The Third Plate: Dan Barber Writes About the Future of Food

           Farm to table carrot potage

The farm-to-table movement has advocates from many walks of life: farmers interested in growing better food, chefs wishing to serve a more flavorful meal, and diners wishing to eat food that has been grown locally. Farm-to-table chefs work with local farmers to serve seasonal produce that is more sustainable than most farming practices in America. Dan Barber, award-winning executive chef of Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and its affiliate nonprofit farm Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and celebrated author, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2009 for his activism in food and agricultural reform. In Barber’s book, The Third Plate, he describes farm-to-table as a “mainstream social movement [in which] success comes with mounting evidence that our country’s indomitable and abundant food system, for so long the envy of the world, is unstable, if not broken.” The farm-to-table movement and the future of food, according to Barber, can be defined as an integrated system of food production that is supported where good food and good farming intersect.

Food from the farm

Barber argues that the incredible abundance of food in America has lead to a lack of awareness from Americans. To survive harsh winters, older nations have had to develop traditional ways of preserving local foods and making use of every bit of the food they had. America doesn’t have a deeply ingrained history of preservation, which has lead to wasteful practices. He states that, “Our belief that we can create a sustainable diet for ourselves by cherry-picking great ingredients is wrong. We can’t think about changing parts of our system. We need to think about redesigning the system.” In using seasonal produce, farm-to-table practitioners are forced to draw on known preservation techniques and find ways to redesign their menus in more sustainable ways.

Garlic

The farm-to-table movement creates its cuisine using ingredients that “reflect what the landscape can provide” rather than using crops that dominate their environment. Barber asserts that American farming practices deplete soil nutrition, diminish flavor, and destroy ecological communities. He says, “Monocultures impoverish life and all its fantastic little ecosystems. They depopulate landscapes.” Agricultural reform of high yielding single crop fields is essential for creating sustainable ecology. Barber includes a quote from organic farmer and agricultural statesman, Klaas Martens, who warns, “Among the hardest lessons to learn in farming is that too much of a good thing isn’t good.” Farm-to-table integrates sustainable farming practices and uses uncelebrated crops and cuts of meat to produce the most delicious food the local environment can provide.

Dan Barber's cauliflower steak

Barber discusses the role of “chef as activist” as being an important factor in restaurant reform. Since the appearance of modern gastronomy, he says chefs “possess the potential to get people to rethink their eating habits” by responding “against a global food economy that erodes cultures and cuisines.” Barber states, “Farm-to-table restaurants promote their menus as having evolved to forage first and create later. The promise of farm-to-table cooking is that menus take their shape from the constraints of local agriculture and celebrate them.” Chefs have the opportunity to be the creative glue behind reforming the American food system by advocating local and seasonal produce grown in sustainable ways.

Dan Barber states, “Taste is a soothsayer, a truth teller. And it can be a guide in re-imagining our food system, and our diets, from the ground up.” Good food comes from more than what can be found on the dinner plate. Good food also can be reflected in sustainable farming practices, visionary menus, and creative efforts in using what foods are available now. He says, “Truly delicious food is contingent on an entire system of agriculture.” Farm-to-table sets a model for good eating in a country that has not been bound to strong traditions. It is shaping a food system for the future, one meal at a time.

 

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Molecular Gastronomy or Modern(ist) Cuisine 

Every time I attempt to describe what molecular gastronomy is, a jumble of words escape my mouth in my overexcitement and I can never satisfyingly unravel much more than: spheres, foams and balsamic caviar. I’m also certain the words “cool” and “awesome” materialize uncontrollably about 15 times per sentence. So, what is molecular gastronomy? Here’s how I understand it:

Traditionally, cooking and food preparation have always been considered an art or intuitive skill. We learn cooking methods passed down to us based on accepted techniques or we use our intuition to try (or discover) something new. Molecular gastronomy is a branch of food science that uses physics, chemistry and a bunch of really cool lab equipment to focus on the scientific investigation of cooking. Basic cooking methods and beliefs were put through extensive testing to see if they had any scientific merits to back up what was claimed. Cooking As Art met Cooking As Science and they went to work.

