Old barns have seldom looked as majestic as they do at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, which is scheduled to open this month 20 miles north of New York City. The granite Norman-style buildings, in the middle of rolling hills of cropland and pasture, could have been a model for a Winslow Homer painting. But before Dan Barber, the chef who oversees Stone Barns, leads me inside, he wants to talk about livestock, and about the 23,000-square-foot, year-round greenhouseone of the largest in North Americawhich was built this winter. "To me, this is the most exciting part," he says, looking over the fields and greenhouse. "The success of the project rests here."
"The project" is a $30 million experiment in reconnecting people to what they eat. It's financed by David Rockefeller and his family on 80 of 4,000 acres in Pocantico Hills that his grandfather, the industrialist John D. Rockefeller, acquired a century ago. Stone Barns consists of three components: a farm; a 90-seat restaurant and a small café; and a teaching center, which will offer classes in cooking and agriculture.
Barber, 34, chef and owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan (and an F&W Best New Chef 2002), will serve not only as chef and restaurateur but also as creative director of the entire center. Some aspects of his job will build on what he's already done. At the original Blue Hill (whose chef de cuisine, Michael Anthony, also an F&W Best New Chef 2002, has moved to Blue Hill at Stone Barns), Barber makes a point of using as much produce as possible from New York farms. At Stone Barns, he'll employ that approach much more directly: Some of the food served there will come from the land and greenhouse visible just outside the dining room window.
Yet that simple farm-to-table equation does not begin to capture the scope of Stone Barns. Making agriculture sustainable is complicated, as Peggy Rockefeller, David's late wife, well knew. She was passionate about farming, and, after she died in 1996, her husband had James Ford, who worked for the family, consider what to do with the property. Maintaining it was expensive, even for a Rockefeller. "He asked me to take a look at the long-term viability of the barns and what we could do that might be not only a memorial to his wife but also a way to save the barns and hopefully the farming operation," says Ford, now executive director of Stone Barns.
The original notion was to open just a restaurant and catering operation, with perhaps a small greenhouse and some classes, but then Dan Barber and his brother, David, the business manager at Blue Hill, helped put together a committee to propose much larger ideas. The greenhouse could be half an acre or more, the committee said, and draw on the year-round farming ideas of Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch of Four Season Farm in Maine. The education component could be expanded as well and emphasize the connection between cooking and agriculture. And the whole complex could stand as proof that agriculture can be part of the local community even in suburban Westchester County, an area filled with million-dollar homes.
It was a bit more than the Rockefellers had envisioned, and, Ford admits, it would have been easy to decide to use the $30 million to fight AIDS or poverty or any of a hundred other causes. "That was probably the hardest decision: whether this was, in the grand scheme of things, worth putting in that time and effort and energy," Ford says. "But I think when everybody sat down and realized what Peggy Rockefeller stood for, what her life goals were, what the family tradition in responsible stewardship of the land was, we realized it was probably worth it to at least try."
The results are stunning. In the 70-year-old barn where cows once stood, Barber now has a huge kitchen with four walk-in refrigerators, a meat locker and a composting room (since, as he notes, the operation will be not only farm-to-table but "farm-to-table and back-to-soil"). The main dining room has hand-applied Venetian-style plaster walls and reclaimed antique pine floors. Diners will be able to see part of the kitchen through windows: Since one of the facility's goals is education, as much as possible has been kept in plain sight.
Barber is planning to serve "a lot of chicken," because Stone Barns' farm has already started a flock, but hasn't yet brought in pigs. The menu will change radically from week to week, incorporating seasonal ingredients like wild ramps gathered from nearby forests and fiddlehead ferns grown in the greenhouse. Barber might serve gnocchi with crab and braised fiddlehead ferns or create a pistou of fiddleheads and braised and pickled ramps. "Eating is an agricultural act," Barber says, and he believes dining at the restaurant will help customers make a more direct connection between what they're eating and where food comes from.
Another barn, one that was once used to store hay, now houses the education center, which will hold classes on everything from cooking foie gras to building greenhouses; there's also room upstairs for a possible catering operation. Across the courtyard, the café will be casual enough so that hikers from the adjacent Rockefeller State Park Preserve will feel welcome.
For Barber, who named his restaurants after his grandmother's farm in Massachusetts, where he spent time as a child, the project offers the chance to put some long-held ideals into practice. But he is careful to emphasize that he does not feel like he's playing with someone else's money. "This is not a tooth-fairy project," Barber says "Certainly, it's an experiment, but it ain't free." Stone Barns is not-for-profit, but each of its three components will operate separately and each is expected to at least break even in three years. So, for example, not all of the restaurant's ingredients will come from the farm, and not all of the farm's output will be sold to the restaurant. "If the carrots grown in the greenhouse turn out to be incredibly labor intensive, their price is going to reflect that," says Barber. "Then the restaurant will have to make a decision based on taste and budget."
As a chef, Barber says, he expects to have his good intentions about buying local produce put to the test. And, as the project evolves, he wants these issues exposed and studied, even celebrated: "If we can create some kind of consciousness with the average diner, or the average chef, then I think we'll have completed our mission."
Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, 630 Bedford Rd., Pocantico Hills, NY; 914-366-9600 or stonebarnscenter.org.
Neil Genzlinger is an editor and writer at the New York Times.