For 15 years, the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture tried to fix the food system by educating children and producing new farmers. Now, its mission is linked more than ever to fine dining destination Blue Hill at Stone Barns and a famous chef’s vision for trickle-down change.
On the morning of February 7, 2020, office employees at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture filed one by one into meetings with management. Some came out crying. Of an office team of 17, six were laid off. Leadership gathered the remaining staff at lunchtime to process what had just happened; during the meeting, the HR director played a singing bowl, and Peggy Dulany, Stone Barns co-founder and chair of the board, burned sage.
Dulany explained that the layoffs were part of a restructuring that would launch the next phase of Stone Barns. “We need folks who are going to champion the new direction,” she reportedly said. It was not a gentle pivot. For 15 years, Stone Barns had been as much an education center as a farm, devoted to turning schoolkids into engaged “food citizens” and training young farmers. Now, it would evolve into a research and development center focused on gastronomy, hosting researchers and training culinary professionals who would entice consumers to buy more responsibly grown food.
When leadership began presenting these ideas to staff in 2019, a number of Stone Barns employees vocally disagreed with the new direction. They believed it would deepen the organization’s elitism and narrow its immediate audience. Their discomfort was magnified by the fact that one of the main architects of the plan was Dan Barber, the chef and co-owner of the on-site fine dining restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
What followed, through the pandemic and the turmoil that it caused, was a quiet struggle for the soul of Stone Barns as the nonprofit’s work grew increasingly entwined with Barber and Blue Hill. At stake was how one of the most influential food and agricultural nonprofits in the country would use its formidable resources — more than $100 million in assets, the backing of the Rockefeller family, and an enormous public profile — to create a better food system.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen people with knowledge of this internal struggle, several of whom were current employees at the time we spoke. Given the pervasive influence of Stone Barns, Blue Hill, Dan Barber, and the Rockefeller family, numerous sources for this story have requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. Pseudonyms are denoted with asterisks. Repeated requests to speak directly with the leadership of Stone Barns and Blue Hill were denied. While this series of stories was being reported, Blue Hill and its leadership — Dan Barber, David Barber, and Laureen Barber — retained the prominent Washington, D.C.-based crisis PR firm Trident DMG, as well as Clare Locke, a high-profile defamation law firm; all responses and quotations from Blue Hill and the Barbers came through a spokesperson. All responses from Stone Barns came via its own spokesperson.
“The work that Blue Hill does in connection with Stone Barns is essential to furthering Stone Barns’ charitable and educational mission,” Stone Barns said in a statement. “Stone Barns works closely with Blue Hill because Blue Hill has been a pioneer in furthering the use of regenerative farming techniques in sourcing its food and promoting mindful, informed consumption, with the goal of creating a community of eaters who understand the effects of their daily food choices.”
When David Rockefeller, the billionaire philanthropist and grandson of Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, opened the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture with his daughter Peggy Dulany in 2004, the nonprofit’s mission was to “demonstrate, teach, and promote sustainable, community-based food production.” One component was the establishment of its working four-season farm. The other was outreach directed at the general public, which was vastly less familiar with the benefits of eating locally and organically than it is today — relatively few had heard of a key Stone Barns cover crop, kale, for example. The center catered particularly to children: In addition to tours of its farm, gardening workshops, and seminars about agriculture and sustainability at its 80-acre complex, it led field trips for schools and scouting groups, offered class programming that met New York State Learning Standards, and even hosted after-school programs and summer camps to educate students about where food comes from.
Stone Barns’ ambitions for educating younger generations grew from there, and in the 2010s, it began a wide-reaching program aimed at what it considered an overlooked, but essential, demographic: teenagers. It developed a semester-long curriculum for high schools called “Food Ed.” that emphasized the interconnectedness of food, the environment, nutrition, and culture, and offered free, annual training conferences for educators willing to implement it. Hundreds of teachers adopted the program, carrying Stone Barns’ message beyond its tony Pocantico Hills campus — in 2016, it noted that the “vast majority of participating students come from economically disadvantaged communities, with 72 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunch.”
With a growing crisis of farmers hitting retirement age and no one to replace them, Stone Barns was also committed to educating another group of young people: the next generation of farmers. In 2008, it held the first-annual Young Farmers Conference, bringing together more than 170 early-career farmers to participate in networking events and two dozen educational workshops. Over the next few years, its Growing Farmers Initiative expanded, and its apprentice program, which aimed to teach rising farmers everything they needed to know to work on, or start, their own sustainable farms in the mold of Stone Barns, became one of the most sought-after apprenticeships in the regenerative farming world.
Within a decade of its founding, Stone Barns had become a center of high-profile conversation around sustainable farming, the food system, health, and climate change. In addition to its own conferences and initiatives, such as the Slow Tools conference, it hosted symposiums led by other influential groups, like Ferran Adrià’s Basque Culinary Center, bringing the world’s top chefs and luminaries to its campus to discuss everything from seed breeding to responsibly sustaining the global food economy.
For all of its nonprofit efforts, however, Stone Barns is one of the best-known food organizations in the country because of the Michelin-starred restaurant on its grounds. This was somewhat by design: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, led by Dan Barber, was conceived as a showcase for, and financial supporter of, the work of Stone Barns. Barber had already achieved some level of recognition for his farmer-centric approach to cooking at Blue Hill in Manhattan, but it was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns that his profile truly exploded: The partnership provided the backbone for the advocacy connecting flavor, soil health, and nutrition that made him one of the most influential chefs in America, as well as the agriculturally attuned cooking that made his restaurant one of the most celebrated in the world.