Though molecular gastronomy is a field of food science, one thing that perhaps distinguishes it from other fields (like food microbiology, sensory analysis and food engineering) is that practitioners of the field are cooks working in a kitchen, not scientists working in a lab. Although with some of the better-equipped restaurant kitchens, the line between kitchen and lab is a little fuzzy. This notion is so exciting to me. It seems like this science was developed purely for the love of eating.

Pioneers of scientific cookery were interested in debunking or explaining old wives tales about cooking, experimenting with existing recipes, inventing new ones and introducing new tools and technologies. They investigated the chemical changes during cooking in order to find the most favourable methods of preparing food. Some of their inquiries might have been:

Should beans be cooked with the lid on or off?

Will meat stock produce more flavour if I start with hot water or cold water?

What new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor?

The term “Molecular Gastronomy” was coined by physicist Nicholas Kurti and physical chemist Hervé This in 1992. It was also the title of the workshops they held, which drew scientists and professional cooks to discuss the science behind traditional cooking. Kurti became one of the UK’s first TV cooks when he hosted a cooking show called “Physicist in the Kitchen” in 1969. Some of Kurti’s demonstrations included making meringue in a vacuum chamber, cooking sausages by connecting them across a car battery and a reverse baked alaska which was hot on the inside, cold on the outside and cooked in a microwave.

Heston Blumenthal at work in his kitchen lab

Top chefs such as Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal (my personal hero) of The Fat Duck have become associated with the movement because of their scientific approach to cooking, although they are said to disapprove of the term because it makes cuisine sound inaccessible and snobby. Instead, they prefer to call it modern or modernist cuisine.

The objectives of molecular gastronomy today have changed somewhat. Though scientific approach is still the essence of experiments done in its name, the focal point is more on the experience of eating food and the techniques used to create unique and artful presentations. It is revolutionizing traditional cooking and transforming eating into a sort of multi-sensory experience. For example, scented air is often used to play with diners memories and emotions (the smells of leather chair and fireplace for a Christmas meal). When diners uncover their dish, puffs of air float into their nostrils titillating their sense of smell. Certain techniques have become quite popular and are now easily reproducible, such as making spheres, foams, gels and faux caviar.

Molecular gastronomy has now become more accessible to the at-home cook who doesn’t have expensive lab equipment hanging out in their kitchen. Products can be bought online to help you experiment in your own kitchen and instructional videos can be found on YouTube. Here are a few:

How to make food spheres

How to make foams

How to make faux caviar

How to make gels

I recently bought a few molecular gastronomy kits and have been experimenting in my own kitchen. It is a squeal worthy sort of satisfaction to change flavours and textures around. I will be posting my experiments and I hope they inspire others to think outside the box, too. Happy experimenting!

Order molecular gastronomy materials online here or here.

References
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_gastronomy
http://www.molecularrecipes.com/molecular-gastronomy/
This, Hervé (2005). Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor. Columbia University Press.
Kitchen Chemistry (2007): Ted Lister, Heston Blumenthal

Protect Yourself From Corrupt Hagwons in Korea. You Have Options.

This is (almost) my first non-food related post on this website. Usually I would hesitate to write such a post on a site so clearly dedicated to food, but I feel this will explain my two-month absence away from posting recipes. Also, I hope to help others in similar situations, which seems to be happening to more and more teachers in hagwons. If it weren’t for a few key friends who helped point me in the right direction, I wouldn’t have known how to protect myself. The whole endeavour would have ended quite differently. Likely with more question marks. And more tears.

Teaching in Korean private academies (hagwons) can be extremely beneficial in many ways. For four years, my experience teaching at hagwons has been far from perfect, but I’d always considered myself to be in relatively good situations. That is until two months ago when the shit hit the fan.

I found myself being treated very unfairly by my employers and trapped in a scam. After sacking me and another foreign teacher for unjust reasons, my employers informed me that if I wanted my release letter (necessary for visa transfer), I would not only have to repay the airfare they provided to get my out to Korea, but I would have to pay a 500,000 won recruiter’s fee. The latter was not stated on my contract and it became clear to me that my employers were going to hold my release letter hostage for money.

When in Korea on a teacher’s visa, one cannot just switch jobs. This is because our jobs are tied in to our employers. Employers can choose to release their teachers, or not.  Immigration laws for foreign teachers tend to be strictly enforced, while laws regulating hagwon abuse seem to be few and far between. It is a very unfortunate, problematic issue and it is not uncommon for hagwon owners take grave advantage of this.

