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Interviewee: Dan Barber
Interviewer: Judith Weinraub
Session #1
New York City
Date: February 15, 2011
Q: This is Judith Weinraub. It is February 15, 2011, and I’m with Dan Barber at Blue
Hill Restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York.
Good afternoon.
Barber: Good afternoon.
Q: Why don’t we start with your telling me something about your background, your
family background, where you grew up, what kind of education you had, and, for that
matter, the food that you grew up with.
Barber: I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on 96th Street. I was born and
raised there. My mother died at a very early age. She died when I was four, and so my
experience with home-cooked meals was—I don’t know. What was it? It was a little bit
all over the map. My father was very interested in food, so we often went out for dinner,
which is probably where I got a sense of different cuisines and fine food. He was in sort
of international business and it was always requiring that he travel, and I often traveled
with him, then also eating. He had a great love of food and very interested in other
cultures, so that inculcated, I think, a sense of fine dining.
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Q: Did you have siblings?
Barber: Yes. My brother, who’s my business partner here at Blue Hill, and my sister,
who is a bit older; she’s from my mother’s previous marriage. So, yes. For a time we all
lived together. When my mother passed away, my sister went off to college.
Anyway, I went to Dalton on the Upper East Side. Like I said, my interest in food
was really my father’s interest, and I was excited by good food because he was excited by
good food, I think. Most of my childhood was spent at Blue Hill Farm, which is in the
Berkshires, where I spent the summers and other time away from school. My
grandmother’s farm that she started in Great Barrington in the Berkshires in the late
sixties, called Blue Hill Farm, that is where I took care with the farmers of haying the
fields and moving cattle and the sort of general upkeep of about two hundred acres of
Q: What kind of farm was it?
Barber: Like I said, it raised beef cattle that would then be shipped off to be finished, but
it was essentially a grass-based operation. It had originally been a dairy built in the early
1900s, late 1800s, and was in the family for, I think, two generations or maybe even
more. That was a dairy that went out of business. My grandmother bought the farm.
She turned it into just pasture and cattle.
Then when my grandmother died, we didn’t do anything to the farm until
recently. The last ten years, we introduced dairy. So we’re milking twenty head of cattle
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and we raise goats and pigs and chickens now. So we’ve turned it into a real working
farm, which is fantastic, and the restaurant buys from Blue Hill Farm as well.
Q: Was your father interested in that at all?
Barber: My father wasn’t, no, but he was very encouraging. I was very interested in it
because I really loved the farmers and I loved the chores for the day and I loved the kind
of monotony of the work, driving the tractors for endless hours. I found the whole
experience really sort of exhilarating and I was very drawn to it, and I liked the hard
work. I liked the physically exhausting work. We were basically haying the fields and
storing the hay for the summer. That was basically what we did, lifting a lot of bales of
hay. Back then it was square bales of hay. It feels sort of ancient, but that’s what it was.
Q: And this you did on your school vacations?
Barber: Yes. It was essentially like half of July and August that the farm was really
going in that sense. There was a lot of open pastureland that stored a lot of hay for the
cattle, and then there was a lot of movement of the cattle. We had a bull, so there was
caring for the bull and whatnot. So that’s how the farm worked. It was a very simple
operation, but for a kid who at my age was so struck by everything, it was so different
from my normal life, and I was drawn to it also because my grandmother was there. So I
was very drawn to my grandmother, and obviously, without a mother, it was important.
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So I did a lot of chores around the farm, gardening, weeding, essentially. I didn’t garden,
but I essentially just weeded.
Q: This was your mother’s mother or your father’s mother?
Barber: My mother’s mother. I think maybe the happiest days were filled with this
exhausting and exhaustive look at farm life, so probably informed the kind of chef that I
later became.
Q: What was the difference between the food that you would eat in the city and the food
that you would eat there?
Barber: My grandmother was a gourmet, but not a cook. She didn’t cook at all, in fact.
She was a very glamorous, beautiful woman who was an actress, and then after a divorce
from my grandfather, ended up dating some very prominent men. She dated for a long
time the ambassador to India. She was just introduced to cultures and to food constantly,
and she had an incredible palate, but yet no cooking. I don’t really remember. There was
always food around and it was always of good quality, but I wouldn’t say that she was a
fanatic about the garden, even though we had a garden and a good one, a big one. Her
interest in the farm and in the gardening and in the place, Blue Hill Farm, was much more
out of an aesthetic sense of open space and of beauty. She was very much a social
conduit for the Berkshires at the time. She was the chairman of the Berkshire Theater
Festival and she was on the board of Riggs, the psychiatric institute. She was involved in
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all sorts of arts, fundraising. So she had people over to the house on occasion or often.
