Kirra Cheers
Conference organizer Dan Barber.
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Seed for Thought

Anne McBride - November 2013

Chefs are being asked to think about everything from sustainability to how to feed the world. At a recent conference, they were challenged to ponder this question: What if chefs could work with seed breeders from the get-go to influence flavor?

“Breeders and seeders are architects of an entire flavor system. What if chefs were involved in writing the recipe from the beginning?”

This question was the leitmotif behind “Seeds: Cultivating the Future of Flavor,” the Basque Culinary Center’s late September summit, hosted and organized by Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. Perhaps for the first time ever, some of the world’s leading experts on seed breeding gathered under one roof with chefs to talk about the ways they can collaborate to improve what we eat, and how we think about foods, from staples like wheat and potatoes to amaranth and salad greens.

Barber is the American member on the BCC’s 11 member International Advisory Council. The council, chaired by Ferran Adrià, was gathering in New York for the third time, after meetings in Lima, Peru, and Tokyo. Other members attending were Gastón Acurio (Peru), Alex Atala (Brazil), Michel Bras (France), Yukio Hattori (Japan), Enrique Olvera (Mexico), and Joan Roca (Spain). Initially conceived to advise BCC, the San Sebastián, Spain–based culinary school, the council quickly began to harness its power, trying to affect change in the gastronomic world.

The audience of close to 100 included a large number of chefs from the New York area, such as farm-to-table pioneer Peter Hoffman, Daniel Humm, Matthew Lightner, Danny Bowien, April Bloomfield, and Michael White. David Kinch, Greg Higgins, and Blaine Wetzel were the West Coast representatives.

So why seeds? Barber explained that when it comes to seeds and the thousands of specific varieties that exist for countless products, we have our “heads stuck in the Middle Ages.” The goal of the day was to examine the complete spectrum of seed breeding, “between heirloom and Monsanto.” Chefs often focus only on heirloom varieties, but what would happen if they worked with scientists to breed for both pest resistance and flavor? The breeders in the room were like the Adriàs of the breeding world in the late 1980s, Barber said—international stars of breeding but functioning on the fringe of their field, pushing its boundaries beyond anything that could ever be expected.

Breeding for flavor is not the surest path to fame and fortune in that world, and few breeders “think like chefs”—a point made by the academics at Stone Barns, who included Stephen Jones, a non-commodity wheat breeder and director of the Mount Vernon Research Center at Washington State University; Susan McCough, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University; Frank Morton, owner, grower, and breeder of Wild Garden Seed from Gathering Together Farm in Oregon; Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills and president and CEO of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation; and Irwin Goldman and Julie Dawson, chair and assistant professor of the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, respectively.

Adrià highlighted two issues he saw facing the chefs in the audience, particularly in the educational setting of the Basque Culinary Center: How is it possible to teach the sheer quantity of varieties in plant species when chefs always stress the need to know a product? The conference and each breeder’s hyper-specialization showed that it could be a lifelong project to truly understand it. And what constitutes local versus non-local varieties: What makes a product American or Spanish, its place of growth or its place of birth as a seed? Michael Mazourek, vegetable breeder and assistant professor of plant breeding at Cornell University, answered by saying that scientists and chefs need to stop speaking two languages and find a common one that articulates what each wants, with chefs guiding the search for what they will then tell farmers and breeders.

And, of course, there is the issue of scalability—how does that type of effort trickle down from the world’s best kitchens to the lunchrooms of schools, supermarkets, and home kitchens, as Sam Kass, executive director of Let’s Move! and senior policy advisor for nutrition policy at the White House, and Bras mentioned.Goldman answered that breeders already have relationships with the large-scale food industry but were only beginning to talk to local chefs. Just as the chefs’ spectrum needs to expand, so does the breeders’, seemed to be the consensus.

To put action behind the notion of collaboration, chefs worked with the breeders to prepare a dinner centered around specific varieties of potatoes, wheat, and tomatoes, among others, which was served family-style in the Blue Hill dining room. More casual than the usual fare of most of the guest chefs, the meal was perhaps the door to the future of the discussion: What happens once everyone goes home; and what should happen? The danger of such gatherings is always that they do not generate action. Aware of their privilege, the attendees broke up into discussion groups to deal with this issue and offer ways in which each envisioned being “game changers.” Ideas ranged from supporting regional seed companies and utilizing chefs’ increasing positioning as thinkers to educating the public and writing to the agriculture secretary to seek public dollars for breeding and gene banks. One last question loomed large: How do restaurants internalize in their prices the external costs of working with breeders, and how does diversity gets valued in dollars, labor, and appreciation?

The summit concluded without providing immediate answers, but the council gathered again the next morning to create follow-up steps, and attendees left with a new framework for thinking about breeding and flavor, along with a new network of collaborators.