Unemployed Line Cooks Are Now Gardening, Thanks to Kitchen Farming Project

Started by chef Dan Barber, sign-up is now open to the general public.

digging new potatoes
Digging up new potatoes.

@marisa05 via Twenty20

What's an out-of-work chef supposed to do to pass the time? Make a garden, according to Dan Barber. The chef-owner of acclaimed restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns realized that if his staff couldn't keep busy handling ingredients and preparing meals for guests, because of the coronavirus pandemic, they could at least spend their days learning how to grow food. 

The ever-creative Barber kicked off an initiative called the Kitchen Farming Project by giving three of his line cooks an assignment to grow food in a 12x15-foot patch. He then sent messages to 50 top chefs worldwide, asking if their line cooks would participate, too. The response was rapid and positive; everyone wanted their cooks "off the couch," and suddenly the project encompassed hundreds of eager participants.

Barber asked Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns, to write a "recipe" for teaching beginners how to grow food. (Stone Barns is a 400-acre former Rockefeller estate located 30 miles north of New York City that is used as a non-profit education center and grows much of the produce used by Blue Hill.) Bloomberg describes Algiere's recipe:

"[It] includes one for ‘Garden Design’ (apart from the 12-by-15-foot patch of lawn, the ‘ingredients’ include one notebook, one pencil, a plan for finding seed, seedlings, and compost). The plot is divided into six suggested families of vegetables, including nightshades such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and brassicas like kale and cabbage."

What Does This Project Achieve? 

According to Barber, it's largely symbolic. It won't fix the crisis faced by every farm-to-table restaurant in the country, out-of-work cooks, and small-scale farmers. But it does have potential to deepen and solidify the relationship between cooks and farmers, to highlight the plight of "a special class of small farms," and to give cooks practical knowledge about the importance of diversified and rotating crops. The project will not rescue imperiled farmers, but it does make a valuable statement at a time when big industrial farms are getting bailed out by the government. Bloomberg quotes Barber:

"It’s symbolic to start a conversation about what’s being lost. Cooks don’t want to return to a world that’s serviced by megafarms in California, Arizona, and Texas. That’s what this comes down to. Chefs have been part of this exciting social movement called farm-to-table, and now this is a real inflection point."

It also keeps cooks busy, tending to their vegetable patches and figuring out what to do with the abundance. One of Barber's line cooks, Pruitt Kerdchoochuen, thinks she might turn some of her hot peppers in a hot sauce-making operation. She has found gardening to be an unexpected source of social connection, telling Food52:

"One thing I didn't expect was how much gardening would be a way to connect with people. I’m now plugged in to a community of gardeners ... We share tips about what we’re growing, like, 'I have this bug! What are you doing about it? What varieties are you growing? What are you growing for the winter?'"

In the meantime, the Kitchen Farming Project has expanded to include members of the general public. Anyone can sign up, even this late in the season. A rousing website calls on food-lovers of all kinds to participate in a "new food future," in a project that trains them "never to look at an ingredient list – or a farmer – in the same way again." Apparently Algiere's curriculum has been tweaked to accommodate late-season starts and a late-fall harvest.

This Is Just the Beginning

You can be sure that while Barber's line cooks are busy tending their vegetable patches, he will be advocating persistently for the broader systemic changes he wants to see. As I wrote in an article earlier this summer, called "How Do We Save the Small Farms?," Barber believes we must reintroduce inefficiency to food supply chains so that there's more regional diversity and less risk when something like COVID-19 hits a meat-packing plant, shutting down production.

He wants "food processing" to gain respect once again, and not be a process of degradation, but rather one of preservation and improvement. Indeed, anyone who has an abundant garden knows how much thought and work goes into keeping that produce for future use. It is noble, respectable, and environmentally-caring work.

Understanding food and how it comes to take the edible shapes we know and love is a key part of revolutionizing our food supply – and it starts with growing, with getting one's hands dirty. When Blue Hill reopens someday, its cooks will be more committed than ever to farm-to-table eating because they will have a personal understanding of every step of the supply chain. We could all benefit from that.