So her “in” to this whole interest of farming was to have a place that people could have
cocktails, overlook cattle grazing on the grass. [laughs]
Q: Not bad.
Barber: Right. I mean, it’s so interesting. It always struck me. People often think of our
grandmother as somebody who gave us this sense of the connection to land and food, and
I don’t think that’s so true, although she did in a way that is a little unusual, but no less
effective. She kept the property open and vibrant and passed it on to us. So in that sense,
very successful and, I think, rather interesting.
Q: What was food like here in the city?
Barber: We had somebody who cooked meals for us a couple days a week, and then I
often did a little bit of cooking, just informal stuff like grilled cheese sandwiches and
things. So it didn’t feel like, let’s say, a less rich existence until I really became
conscious of my friends who had mothers who were very doting and food for everyone
was a central part of the family experience. For us it was, just in a very different way, so
I could relate to it in some ways and in other ways I felt, I think, probably very jealous. I
ended up being drawn to food in a way, I was sort of overcompensating for not having a
mother. I don’t want to get too analytical about it. I’m still trying to figure it out, but it is
interesting the direction of this company or my life. Its sort of keystone is in the farm
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and in my feelings towards food. I guess it’s true for everyone, but it played out in such
an interesting way, I think.
Q: What was the food at Dalton like?
Barber: Not very good. I don’t remember any of the private school lunches being
anything of what they are today. I was just at Dalton the other day. I did this panel with
Eric Schlosser, the great food writer. We went up to the lunch cafeteria, just amazing
what they’re doing, local food in the cafeteria. I mean, it’s very impressive.
Q: That is amazing. For that matter, you and Eric Schlosser at Dalton is pretty amazing
too. [laughs]
Barber: Well, Eric, it was a real pleasure to like—I was thinking of all the people, like he
really—it’s hard to pinpoint who is the most influential in this movement, and you can go
back to a million people, Wendell Berry. You can go back to so many people. But he
was a catalyst for me. He was a huge catalyst, because he told a story that was very
compelling and he really gave me a lot of confidence to pursue the direction I was
interested in pursuing.
Now it seems so obvious and un-risky, but back when we opened where we’re
sitting, Blue Hill Restaurant in New York, which was now eleven years ago, it was a very
risky—it didn’t capture the zeitgeist to talk about locality of food. People were talking
about organic food a bit. Again, I don’t think this restaurant represents anything so
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radical that these ideas that we talk about every day and the meeting we’re about to have
with the waiters—we talk about the ideas of what we’re doing every day—I don’t think
anything is sort of new, but to have them be expressed through fine dining and through a
restaurant felt a little frightening.
Q: Eleven years ago. That’s interesting.
Barber: Yes. I mean, there’s a lot’s happened in eleven years. This was pre-[Michael]
Pollan, for the most part, and it was really Eric, who wrote this book Fast Food Nation,
that ended up telling just a great story and had a curiosity about where does our food
come from and who’s growing it and who’s raising it and how’s it getting to us. They’re
all questions that were put through the prism of a hamburger. It was great, really
brilliant. And something that I learned on the stage with him at Dalton, that he was really
warned against doing it. There were so many people telling him this wouldn’t sell and so
many people telling him—it’s very, very—anyway, for me, I read that and just felt like
this is what I want to focus on, because I think I had some reservations about being a
chef. I know I did.
Q: What do you mean?
Barber: I still do. Well, just the life. I knew enough. I’d been a line cook for long
enough to know that the life was very hard and very debilitating physically and incredibly
difficult to have a family, and all those things that were very obvious, although I
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continued to do it. I was always trying to figure out how do you stay in this business and
be happy.
Q: Take me through your schooling.
Barber: Yes, I’m kind of fast-forwarding, sorry. My schooling. Well, so Dalton. I went
to Tufts University, and I was a political science and English major.
I started this catering company in college with a friend, just, again, for earning a
little bit of extra money. He had an interest in food, and we used to sort of read recipes
and, like, get excited about what chefs were doing in Boston. So we started this little
catering gig, and people used to come over. We’d pass around a black hat, and everyone
would donate, and we’d cook this big party of food. It was really fun.
Q: That was a little unusual, wasn’t it? I mean, at that point, obviously, you could cook,
sort of.
