient, or lack of nutrient affects how the animal matures, and ultimately how they taste.  

It seems an odd way to think about it.  Care for the animal so it's taste is improved, it's almost the side of food that I don't always like to think about.  Of course I know that that steak on my plate was once part of a living cow, but it's a side of things I choose not to concentrate on.  I know there are tons of people out there who would have much to say about that attitude, but it is the one I have adopted as I truly enjoy being a carnivore.  However, it does seem odd to think about raising an animal simply for our own enjoyment. Throughout the lecture, as images of cute lambs grazing were shown, and then the skinned animal waiting for buthering, I had a tremendous sense of guilt. I enjoy a tasty piece of lamb, but is it really right to raise these animals for my own pleasure?

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Vegetarians- do you abstain from meat because of these ideas?  Meat lovers- do you ever think about the actual item that you're eating?  Any guilt involved?       

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