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Blue Hill's Dan Barber says restaurants will never be the same

Restaurants prepare to reopen with virus guidelines
Restaurants prepare to reopen with virus guidelines 01:53

Dan Barber, the award-winning chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, has had to close both restaurants to dine-in customers during the coronavirus outbreak and lay off most his staff. Barber, who served on President Barack Obama's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, hopes to reopen with the help of a small business loan. But he thinks the public health crisis could fundamentally change the food industry, and even the very role of restaurants in American culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, says the coronavirus amounts to a "once-in-a-generation shattering of restaurant culture." Dave Kotinsky

What kind of long-term effect do you see the coronavirus having on the food and restaurant industry?

Dan Barber: It will change the fabric of neighborhoods. This is a once-in-a-generation shattering of restaurant culture whether you are supportive of restaurant culture or not. But the cultural fabric that is restaurants has defined a moment in our culture that's very powerful, and that's going to be forever changed.

That sounds somewhat dire for those of us who love restaurants. 
I don't know that it won't re-emerge somewhere, but it's going to look a lot different. A lot of that depends on how long you are closed and the mood of the people coming in when it comes to spending money. These are all unknowns. The third thing is events — that's where a lot of restaurants make money. Will they be canceled because they congregate people in ways that we can't accept anymore? If that's the case, it's "game over" for so many restaurants. The final unknown is: Are landlords going to get reprieves from the government, so they give a reprieve to restaurants, or will they do it anyway? I don't know. It all seems very murky. To suggest we'll go back to restaurants the way they were is foolhardy. I am more concerned about — once the supply chain for restaurants disappears — you are done.

How does the virus threaten to disrupt the food supply chain?

The whole farm-to-table movement is built around relationships and a lot of farmland. Farms are the kind of thing that, once they disappear, never come back. Restaurants can be reborn with a different owner, chef and cooks. It's sad, but ultimately they can experience a rebirth. With farms, it doesn't work that way. That to me is the looming catastrophe. It's like watching a tsunami come ashore in slow motion. 

Do you expect Blue Hill to survive and eventually reopen? It's shocking to think this crisis could permanently close one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the U.S.

I don't know yet what our prospects are for reopening because I don't know how long this is going to go on for. If you gave me odds — if you could tell me when I can open, and when we do open, what the restrictions on the numbers of people allowed in the restaurant at a time are, and tell me what people will spend on wine and other things, then I could tell you what my prognosis is. But without knowing those two things, it is really hard to say. 

Fair enough. What are you doing to keep busy while Blue Hill is closed?

We closed and terminated more than 170+ employees, but we kept a core group on and we have been making these to-go boxes. We turned our restaurant into a factory for producing food through pickup boxes that were like a two-fold goal. The first goal was to keep some employees on the payroll if we could and generate some income. The second, longer-lasting one is to preserve the relationships we've had with farmers for 20 years, many of whom rely on us exclusively. 

I am not doing it to make money, but to preserve these relationships and to preserve some employees. That has been the game plan, and it has expanded a lot and it's been great. I don't know what the end game is. 

Tell us more about the to-go program.  

It's called ResourcED. The "Resource" in the name is the produce, grains, vegetables and meats from our suppliers. They are the same suppliers who supplied Blue Hill a month ago, but everything is now repackaged into boxes. The "ED" stands for education, and that part is the whole story of where this food is coming from and why these farmers are so vital to restaurants in particular.

It sounds like these relationships with farmers are the lifeblood of your restaurant.
Their distinction, environmental and ecological functioning make it the kind of food that's filled with nutrition that we want in the future. So preserving them is a big deal because a lot of them are facing bankruptcy without institutional support. 

I started ResourcED mainly to raise consciousness about what's happening, and this whole fabric of neural connections between restaurants and farms. Farmers are leading the whole regenerative movement in food production. But more than that, they are exemplars of what's possible. And at the moment, it was being paid for up until a month ago through chefs and independent restaurants. Ideas from more expensive restaurants trickle down. Think about organic food, which was first promoted by chefs and has now gone mainstream. Things like Greek yogurt and kale started in restaurants, and they really are a function of farms and that connection. They have made their way into everyday food culture and were going strong — until a month ago. 

Will the coronavirus put an end to what has come to be known as farm-to-table dining?

The movement was at an adolescent stage. People were willing to go out of their way to spend more money on the kind of food farmers were producing. Restaurants and markets and the whole movement we call "farm-to-table" is based on a whole food chain that is now broken. It's a ruptured relationship, and a lot of what we are talking about is how are we going to eat post-Covid. You don't want to have Applebee's and processed food being the way out of this. Even if restaurants came back, they're not coming back 100%. Neither are markets. How can farmers pivot — what can they pivot into? They are not going into processed food.

The culture of restaurants became so powerful because people had time. Everyone was buried in the internet and social media, but in a restaurant you are forced to be in a community of people with food and that's very powerful in a world that doesn't slow down. Restaurants force you to slow down. Now it seems ridiculous because all we are doing is sitting at home being slowed.

Could the coronavirus produce any positive changes in Americans' relationship with food? 

There are reports that are positive about people cooking more, but some are also buying more processed food. It's probably a mixed bag. Once people taste their own baked bread I don't think they can go back to plastic-wrapped bread. Once you have fresh-milled coffee, you don't go back to coffee my father had when he was growing up in freeze-dried cans.

Maybe there is a way to look at this moment and really reset our relationship with food. In our country, we have a very ill-defined and schizophrenic relationship with food, and maybe this moment allows us to connect with things that are important and come out of this in a positive way. I think restaurants are the leading light for that, and I hope we can still capture that post-Covid. 

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