Barber: I don’t know. [laughter] Let’s just say I pretended really well. It was a good
sort of social gathering. I guess it was unusual. It was very different than a frat party,
although by the end it had grown very popular and I think the last ones we gave in senior
year were really well attended and became something of a—
Q: Do you remember thinking it up?
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Barber: Yes. Yes, I do.
Q: What was the idea?
Barber: The idea was to have a party but do it in a way that interested us. My friend
Gene Choi is actually in the restaurant business now, and I’m still quite close with. Yes,
it was probably to get girls too. I don’t know. There were probably a lot of different
motivations. One of them was to make a little bit of money, although I don’t think we
ended—we bought the best ingredients of everything we could find, and I’m sure we lost
a ton of money. We never really counted.
Anyway, so that was one of the more enjoyable parts of Tufts that I remember.
But any rate, so I graduated, and I had the opportunity to—I applied for a Fulbright
scholarship, which I was informed that I had received, and then they canceled the
program about a month before I was going. So I ended up not knowing what to do, and
my friend Gene, who I’d done this catering thing with, was driving across country to
cook in San Francisco, and I thought, “I’ll do the same.” But I didn’t want to go to San
Francisco. I very much wanted to go to L.A., because I wanted to bake bread. I’d
cooked a little bit and I just felt like I didn’t know that was the thing I wanted to do, but I
felt like maybe I wanted to write.
I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do, but bread always really appealed to
me. I knew nothing about—I was no good at making bread, baking bread. So I had
heard about this woman, Nancy Silverton, who is La Brea Bakery in L.A., and all of a
sudden—I spent a couple of months in San Francisco, and we continued to cook, Choi
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and I. We had these like dinner parties and stuff. But I just woke up one morning and I
don’t know, I just drove to L.A. and walked into La Brea Bakery, and I got this, like,
externship and worked for free for a while and baked at night and tried to write during the
Then I ended up having to cook at the restaurant during the day for, like, the
breakfast-lunch shift, because I didn’t have any money and, like, I was earning money, so
it was a crazy schedule. I’d just bake all night and then I’d drive from there to do the
breakfast and then I’d go home and sort of sleep during the day. It was literally awful.
Q: This sounds, to today’s ears, normal.
Barber: Right.
Q: But it wasn’t, was it?
Barber: No, no, right. Is it normal today, like college grads sort of pursuing what they
want? Yes, no, I mean, for sure. You know, my father, who I’ve always said when I told
him that I thought maybe I wanted to cook, he said, “I love to read, but I don’t do it for a
living.” Right? So, like, there was that part of him that was sort of very skeptical, and
then there was another part of him that was very encouraging, and that was most of it,
very encouraging and gave me the money to get out there and basically said, “These are
the years to experience something different from what you end up doing.” Little did he
know that I would end up doing it. [laughs] But he’s very liberal minded to take that
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viewpoint, and it’s true those are precious years, as everyone knows now, and I think they
knew it then. I just don’t think it was conventional to do something about it.
Q: Definitely not. And your brother?
Barber: My brother was in New York working. He’s a few years older than I am. I
don’t remember what he did exactly after college, but—
Q: But in any case, you weren’t together.
Barber: No, no, no, no, no, not at all, no. He wasn’t even in the restaurant business at all.
He was in the advertising business.
Then I spent about a year and a half in L.A., and I really didn’t like baking bread
at night. I ended up cooking in a few restaurants. So I wouldn’t say that I was convinced
that, like, I wanted to be a chef, because I was probably getting more convinced that I
didn’t want to a chef, which was my original inclination, but I didn’t know where this
was going to go.
Then I got very sick. I got cancer. That was in L.A. in the middle of all this, of
cooking and baking bread. So I ended up having to come back to New York. Then I was
in Indiana for a while, sort of back and forth, because this doctor who was sort of the
leading doctor with this—I had a rare form of testes cancer, and so I ended up having to
get treated out there. I went out. So this took a while, and then from that experience I
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was back out in California for a little while, but then in the East Coast cooking, and then I
decided to go to France.
So if there’s, like, a threading theme through all of this, it’s, like, it’s just
unknown. It’s like I don’t exactly know why I kept with cooking. I knew it wasn’t
making me very happy. I wasn’t particularly good at it, by the way, to make a judgment.
I mean, I became a very good line cook, I think, by the end, but I wasn’t like a natural. I
was quite—and I was very athletic.
Q: So physically demanding too.
Barber: Well, yes, yes. But I mean, I was young, and I was very strong. I was in very
good shape. I was an athlete in college, and I’m a good athlete just in general, or I was.