After battling back and forth between thoughts of waiting to see what happens, fleeing the country and fighting tooth and nail for my rights, I decided I needed to protect myself. I did. And it F-ing worked.

Here are the steps I took:

I wrote out my grievance and thoroughly prepared all my evidence and documents including pay slips, conflicting statements and scrutinized my contract with the school. I also started secretly recording conversations with the owners on my phone.

Next, I found out my rights and read about commonly used deceptive practices by hagwon and hagwon owners on this very helpful site created by foreign lawyers who know Korean laws. EFLlaw.com

I read discussion boards on eslcafe.com and various other places to see what steps other teachers have taken to protect themselves when in similar situations.

I called the Korean immigration hotline and told them my grievance. They set up an appointment. I was hoping they would be able to switch my visa from an E-2 to a D-10. D-10 is a “looking for work” status and is a relatively new option for foreigners. It provides more time to those in urgent situations to take more time to look for work. They weren’t especially helpful as they informed me I needed a claim slip from the labour board before they could do anything.

So, I called one of the Labour officers at the Seoul Global Center and the Support Center for Foreign Workers to get their professional opinion of my case. After they, and everyone else I spoke to about it said my case sounded quite serious and that I wasn’t being treated fairly, I decided the best way to protect myself would be to make a claim with the Labour Board against my employers. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this in English. I had a Korean friend help me translate my grievance and fill out the claim form.

This was incredibly nerve wracking for me. I had never had to take actions such as these in my life and I was unsure of what the outcome would be or how long it would take to process. So, I read more discussion boards where people shared their stories of woe and triumph after making a claim against a employer with the labour board. I was relieved to find out that it seems the labour board has gotten so sick of hagwons breaking contracts and using so many deceptive practices to cut costs that they have really begun cracking down on them.

When a claim is made by a teacher, the labour board takes the hagwon to court. This looks really bad for the hagwon. Since they are concerned about the reputation of their establishment, they will often begin making offers to the teacher to get them to cancel the claim. The labour board knows this and informs the hagwon they have a few days to settle the dispute before they begin the investigation. Since I didn’t have the time, nor did I want to go through a painful legal battle, I was banking on my hagwon making offers to me as soon as they heard from the labour board. They did. I got my release letter and pretty much everything I wanted that day and it only took a few days.

Teachers, do not despair. You have options and there are ways to protect yourself. Don’t run away or give up without fighting. Before accepting any position, be sure to check your next potential employers on all the Hagwon Blacklists and be smart about scrutinizing your contract well. Good luck.

Here are photos to help remind you that you love Korea.

P1230126Seoul FortressKorean children doing stretchesPajeon and kimchi

Versatile Blogger Award: Celebrating Bloggers!

I am honoured, pleased and overjoyed to announce that Lindsey (Traveluster), has nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award! Lindsey’s blog is loaded with excellent information about what to do, where to eat and what to see in cities and countries she’s traveled in all over the world. She includes restaurant lists and ratings, helpful videos and personal experiences. Her photos are fun and her writing well organized. Definitely give her blog a look!

This award is a great way for bloggers to show each other some love. I was utterly thrilled to be nominated and am thrilled to pass that feeling on to other bloggers.

 

The rules are:

  • Nominate 15 fellow bloggers who are relatively new to blogging
  • Let the nominated bloggers know that they have been nominated for this award
  • Share 7 random facts about yourself
  • Thank the blogger who has nominated you
  • Add the Versatile Award picture to your post

 

7 random facts about myself:

  1. Unlike most people who tried it for about 3 minutes and abruptly got sick of it, I’ve had Pirate English as my Facebook language setting for about 4 years.
  2. I cut my own hair.
  3. Last summer, I made it my goal to learn the Thriller dance.
  4. Not only do I hate bananas, I have a lot of weird feelings about most fruit in general. Especially cut fruit. Once fruit has been cut, I’ve lost all interest in eating it.
  5. I pierced my nose with a sewing needle when I was 14 (mum loved that one).
  6. I studied kung fu fairly intensively for 3 years.
  7. My three favorite comfort foods are arugula, pickles and dark chocolate (not combined).

 

Here are 15 great bloggers that I would like to nominate:

Congratulations guys!