Dan Barber: A Pinch of Narrative

Author and Chef
When a good story adds that extra bit of flavor.
  • Transcript


Dan Barber: A couple of Christmases ago I got this gift from one of our distributors who sold me . . . still sells us these incredible nut oils from France – from Burgundy. And the maker . . . They’re incredibly expensive. This guy is so hard . . . Like he does it in his garage behind his house. This guy is like another wackadoo. So he . . . The Frenchman . . . The ...producer Jean Marc ..., he gave the distributor, ..., a present for us because we were his biggest customer; and his first, I think . . . one of his first. And he gave us a gift for Christmas. So ...handed it to me and I opened the box, and it’s this box of dust. It’s .... It’s just dust. Again, I’m like what the hell is this? So ...says Jean Marc wanted to give you after he . . . a present that . . . of nut dust. It’s basically after he presses the nuts for his oil he has all this residue. So he said . . . .. said, you know, last year I went over to Burgundy and I had lunch with Jean Marc. And as I open the door to go into his kitchen, he was there on the stove sautéing potatoes. And we sat down to a salad and a little, like, fried potatoes . . . sautéed potatoes. But ... said all he could taste from the salad and potatoes . . . All he could taste were almonds. He didn’t see any almonds. He just smelled this like overwhelming thing of almonds. So he thought there was some kind of almond soufflé coming for dessert or something, but there was no almond soufflé. So he asks . . . He asks Jean Marc . . . He says Jean Marc, you know, it’s a delicious meal, but I’m tasting these almonds. And Jean Marc said oh okay. So after I press the almonds, I have this residue, this dust. Instead of throwing it out I throw it onto my potato fields, and a lot of it on my potato fields. And through this incredible process of osmosis, you know, he gets almond potatoes, right? So I thought . . . And he’s telling me this, and I’m looking at my box, and I’m like this is the secret to, you know, my millions, right? So I take the stuff and I call the nut company out in California . . . an organic nut company and asked them for like 500 pounds of, I thought, pine nut. Because I thought I could one up him. I sort of got competitive with this guy I don’t even know who gave me a gift. Pine nut . . . We did almond again. We did walnut. We got all these nuts and Jack spread them on carrots. And I didn’t wanna do it potatoes because I thought it would be too much ..., so I did carrots. And we’d have a lot of carrots through the winter. So we spread, spread, spread, spread, spread. Meanwhile I decide, you know, with my brother we’re gonna make some money, so we do like this special night. We know when the harvest is coming – seven weeks after the planting. So we say okay, we’re gonna do a harvest night. And we’re gonna do, you know, an almond carrot night because we figured that would be the one that would work the best. So an almond carrot night. We invite . . . The whole dining room is packed with people who are excited. We send out this e-mail. We talked to people for months and months. We get the waiters all jazzed up on this thing. I mean everybody was just . . . The coat check, the valets, everybody was . . . The cooks, everybody was talking about it. So the day of the dinner comes, right? And the harvest for some reason came really late that afternoon, and I hadn’t actually really tasted the carrot, you know? So it’s like 4:30 and we’re sitting there cleaning carrots, and we’re like . . . I started to taste them, and right as I’m tasting them – again, too much to believe – like the tickets start coming in. You know it’s like five almond carrots salads; six almond carrot salads; you know double order of almond carrot salad. And I take a bite of the carrots . . . no almond flavor, nothing, zero, zilch. It doesn’t even taste like there is a potential for almond in the future. There’s like nothing. It’s a delicious carrot; no almond. Total failure. So I sliced the carrots, and all of a sudden tickets are like coming in, coming in. We’ve got 30 tickets on the board and like 500 almond salads. And so I start slicing the carrots really quickly; salt, pepper, lemon vinaigrette; and I reach for Jena Marc’s almond oil which I have a few extra bottles and I start dousing it with almond oil. And I mix it, and then I give it to the waiters to taste just before they go out to the dining room. Genius. Man, it tastes like almonds. Man it’s unbelievable. Dan Barber’s a genius. So that night we sold like 120 almond carrot salads. And it is the greatest success in the history of the . . . It’s the best night we’ve ever had at Blue Hill. It’s the best night we’ve ever had at any restaurant. People wrote e-mails. They still talk about it. They still talk about it. People say it’s the most exciting, the most delicious, you know, experience I’ve ever had in a restaurant. There was a buzz in the dining room like I’ve never had. And what I realized at the end of the night in the mayhem of plating all these salads – I mean it was a crazy night – I forgot to put the almond oil in the carrots. I did on some, but I didn’t on a lot, and it did not matter. It absolutely did not matter. People tasted almonds because you told them the story. And they tasted the most delicious carrot of their life because they had this funny story that they felt invested in, and they felt a part of, and they wanted to be connected to. I think we’re hard wired for this, and that’s my ultimate theory. It’s like you know as hunter-gatherers, we were spending our time figuring out is that thing poisonous? Is that thing delicious? Will that thing feed our children, you know? Is that thing nutritious? That kind of thing, and I don’t think that’s been bred out of us, you know? So when someone gives you a story of this kind of thing, like it informs us and relaxes us really to taste things that we otherwise wouldn’t taste. You know that’s my . . . We have so many stories like that that just like teaches me again and again you have a story, you have delicious food. As long as you really don’t screw it up you have really delicious food. So there you go. Recorded on: 2/11/08