Who I look for now in my kitchen are athletic people, I mean, for sure, because those end
up making very, very good—but I just did not enjoy it, I think, and I didn’t have the
patience for doing kind of meticulous work. So I did not excel in the places that I
I went to France because my aunt and uncle, who were a big influence on my
life—now, this is my mother’s brother and his wife were enormous foodies and were
always introducing me to French food. They often lived in France. My uncle took
sabbaticals in France. He’s a doctor, a research doctor, and took these sabbaticals. We
would visit him, and I got interested I think in French food in particular because of him
and because of her, big influences on my life and very outside sort of personalities and
very passionate about food and wine.
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Q: When they were in France, where did they live?
Barber: Well, they moved each time to a different beautiful, small, just very, very lovely
apartment, and they ended up on the Île Saint-Louis, which is where—
Q: Not bad.
Barber: Right, right. That was the nicest apartment, which they still have, and that’s
where I went to—I didn’t end up staying there, but I spent a lot of time there when I
worked in Paris, and I spent a year or so more in Paris. Actually, I spent about half a year
in Paris and I spent a lot of time traveling in the south. That’s really, I think, where
things started to click, and I became a much better cook. I got introduced to a lot of
interesting chefs. One in Paris I began working with and stayed for a while, Michel
Rostang, is who back then was a two-Michelin-star chef and still is today, but was one of
the leading chefs of the time. It was a really impressive restaurant, and so I worked there
for a while.
Q: By then you were about how old?
Barber: I was twenty-five or twenty-six.
Q: When you went to France?
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Barber: Yes, twenty-five, I think.
Q: Were you worried about what you were going to do with your life?
Barber: Yes, always, always. This was not a calling. I don’t know what I was doing. I
kept thinking like—I was so sure that, like, with each restaurant that I went into, I didn’t
want this as my life and I didn’t picture it. I was assured of that.
So it ended up being very tough in France. Today there’s these hour restrictions.
There’s a thirty-five-hour work week in France now. That is the law, and back then there
was no such law. You worked impossible hours.
Q: I didn’t realize it extended into kitchens now as well, that they police that.
Barber: Yes. Well, it’s what’s killing French food, because there’s no time to do
anything, and no restaurant can afford to double up even more. I mean, where I worked
with Michel Rostang, there were more cooks than there were diners. I mean, the food
was so elaborate. And that’s why I think France was the place to be at the time. Spain
probably is now, or I don’t know, Japan. I don’t know where is now, but back then it was
probably France, and today it might be Italy, Spain, or Japan.
Anyway, yes, so I was so traumatized by some of the experiences there. Maybe
one day I can write about them too. Very brutal chefs. Yes, you’ve heard all the stories.
It’s probably why I don’t write about it, because everyone’s heard. It’s been told before,
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and I don’t know that I have anything fresh to say except it was humiliating and
exhausting and belittling and all the rest.
Q: I think somebody with your kind of education, it probably was really shocking to
encounter something like that.
Barber: Yes. Although I have to say, like, it’s interesting you say that. It’s something to
really think about. I think at that point I was cooking long enough that I knew kind of
what a kitchen was like. But here were these cooks, these French—everyone was French,
and they’re all so cerebral. I mean, it was like one of those things, I guess it’s that way
now, it’s they decide what you do with your life when you’re twelve years old. You
either become a doctor or you clean toilets. It’s just the craziest system, and there are
these amazingly interesting, thoughtful, highly intellectual cooks. It’s very different from
what you see in America or anywhere else. But still, it was an atmosphere that was just
very rough and very uncomfortable. I don’t know.
So I came back here. So what did I do? I thought maybe a catering business was
the thing to do, because then you could control your hours. That’s what I was thinking,
control my hours. I could take parties that I wanted to take, and I had good connections
with friends and family and all that stuff.
So I worked for [David] Bouley when I got back for a while, until the restaurant
closed, and that was also a really interesting experience.
Q: What do you mean?
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Barber: Well, it was a sort of chaos that I hadn’t experienced in any kitchen. We were
doing food that one would associate with the finest restaurants in Paris, but instead of
doing forty or fifty covers, fifty diners a night, we were doing two hundred fifty and three
hundred diners. A madhouse, but it could be done. I think Bouley and Jean Georges, all
of these chefs of that era, Wolfgang Puck, but really Bouley was the one who took the
model of France, because he worked all over France, and brought it here and showed that
you could do very fine food with a large amount of covers. He was one of the first. I
don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
Q: Was that, at that point, quite unusual?
