Dan Barber: Chef, Restauranteur, Notable Annoyance
Anyone who knows me can tell you this: I am rather mellow about just about everything. In fact, my suggested superhero name has been dubbed “Captain Subtle” because not much phases me on an obvious level. The way I figure it, that unless something is a really big deal (e.g. death, house burning down, getting married, winning the lottery, the beginning of paw paw and/or fiddlehead season) that most events do not warrant an external grand show of emotion. Or it may not be polite.
Whatever. However, there are some seemingly nonissues out there in life that shank me between the ribs and fire up a rage saved for few things. This morning, Chef Dan Barber shoved a recently honed paring knife into my life with his quiet rant about vegetarians. What was normally a peaceful Sunday coffee sipping, paper reading morning was RUINED by this jerkoff. Instead I was left overcaffinated, pinching the bridge of my nose and itching to type.
So begins my argument pointed in the direction of this man.
For those of you who don’t know who Dan Barber is, let me first catch you up. Mr. Barber is the chef behind Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns upstate. He’s the recipient of many James Beard awards and has been named one of the Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine (2002) and one of the Most Influential People by Time (2009). He’s been very vocal on food policy and sustainability extensively over the years as well, having been featured (extensively) in Gourmet, The Nation, Saveur, The New York Times and given poignant discussions on TED. Obviously the man knows his way around a kitchen and could easily cook circles around me. I fully accept this fact.
Anyways, as I was writing.
REALLY? Really, Dan Barber? Tell me more from your magical fantasy land of eating. I’ll wait here while you lovingly caress the free range blood off of your pompous hands. Go ahead. The small batch, hand crafted pigfat soap is right over there.
Let me tell you, Mr. Barber, what stoked my rage this normally idyllic Sunday morning. It was your particularly asinine article in The Wall Street Journal in where you essentially called vegetarians self righteous environmental demolition crews. The lesser irritating part of the article was in where you speculated (perhaps accurately) that growing vegetables stole more valuable resources from the earth than raising animals to butcher, but it was wrapped around a particularly thick, opinionated layer that a great number of vegetarians are smug, meat substitute eating blowhards.
Well guess what, Barber. When you point one finger out, three point right back at you.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 20 years. When I decided to eschew meat products it was mostly in a passionate teenage effort to save the baby animals for PETA’s sake as much as it was a way to declare my own individuality. As it was, after the first few months of an ardently strict vegetable based diet I discovered something quite foreign to my young perspective:
Nobody except your vegetarian friends really gives a rip about the benefits of a meat free lifestyle, and you’re probably eating trace amounts of animal products whenever you eat anything outside of your own kitchen anyways. (Unless you also eschew every restaurant that doesn’t exclusively cater to vegetarians.)
Thus, I quickly gave my vegetarian soapbox a Viking funeral and decided that it was okay to just eat the way I wanted to without having to impress everyone on the merits of my lifestyle. Also, I realized that I had to chill the eff out when eating out at restaurants as I probably unintentionally ingested some chicken stock by accidental transfer (or ignorant addition) somewhere at some point despite my wise choices. The best I could do was to adhere to my standards stringently at home and pray that some linecook didn’t make that sauce with an ill-advised stock choice that night.
Also I discovered that my Achilles heel, delicious european aged cheeses, probably contained animal rennet. That was the death knell on my vocal stance on the virtues of a meat-free lifestyle.
I have been almost silent about my eating choices ever since the early days. Quietly, begrudgingly at times, I make do with menus everywhere I go. The only time I experience any adversity for my eating choices are when nonvegetarians assume that I will make a big deal if I have to choose a few side dishes as a meal instead of a full-on entree. (PS, I don’t care and I generally save a few bucks.)
What I have also found in the 18 years that I’ve chosen to lead an easygoing vegetarian lifestyle is that the most annoyingly vocal, opinionated vegetarians tend to be new vegetarians.
Think about this, Mr. Barber. Have you ever been in a new relationship where everything that person does is magical and you find a way to relate every one of your daily activities around how wonderful that person is? Well, the same rings true for recent vegetarian converts. They LOVE their new lifestyle and want to shout it from the rooftops. There is nothing imperfect about the vegetarian lifestyle to them- bring on the soy! Vegetarianism to the recent convert practically poops rose scented rainbows and cures lepers. I know, I was one, and it gets really annoying. You just have to smile politely and wait for that wave to pass.
Also, I noted that in the WSJ article that you were under the impression that vegetarians rely heavily on meat substitutes. Au contraire. Personally, I will usually only eat a meat substitute, soy included, when there isn’t much else to choose from on a menu. (Looking at you, vegan joints.)
Why might I not like meat substitutes, as a nonvegetarian, you may ask? The answer is twofold. One, there was a reason that I eliminated meat from my diet, so I can’t see why I would want to find a replacement that was just like what I chose to give up. Secondly, in my opinion meat substitutes (soy, seitan, tempeh, et cetera) do little more than make you feel physically ill after eating them in the quantities that Americans are accustomed to and therefore are not nearly as satisfying as many of the heartier vegetables, eggs, protein rich grains and beans out there. I particularly find delight in the fact that I can pronounce wheat meat as “satan”.
Just so you know, I find delight in meat as an object, Mr. Barber. I find nose to tail butchering to be a good use of an animal and think its a great idea to raise animals for food in more humane ways. To go even further, my own knives have been used to pop eyes out of (locally raised) suckling pigs and I’ve sliced up many a home spatchcocked chicken for my dog*. Charcuterie as well as barbecuing I consider fine culinary arts. But at the end of the day I don’t feel any desire to eat any of that nor do I feel more virtuous for having my feelings of meat indifference.
Granted, some vegetarians may take the opposite of my stance on eating, even going as far as calling me not a “‘real” vegetarian as on occasion I’ll eat sea creatures and I don’t ask many questions about my dish when I go out to eat. But I also know that I have no desire to sit down to the most succulent of sweetbreads or juiciest steak either. Therefore I consider myself a vegetarian and a probable lifer at that.
The point is, Mr. Barber, the source of my frustration with your antivegetarian stance is that you seem to assume that we as vegetarians as opinionated as opinionated can be regarding our eating choices. Personally, I have witnessed many a cook (restaurant and home) extol the virtues of a omnivorous diet with more vitriol than I would ever bestow on another person. Pork isn’t our savior. Grass fed beef may be wonderfully tasty, but don’t try to convince me that it’s the ” right” way to eat.
Middle, ring and pinky finger pointed sharply to you, Dan Barber. I’m going to go make a salad right now and enjoy it thoroughly.
*To note, all pieces of equipment used for cooking meat at home are scrubbed before I use them again.