Several years ago, Chef Dan Barber was standing in his kitchen in Blue Hill, NY with one of the top seed breeders in the country. He had just received a crash course in the many modern techniques scientists can use today to develop new and improved produce.
But with all that tech power, Barber looked at the pale yellow butternut squash being prepped at a nearby table and reflected on how chefs have to go through “heroics” to bring out the sweetness of butternut squash. He couldn’t help but ask, “If you’re such a good breeder, why don’t you make a butternut squash that tastes good?”
The breeder looked at him and said, “No one has ever asked me to select for flavor before.”
In that moment, said Barber to a packed-out crowd of farmers, UGA students and other community members attending the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s spring lecture on Apr. 10, he had a new mission: How could he reintroduce flavor to the seed selection process?
“I started this with idea of being selfish for me, for flavors I want to work with in the kitchen,” he said, “but what’s become clear to me in the last 24 hours is the necessity of a company like this.”
Breeders, he learned, are mostly talking to large-scale farmers who often select against flavor and nutrition in favor of yield or pest and disease resistance. A chef, he thought, needs to be at that table, too. “If the farmer is expected to derive flavors that I want, in some ways the seed is determining that. The cake is already baked by the time it’s in the hands of the farmer,” he said. “So, I realized that in all my obsession with farm to table, I needed to dial back.”
After years of collaboration with a host of breeders, Barber recently launched a seed company, Row 7, which has bred seven new varieties of vegetable seeds in a hyper-local environment. Among them is the Honeynut Squash, the answer to Barber’s ask for a tastier butternut variety, which he’s happy to serve in his restaurant—sans honey or maple syrup.
Word spread about this new type of squash, and local New York growers began to ask for the seeds, ultimately delivering more Honeynut Squash to consumers. Now, the little squash Barber had developed for his white-tablecloth restaurant is sold to the masses at Trader Joe’s.
And that’s exactly what Barber wants. That’s why in these beginning months of Row 7, he’s touring the country to put more new seed varieties in the hands of local farmers, to see how the seeds do outside of New York.
One of those farms is Bartram Trail Farm in Winterville, which grows vegetables exclusively for chefs. Co-owner Jason Jones says Barber’s focus on selecting for flavor makes his job a lot easier. “We constantly seek out varieties that are noted for their flavor, texture and size,” he says. “Working with chefs means you constantly taste a vegetable as it develops and harvest the vegetable when its flavor has presented its best characteristics.”
Bartram Trail has been experimenting with Row 7’s seed varieties for almost a year, and they’ve already found that one of their newer varieties performed well with a “superior flavor,” said Jones. They are also looking out for how each variety does resisting diseases and pests. “With flavor as our goal, we often tolerate some susceptibility to pests and disease,” he said. “After all, we are in the buggy, muggy South.”
If the project succeeds, it could help focus the narrative on why it’s important to support locally grown food, says Jones. “You’ll go to the farmers market or to a local restaurant that supports our area farms and know the nuanced connection with flavor and taste is worth any extra effort and invite[s] you to explore a broader palate.”
As Barber sees it, to change the food system and rekindle consumer interest in vegetables, it all comes down to taste. The seeds may be the blueprint for the future of food, he says, but “it’s our job to ask for flavor.”
Follow Barber’s progress on Instagram at @chefdanbarber and @row7seeds.
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