Barber: I don’t think people even understood it, because you have to have a restaurant
mind to see it. It didn’t look like a crowded place. But you didn’t have a table for the
night; you had seatings. In France, you have your table for the night, as you know. But
that concept was so—it fit with the New York lifestyle; nobody sits there. But it was
really Bouley’s interpretation of, like, “We’re going to make money doing this, but we’re
not going to sacrifice food.” And so you cooked everything to order. I mean, I don’t
want to exaggerate too much, because there were other restaurants who were fish to
order. I mean, not everyone precooked fish. But a lot did; most did, even the finer
restaurants. And nobody did the covers he did. It was unbelievable, and the number of
courses in a meal, it’s just staggering. So that was a big influence for me. Not that I
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opened up a restaurant similar to his, but just that it was very inspiring to be in an
environment where you can see a whole culture rewritten.
Q: So just to be clear—that’s what I was going to ask you—could you see it was being
rewritten, or did it seem more like the restaurants in France?
Barber: No, no. It was very frightening. I was coming from the great restaurants, and I
had a chip on my shoulder. I thought by this point I was very good.
Q: Very frightening because of the speed and the number?
Barber: Yes, just the confusion and the tickets called out. I mean, it was just mindnumbing. Like the Saturday night there, it was like a tidal wave of tickets and people.
Q: So how many covers might they have had?
Barber: Yes, two-fifty. See, you’re doing in that place, 80 percent of the orders were
tasting menus, so those six courses. So you have, let’s say, two hundred people ordering
six courses. You’ve got twelve hundred plates plus the other, so you’ve got like eighteen
hundred plates going in and out of the kitchen. There weren’t that many cooks. There
were a lot, but there was Bouley, plating everything, which is also another thing. In
France, the chefs didn’t cook, not like that. It was extraordinary to watch. And I didn’t
know, but he was closing. I didn’t know it at the time.
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So I think that had a big influence on—again, how big of an influence could it
have had, because I didn’t open up a restaurant like it, but it was the energy and
excitement. Again, it comes back to that physicality part of it, which I was so drawn to, I
think, in the beginning and what I was good at. Yes, you had to be in very good shape, I
feel like, to be working there. And I wasn’t one of the better cooks at all, not at all,
although I felt ready to be a good line cook. There were some really good cooks there,
and I struggled.
But when it closed, I decided I will never have an experience like that again, nor
will I have anything like France. I had worked at Vong, which at the time was—I sort of
skipped over the places where I worked. I worked at Vong for a little while when it
opened and a few other places, but nothing sort of compared to anything in France or
Bouley, for that matter. I thought I just want to take a crack at this catering and see if it
can work. But I had no kitchen, so I worked out of my dad’s kitchen at home.
Q: Oh, at home?
Barber: Yes, which is about the size of this table. And the business grew very quickly to
quite a few clients. I was working out of his kitchen, and it was me, and I realized very
quickly that I need to move out of the kitchen, get my own kitchen.
That’s when an opportunity down in the East Village—I mean, is this all of
interest to you, this kind of stuff? It’s minutiae stuff, but anyway—where La Cigale was
a restaurant that opened on Mott Street. It was just a bistro, and the owner felt that—I
think it was my brother, actually, who ate there and really liked it and liked the
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atmosphere and introduced me, I think, maybe, to the owner. I really can’t remember.
But she was a young woman was constantly having problems with the restaurant and the
kitchen. Her chef had left, so she asked if I would help out.
Q: The restaurant was how big?
Barber: Small. It was similar to this restaurant. But there was space downstairs, so I
built a little kitchen downstairs, illegally. It basically rubbed up against Chinatown. Half
the block was Cantonese, half the block was this, like, gentrification into Lolita, Nolita
which was just starting then. So the guy upstairs from me cleaned snails for Chinese
restaurants. All the dirty snail water used to drip down into the kitchen. It was like down
and out in Paris and London. It was like one of those, like, miserable environments. So I
hired a new staff and consulting became my menu, and then on the side, I did this
catering business out of the kitchen. We didn’t serve lunch during the day. So that’s
how I was able to grow the catering business and then also do something creative with a
Q: What appealed to you about the catering business?
Barber: Well, pure and simple, it was, at least from what I can understand from this point
in time—I don’t even know that I have the perspective yet, but what I remember thinking
constantly was, I don’t want to be ruled by a place that’s open at night all the time. So
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you have your nights where, hey, if you don’t want to do a party, you don’t do a party.
You can plan. The restaurant you can’t plan.
