TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Somewhere around hour three, I started to sweat.
Sitting along one wall of the open dining room at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, renowned chef Dan Barber's restaurant in upstate New York, I had made my way through about 15 courses. I had no idea how many were left. Or what exactly was coming. Or how much more my stomach could handle.
This was just after the server placed a giant sunflower head on my table, its seeds dried and starting to resemble those you'd buy at a gas station and de-shell with your teeth. The server explained: Stone Barns, the farm and agricultural center that surrounds the restaurant and provides the majority of its food, had just acquired a sunflower farm. Rather than waste what was already there, Barber split open one of the sunflower stalks, scooped out innards the consistency of a mealy apple and tasted it. Not bad, he thought.
Cut to my table, and the long, hollowed sunflower stalk half sitting on a wooden board, the trough filled with what they called sunflower marrow that had been cooked with garlic and aluminiums and rendered into a puree.
This is how it goes at Blue Hill at Stone Barns: a story about something wild the chef has just grown or tasted or created, followed by a small dish that is simple yet otherworldly. Many times there are props. Always there is mystery and intrigue and a whole lot of food you have never seen before.
There is no set menu; guests pay a flat fee of $258 to experience whatever Barber, a James Beard-nominated chef and farm-to-table pioneer, is in the mood to serve that night. My meal was 27 courses. It's all about what the farm is producing, what is best at that moment, sometimes what Barber had for dinner that week — one dish was a play on McDonald's chicken nuggets.
I was in New York for a weeklong cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America about 45 minutes away. When I realized how close Stone Barns was, my foodie senses tingled. I had to go. For me, unique dining experiences like this are similar to seeing a hit musical or trekking to the Grand Canyon. So I made a reservation for 1, stashed away some extra money and readied my stomach.
Recipe inspiration: Dinner at Stone Barns inspired some more meal ideas in my own kitchen.
A GOURMET'S DREAM
One of the most charming things about dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is the menu descriptions, coyly stated by a knowledgeable and amiable server who gently places a dish on your table before whisking away.
The first course was Vegetables From the Farm. Individual veggies sat on tiny spikes on a wooden board. They were, indeed, vegetables from the farm, purple cauliflower and various lettuces and red peppers and squash with the blossom still attached. They were all raw, perhaps blanched, delicate and crunchy and bursting with flavor; some were dressed with simple vinaigrettes and salt, but nothing more than that.
Were they the best vegetables I had ever tasted? Yes. It would continue like this: Foods were rendered into their truest selves, like I was tasting them for the first time.
It's easy to get hyperbolic while dining at Stone Barns. During an earlier farm tour, I wandered around a greenhouse with rows of the kinds of squash I ate for dinner. A handful of courses contained vegetables bred specifically for Stone Barns, new creations like a bright orange beet that looks like a sweet potato, or kalettes, a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale. Toward the end of the meal, a server brought bread and butter from two different cows that roam the farm: Rhonda and Orka. (I preferred the sweeter, creamier butter from the friendlier, more social cow.)
Servers are more than willing to answer any questions about the food (and I had many), but half the fun is not knowing precisely what you're eating. And you soon start to realize that the cheeky, pithy names describe the dish better than a longer description could: Flower Delivery (what tasted like fennel stems and fronds presented the way you'd present a rose), Squash That Wants to Be an Avocado (a bright green squash split open like an avocado, the insides mixed with other goodies then stuffed back into the shell just like guacamole), Red Pepper Egg and Everything the Hen Eats in the Summer (oats, corn and other things a chicken might eat, all on a bed of what may have been actual grass).
A meal like this is not for the unadventurous. The kalette vegetable was served on what looked like part of a tree trunk. It took me a second to realize I was supposed to remove the leaves and dip them in an accompanying charcoal mayonnaise. Some time around course No. 20, the server used the melted liquid of the candle on my table to finish a sauce. No, it wasn't wax — it was beef tallow, a rendered form of beet fat. I wasn't even given silverware until course No. 14, instructed to use my hands for the early vegetable-focused plates.
I ate things I had never eaten before: paper-thin fried duck feet; a "penne" pasta made from the pliable stems of immature delicata squash; bean sprouts served with a "brown butter butter" (which is brown butter mixed with regular butter to create a somehow even better butter); a sorbet made from a pawpaw, a citrus fruit native to upstate New York.
27 courses with a view: Click here for more photos of Stone Barns and the meal at Blue Hill.
OFF TO THE KITCHEN
Dining alone makes you more observant, and it helped that there was barely a dull moment during what ended up being a five-hour meal. The food came at a relentless pace initially, slowing a bit toward the middle and even more so during the dessert portion, which I assume was an intentional pause.
Early on, I noticed a table of about six being led by their server to the back of the restaurant. "Time for a field trip," she said. An hour later, I discovered where they had gone: Everyone who eats at Blue Hill is brought back into the kitchen at some point during their meal.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the bright lights of the kitchen, a buzzing hub of activity compared to the dim, serene dining room. There were dozens of people chopping, tasting, yelling, the majority of them swarming around a counter in the center. I quickly recognized the tall, wiry man in the middle: Dan Barber.
He scribbled on long pieces of paper, looking over plates, calling out instructions and orders.
"Does he look at every dish before it goes out?" I said.
"Oh, yes," my server said.
She guided me to a standing table off to the side, offered the silverware satchel she had placed on my table a couple of courses earlier and told me she'd be back to get me shortly.
Within seconds, another course appeared, a stalk of what looked like celery, although more lettuce-y.
"Celtuce," someone from the kitchen said. Before I could offer a "Huh?", Barber swooped in with a saucepan and a spoon.
"Do they have celtuce where you're from?" he said.
I mumbled something about how we can't grow anything in Florida, except I think we can grow lettuce, so maybe, it's definitely possible.
"Well, this is the best lettuce in the world," Barber said.
He gently spooned a bright green foam on my plate and scurried away.
It's all about the ingredients. I'm sure there was more going on in the kitchen than I fully realized. But what struck me about a majority of the dishes was that they were all so simple, yet so effective. The first 10 or so courses were some variation of raw vegetables, and many of them appeared completely unvarnished. We may not have access to a vast farm, but starting with the best, freshest ingredients you can get your hands on automatically gives your meal a leg up.
Try using something old in a new way. Home cooks are probably not going to dry-age a beet, as Barber did for the last savory dish of my meal, a beet steak that had been dry-aged in beef tallow that looked like white wax. But the idea of slicing and cooking a large beet like a steak and dressing it with a beefy sauce is something I will take with me.
Stop wasting so much food. Barber uses every edible part of the produce and animals at Stone Barns, from duck feet to squash blossoms to sunflower stalks and petals. By the time I was eating a Bolognese with pennelike noodles made from the stems of delicata squash, I vowed to never again throw away a bunch of basil just because some of the leaves were slightly browned.
Prep, prep, prep. A peek into Barber's kitchen made it more evident that producing quality food (especially for lots of people, at a quick pace) only happens if you take time and care to prepare individual components that can later be assembled into a cohesive meal. There were tiny bowls all over the busy kitchen filled with items I recognized from the evening's dishes.