Alain Ducasse and the Mystery of the Blue Hill Butter
What do you taste when you taste butter? Richness from fat? Sweetness from milk solids? Alain Ducasse can taste so much more. And during a meal with Blue Hill's Dan Barber, he proved that his palate is shockingly, bewilderingly acute when it comes to butter.
Ducasse had come to Stone Barns in New York's Hudson Valley for a photo shoot, and Barber prepped him with a simple breakfast of coffee, bread and butter. Barber takes particular pride in his butter, since it's made on-site with cream from Blue Hill Farm—the dairy in Western Massachusetts that gives Barber’s restaurants their name. Ducasse ate his toast, and Barber found himself wondering whether the man he calls the best chef of his generation had enjoyed it. So he asked, and then his heart sank. Ducasse said nothing. Oh no, thought Barber, this hero chef doesn't like my butter. Or perhaps he thinks it's fine, but nothing special.
“Has it rained recently?” Ducasse finally asked in French. "The butter tastes washed out," he said to a fairly stunned Barber. Not only had it rained at the farm, but Western Massachusettes had lately been hit by torrential storms. Rain can lower the quality of grass in way that, theoretically, translates to less flavorful milk from grazing cows. But Barber thought the difference in finished butter would be undetectable. Ducasse continued: “Did you make this butter in a Cuisinart?” Aha, thought Barber, Ducasse’s palate was failing him—Blue Hill made its butter by hand. And then Ducasse asked if the cows had grazed far away from a barn. Nope, Barber's cows always grazed in the lush field right beside the barn. Looking a bit puzzled, Ducasse went on his way to the photo shoot.
Later that day, Barber was walking through his pastry kitchen when he found one of his staff whipping something in a food processor. Butter. Unbeknownst to Barber, the staff member had taken it upon himself to stop making butter by hand and instead use the Cuisinart. After a brief expletive outburst you wouldn’t expect from the mild-mannered chef, Barber realized Ducasse was right again. And it made him wonder…
Fast-forward to Barber’s next visit to Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts. He rose early in the morning and went to see the cows by the barn, but he couldn't find them. He tracked down the farm's manager, who had this to say: “Oh yeah, I’ve been trying an experiment where I graze them in the farthest field.” And when did that experiment start? Just before Alain Ducasse’s butter breakfast. For those keeping score, Ducasse went three for three. As Linda Richman might say, he was like buttah.
Chef Barber shared this story during a recent dinner at Blue Hill's New York City location.