It’s something that no one really talks about when you’re in the restaurant
business, although I think everyone understands it intuitively. Your life, you’re in a
particular kind of service industry which is constant, and in New York, it’s seven days a
week. This is open seven days a week. That has a real effect on your life and the life of
the people around you, and I couldn’t see that as a possibility. I just actively didn’t want
it. But here I was, with all this time invested in cooking all of a sudden, and apparently I
did want some part of that. So I felt like catering was a way to control it and now
consulting was another way to control it. I could consult, but I didn’t have my name
attached to the menu. I just set it up.
Then some of the people who started working for me became both active in my
catering business and are still working with me today, fourteen years later, which is great.
One of them is my pastry chef, and the other one is a sous chef up at Stone Barns, and
one of them just left me but was a chef for my private events. So they all came with me
through this.
But anyway, the restaurant, La Cigale, went out of business, which, now that I’m
sitting here remembering this stuff, was very traumatic, because I actually ended up
putting a lot of time into that menu, and I hired everybody, and I kind of ran the place
because the owner was having a lot of troubles. It slowly died a very painful death, and I
say that—any business that dies is painful. A restaurant that dies has a particular pain.
Now, I didn’t own the place, and I wasn’t working every night. I was there a lot. But
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you experience the sense of loss in a way that, like—I experienced a sense of loss that
was very surprising.
Yes, it’s when you start to realize that a restaurant is more than just a restaurant,
as most companies are or become to people who run them, family, and they become
places, but restaurants really do become family. That’s why they’re a family meal and
you have all these associations, word associations to a family. So it was very heavy for
me and, like, took me by great surprise, not so much that the restaurant closed, although
that too; it was more that just this place that we had built and put so much time and
energy into, although, again, to be really strict about what I’m saying, because I’m being
recorded, it’s like I actually didn’t put that much time into it. [laughter] I felt like I did.
If I worked four nights a week, it was a lot. Now it would be a vacation, but back then it
just—oh, it was so devastating, and I really feel like that experience informed the rest of
my chef life. Now, I only say that with confidence because I’ve heard that from other
chefs. I’ve heard that written about other chefs, Bouley for one.
Q: Wait. When you say you’ve heard it written about, what was it that would be written
Barber: What I’ve heard is that most successful chefs have had a place close in their
early career. Now, I don’t know if that’s true of Jean Georges, but I’ve gone through this
with a ton of chefs, and almost everyone I’ve asked, either they were a chef or sous chef
and had a place go under. It is both a lightning rod and the albatross around your neck,
because you become paranoid that your restaurant will ever do something like that. Not
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that I know this, but it’s probably like watching your house burn down, except in slow
motion, and you would do everything to avoid that.
Q: The numbers are really scary in terms of how many restaurants fold.
Barber: Yes, yes, sure. Well, that too. It’s like not an unusual experience, an everyday
experience, but when you’ve experienced it yourself, you internalize it in a way that—
that’s why I say it’s so crazy. It’s like I loved this restaurant in the East Village, La
Cigale, but I didn’t build it and I had very little attachment to it.
Q: Could you have a personal life while you were there?
Barber: Yes, yes. Yes, yes. I wouldn’t say it was thriving but, yes, sure, I had friends.
Sure. I had a girlfriend and, yes, yes, that was great. So I accomplished my goal, but it
didn’t work out. It went out of business. I probably felt guilty about it, too, because
maybe if I had worked harder it wouldn’t have. I don’t know.
So, yes, I really feel like that stayed with me. I know it stayed with Bouley,
because I’ve heard him talk about it before when he’s open to talking about it. He had a
restaurant that went under, I think in Connecticut. You become monomaniacal, I guess,
about everything, details and working.
So I was looking around for a new catering space, and I heard that this place,
Washington Place, where we’re sitting now—that was the name of the restaurant,
Washington Place—was not doing well, and I went in and introduced myself to the
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owner. I thought I would have a great kitchen for catering and then the front area would
be sort of offices. And that’s when my brother got involved, because he was sort of
helping me with the numbers. His background is in business. And just sort of the only
way this thing worked was to have a restaurant.
Q: What year was this?
Barber: 1999, ’98, ’99 is when we were first exploring this possibility. Then all of a
sudden, the guy went out of business, needed to sell, and Mario Batali, who had opened
Babbo a year before or two years before, Joe Bastianich and Mario were very interested
in the place and we just had to move fast, and I just made a decision that I could have a
restaurant, like I could have the same setup at La Cigale, and I’d do it here but do it right.
Q: That’s very courageous.
