Happy Meals

Rob Howard

Happy Meals

In a New York City suburb, a grand experiment in farming yields food that is grown locally on a small scale and free of toxins. The well-heeled diners flocking to the farm's gourmet restaurant and the carefree children attending its camps may well be getting a taste of the future.

By Rene Ebersole/Photography by Rob Howard
Published: March-April 2007

Even from the driveway, I can tell that this is not going to be like any other culinary experience I've ever had. Glossy black Simmental beef cattle toss their heads as they graze in the pasture to the right of the road; dozens of egg-laying hens are pacing up and down the ramps of their mobile chicken coops to the left. Up ahead, at the top of the hill, guests in flowing cocktail dresses and dark suits are depositing their keys with the parking valet before they head to dinner with the Rockefellers.

As the sun sinks toward the Hudson River, some of us linger inside a small courtyard garden, where it's too tempting not to pluck a tiny Alpine strawberry. We breathe in the heady fragrances of different basil plants tucked among thick-stalked heirloom tomatoes. It's hard not to miss the juxtaposition between the Rockefellers' formidable Norman-style stone barn buildings on the crest of the hill, and the 22,000-square-foot, four-season glass greenhouse on the slope below, which produces leafy produce even in the coldest winter months. Beyond a brick-lined pathway leading to the restaurant, more than a dozen surprisingly clean Berkshire pigs are rooting and snorting in the brush. The pigs seem to appreciate scratches behind the ears. But not all  guests seem comfortable giving a friendly pig a pet before sitting down to a meal of pork.

Yet such intimate relationships are precisely what's at the core of the Rockefellers' $30 million experiment--the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture--which opened in the spring of 2004. "The further you are from the origins of your food," says Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, "the easier it is to process it, to twist it. You don't feel connected. Food becomes just a way to fill the gas tank. But there are consequences of those choices that go far beyond your personal health."

Part farm, part education hub, part gourmet restaurant, the Stone Barns Center occupies a cluster of stylishly renovated farm buildings on 80 rolling acres of bucolic pastures, herb-filled gardens, forests, and fields in New York's Westchester County. Sitting adjacent to the 1,233-acre Rockefeller State Park Preserve, the center is also just down the road from John D. Rockefeller's grand riverside home, Kykuit. The entire 4,000-acre country estate, known as Pocantico, was acquired in the early 1920s by Rockefeller's youngest child and principal heir, John D. Rockefeller Jr., who modernized the farming operation in an effort to supplement the family's food supply. After World War II the Rockefellers gradually stopped farming, but the property remained in the family--awaiting a new steward with an interest in agriculture. She was Peggy Rockefeller, the wife of John Jr.'s youngest son, David Rockefeller, whose lifelong passion for agriculture inspired the creation of the Stone Barns Center.

Now, 30 miles north of midtown Manhattan--in the heart of suburbia--people of all ages are discovering the virtues of supporting sustainable farming and the pleasures of eating foods grown and raised without chemicals or hormones in close proximity to where they're consumed. Stone Barns teaches and promotes sustainable, community-based farming through three key entry points: a four-season farm that includes a farmers' market; a for-profit restaurant that helps support the center and features seasonal, local cuisine; and public education programs for children and adults. Carrying on the culinary revolution launched by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, more than 30 years ago, the center aims to encourage visitors to maintain food production and open spaces in their own communities, even if their first steps are as simple as supporting a local farmers' market. "In the case of food, your dollars get transferred so perfectly into action," Barber says. "And you can act three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

 

At the height of the growing season, roughly 80 percent of the food currently prepared at the three-year-old Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant (Barber's original Blue Hill eatery is in New York City's Greenwich Village) is grown or raised within a 200-mile radius of the center. In fact, it's often procured from the fields and greenhouse near the restaurant's large stainless steel kitchen. Exceptions must be made for essentials like salt, coffee, and olive oil, and for such indulgences as chickpeas from Spain. "I threw out my morals on that one," says Barber, "but I'm constantly conflicted by it."

With Stone Barns' bounty at its peak near summer's end, we're treated to such delicacies as tiny tastes of Hudson Valley corn, pattypan squash, and heirloom tomato hearts on small skewers; new potatoes flash-fried with sage; a summer tarragon bean salad of mustardy haricots verts, Romano beans, pistachios, and tarragon vinaigrette; poached wild-caught Alaskan king salmon in a tender corn chowder laced with smoky pancetta; pork belly in a horseradish broth with diced zucchini and carrots; blackberries with a mint granite; and poached peaches with sorbet. The tastes are so sharp and so pure they leave me feeling as if I picked the produce myself and devoured it in the sun-drenched fields just outside the restaurant's windows. "The closer you are to this stuff, the less you want to get in the way of the flavor--the more you want to let them express their lambiness, or their carrotness," says Barber. "You need to shelve your ego. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes it's easy because you realize it's less about you and more about the food."

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