Barber: You know, I’d like to agree with you and say it was, and there’s no way to argue
that. In some ways it was a very courageous decision, to fall off the bicycle and get back
on, that’s courageous. It was also very weak, because it had to it this sense of like—well,
weak is not probably the right word, but it had a kind of neurotic quality to it, which was
like instead of reevaluating, I go, “Well, what am I doing? Do I really enjoy the
catering?” I really didn’t. Did I really enjoy the restaurant? Not that much, although for
some reason I was devastated when it closed. So it’s like I’m trying to be honest as I can
be. It’s like, I wasn’t fluid in my thoughts and it wasn’t clear at all. But if I had stepped
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back, maybe I would have evaluated something. Of course, I’m glad I didn’t. I mean, we
ended up where we are. But I wonder. I was out of breath a little bit.
I saw all these guys who I’d spent a few years with, Ecuadorian, ended up being an
Ecuadorian community of people that I just didn’t want them to lose their jobs. Terrible.
So we flung ourselves into this space, and then my brother was my partner, my sister-inlaw was the designer, and all of a sudden we were Blue Hill, in business.
Q: Wow.
Barber: Yes. So I kept the catering here, and we didn’t do lunch. The kitchen was big
enough so that I could do catering and still do a dinner at night, and that’s how this all
started. It wasn’t to get into the restaurant business; it was to save the catering business,
principally, in my mind, although maybe there was an ulterior motive—and I think there
was—of undoing the pain of what I had just experienced at La Cigale.
I rarely talk about that. I think even now talking about it still hurts, thinking about
it closing. I don’t want to be exaggerating the thing, but it’s true. It really did inform—
and I think I’ve recognize how much it informed what I’ve done here, just because I’ve
read other chefs now along the way admit to having had big failures, backers and failures
and oh, my god, what it did to them. So all of a sudden I realize I went through that too.
I just didn’t know it.
So that’s how we ended up here, very haphazardly and just sort of threw down the
money quickly, and it wasn’t that much. It was a lot at the time, but looking back, it was
nothing. I think maybe if I had slowed down and taken a breath and done all the things I
Barber - 1 - 25
said, I would never have done it. So you never—what is that thing that Malcolm
Gladwell talks about with Blink? You just do it and you figure it out later. Although I
think Blink is wrong, not that we have to talk about that—
Q: But tell me what you mean, because I kind of think so too.
Barber: Yes, yes, because it isn’t that you make decisions in a vacuum and usually the
thing that [snaps fingers] you think about in that split second is the right decision. That’s
not true. It’s that I knew enough and I knew enough to know that, like, I was a pretty
good chef, and I knew enough to know that, like, I actually did enjoy it in a certain
extent, and I knew enough to be close to the people that I was working with. I knew all
these things I might not have admitted to, and I’m still not sure I understand completely,
but I knew a lot. So it wasn’t a blink decision, and by blink I’m talking about the right
decision to make, in the sense that it was uninformed. It was incredibly informed, and I
knew the answer.
The brave part of it is that I didn’t hesitate, but I had Mario and Joe Bastianich in
the middle of writing a check, so, like, I don’t want to also say that I was bold in beating
them to—I just knew that this was an opportunity that wasn’t going to come by, and it
was a great rent, and we should just go for it. My brother, too, was very good about
moving quickly. I’m sure that’s true in the history of many businesses. I don’t think it
proves Malcolm Gladwell’s point. In fact, I think it proves the opposite, is that when you
really know something intuitively, you’re informed for many years, and many curiosities
later, you make a blink decision, but it ain’t one blink.
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Q: So then what?
Barber: Well, I don’t know where we are here.
Q: We have about seven minutes.
Barber: Oh, good, okay. So, great, this is very good for me. It gets me to think about
things that I don’t generally think about. But is this kind of what you’re looking for?
So I hired a chef who I’d worked with at Bouley, Alex Ureña. Alex was a
Dominican cook who’d worked with Bouley for like eight years, and I had become
friendly with him. He had gone to work for Ferran Adrià in Spain, and back then, Ferran
was sort of just beginning. He worked in a couple of places in Spain, and when he got
back, he had nothing to do. We started talking and that’s when this thing came together.
He had nothing to do, and so I hired him as chef, and he would be the front man for the
place, and I would be the catering guy, because I didn’t want to be in the restaurant
business again. It’s like, here I am fighting it. So if you look at the early material of this
place, it’s like some stuff doesn’t even list me. I mean, it’s amazing, now that I think
about it. I don’t want to be forty years old and have a restaurant and all the things that
come with that.
Anyway, that was probably a little bit foolhardy in the sense that, like, well, I
don’t know. Had it worked out with Alex, maybe it would have stayed that way. But the
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catering business was doing great. It was just the restaurant was doing—just immediately
it was a huge success. We were very crowded, very overbooked, and very stressed, and
the physical space was stressed for events, and the restaurant was just way, way too
Q: Were you cooking?
Barber: I was cooking every night, every night. This also had Blue Hill’s name on it.
Q: And to you, having Blue Hill’s name on it meant what?
Barber: Well, at the time it didn’t mean a lot, but looking back on it, it didn’t mean a lot
in the sense of, like, it was a brand identity. There was no brand. Today there’s a lot.
But I think to the extent that it meant anything back then, it was that it was connected to
the place that I felt very happy growing up and that my grandmother and maybe my
mother—it wasn’t like I was going to walk out the door. And he was struggling, Alex, to
be honest. Not that he shouldn’t have been. It was his first job. We were so
overwhelmed with people, and we didn’t know how to say no. Our whole first staff that
we hired turned over and it just took a lot, and I was here night and day and night and
day, and catering and running the catering business, so it was both, and it was torturous.
Q: I’m a little bit worried about your time.
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Barber: That’s all right. What are we at right now?
Q: Four minutes.
Barber: Yes, okay. We’ll push and I’ll just get to a good breaking point.
Q: What was your personal life like at that point? Did you have time for one?
Barber: I had a girlfriend who was living through all of this with me, who I ended up
breaking up with a few years into this restaurant. We had dated for seven years, and I
think this had a lot to do with it, obviously. I didn’t know that at the time, but it was very
hard, extremely difficult.
So things with Alex didn’t quite work out. We became sort of co-chefs, and then
that, of course, didn’t work out. Then he actually quit. We got great reviews, and I hired
another friend who I’d worked with in France, and we became co-chefs together, but all
of a sudden we established this and things were turning around and actually getting a
little bit easier.
That’s when Mr. Rockefeller, David Rockefeller came to eat with Tim Zagat.
Tim Zagat brought him here. But even before that dinner, the guy who set up the whole
Stone Barns operation—James Ford is his name—he came often to the bar and sat and
had meals and befriended me and our general manager, Franco, and talked about this
project up in Pocantico Hills.
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Q: That project at that point was?
Barber: Nothing. It was a dream of James Ford and Mr. Rockefeller to have a restaurant.
Q: It was a dream to have a restaurant?
Barber: Just a restaurant. Yes, it was not a farm.
Q: No particular principles?
Barber: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. But I’d have to talk to James again. I think the thing
was that in talking with Mr. Zagat, it was, “Who’s young and hungry?” and Mr. Zagat
mentioned us. Then in learning about us and learning about this connection to the farm—
because, see, at this point, Blue Hill Farm was supplying this restaurant with vegetables
in the late spring, summer, and fall, which was a new—the cooks went up and planted a
garden. We closed the restaurant and we were doing—and then I also worked with
farmers near Blue Hill Farm and also farmers who tended our garden, so it was a small
amount but it was significant because we made that connection.
Q: So your family still had what connection to the property? They owned your—
Barber: Well, my brother and myself and my sister and my uncle all owned Blue Hill
Farm and still do. We had yet to become a dairy operation, but it was sitting there and
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we used it in a tiny way, in very small gardening kind of way, but we brought stuff down
here, for sometimes in the summer almost every week, and I was at the farmers’ market
every day. That’s what built the whole menu was the farmers’ market.
Q: Farmers’ market where?
Barber: On 14th Street.
Q: It seemed to you normal to grow the vegetables there, unusual?
Barber: Unusual, yes. Yes, very unusual and kind of foolhardy also, because of the
amount of time and the expense. But I wanted to base the food around the seasons and
around celebrating the agriculture of the area, and that meant a connection with Blue Hill
Farm, and it also meant a really steady supply of things from the farmers’ market, which I
wasn’t the first chef to do that. Of course, so many chefs were doing it. We did it big,
though. I mean, we really—it was to the point where—not from the point; even from the
moment we started, I’d have to get two cabs to load up for the restaurant.
Q: I was wondering. That’s hilarious. [laughs]
Barber: Yes. Ah, those days were just—
Q: No bicycle for you. [laughs]
Barber - 1 - 31
Barber: Yes, right. I didn’t do Peter Hoffman. But we were really busy, and I remember
two cabs all the time, trailing each other. I had so much energy back then. [laughs]
All right. That’s good.
[End of interview]