While their rise has been largely in concert, Stone Barns and Blue Hill are distinct: The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture is a nonprofit organization and Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a for-profit restaurant. For most of their existence, legally and financially, the relationship between the two has essentially been landlord and tenant, buyer and seller, contractor and customer: Blue Hill paid rent and facilities fees to Stone Barns; Stone Barns sold its meat and produce to Blue Hill; Stone Barns contracted Blue Hill to cater the nonprofit’s fundraisers, run its cafeteria, and, at times, do consulting work. Barber has described it as a “transactional situation.”
Barber was also relatively distant from the everyday work of Stone Barns, current and former employees say. He has always been involved at a high level — partnering with the Rockefellers at the organization’s conception, and serving on its board from 2007 to 2020 (his brother and Blue Hill co-owner, David, currently serves on it) — and will gaze into the middle distance of its fields for cameras. But numerous former Stone Barns staffers say that prior to 2019, Barber was not a particularly notable presence on the farm, in the office, or in its day-to-day fundraising operations, and that they rarely interacted with him. (Stone Barns contests Barber’s distance from its day-to-day work. “Dan and Blue Hill were integrally involved with Stone Barns programs prior to 2019,” Stone Barns said.)
In 2017, David Rockefeller died, and his estate began making a series of generous gifts to Stone Barns. In 2015 and 2016, the years immediately preceding his death, Stone Barns received about $4.5 and $4.7 million, respectively, in gifts and grants, and had assets of roughly $50 million. In 2017, Stone Barns received about $33.5 million, and in 2018, it received another $27.6 million, along with another 90 acres of land, bringing the value of its total assets above $100 million.
The windfall spurred Stone Barns leadership to reconsider how the organization accomplished its mission. In its 2018 annual report, released at the end of the year, co-founder and board chair Peggy Dulany teased that major changes lay ahead for Stone Barns and its relationship with Blue Hill: “At this moment of urgency to stem the worst effects of climate change, we are poised to scale our impact and address the greatest challenge of our time,” she wrote. “In collaboration with our partners at Blue Hill, Stone Barns Center is in the midst of a strategic planning process focused on bringing agriculture and gastronomy into [an] even closer working relationship.”
By the start of 2019, Barber, along with Stone Barns farm director Jack Algiere, had begun pitching the next phase of Stone Barns to its staff. The concept for what was dubbed “2.0” arose from the notion that changing the food system would require Stone Barns to radically “scale up the scope and impact” of its work by changing “not just what people eat, but how they eat.”
In its most complete public articulation of 2.0 — an application for the Rockefeller Foundation Food System Vision Prize — Stone Barns declared that change “is only possible when it is led by deliciousness.” Echoing what Barber has been proselytizing more than a decade, Stone Barns posited that changing the food system must start with using “flavor” to entice people to buy — for instance — bread that is baked by artisans who work with craft millers who make flour from whole grains grown by local farmers using seeds that were bred for flavor and nutrition. This “networked, circular” system would bridge the gap that persists between consumers and farmers, creating a robust economy centered around foods sustainably produced by local farms and other links in the regional food supply chain.
To realize this expansive vision of an “ecological food culture,” Stone Barns 2.0 would be organized into a series of labs. While some of them retain Stone Barns’ historical focus on agriculture, such as seed breeding, a majority would be devoted to gastronomic topics, including baking, meat processing, milling, and preservation. At these labs, researchers might devise innovative whole-animal butchery techniques to maximize an animal’s “culinary potential,” then train butchers in Stone Barns’ methods and philosophies. Through their connection to Stone Barns, those butchers might then find farmers raising grass-fed beef to supply them. Stone Barns would share the results of research with farmers, academics, and “culinary artisans” through its “broadcast lab,” from which it would also drive consumer demand for sustainably produced food with compelling stories about ingredients, farmers, and artisans told through podcasts, newsletters, and media appearances.
The 2.0 model predicts that access to this better food culture and its healthier, more delicious products will quite literally trickle down: It argues that as consumer demand grows for grass-fed beef and whole grains, infrastructure will be built alongside that demand, advocacy will result in public policy more favorable to small farms and producers, prices will come down, and, eventually, “the inequalities baked into a system in which healthy whole foods are only available to those with significant disposable income” will be left behind.
The aspirations of 2.0 would be manifested in part by deepening the relationship between Stone Barns and Blue Hill: Blue Hill staffers would guide some of the culinary labs, while the restaurant would serve as a real-world test bed for their research. Close partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit institutions are not uncommon. A nonprofit that wants to increase its impact, but has a limited budget, can partner with a for-profit business to accomplish a shared goal. For example, a housing nonprofit may choose to partner with a for-profit developer to complete a one-off building project. And under Barber’s leadership, Blue Hill at Stone Barns had become internationally known for creating a market for responsibly grown food.
The 2.0 presentations received pushback from a group of Stone Barns employees who were less convinced that gastronomic R&D in concert with Blue Hill was the best way to maximize the nonprofit’s newfound resources. For one, the Barbers, as co-owners of Blue Hill with David’s wife Laureen, had a vested interest in a closer partnership between the restaurant and the nonprofit. For another, Blue Hill already, quite famously, spearheaded some of the culinary research that the labs would tackle, such as producing a more-delicious whole-grain bread.
According to the Barbers’ spokesperson, Dan and David recused themselves from any Stone Barns board discussions pertaining to Blue Hill, and Stone Barns farm director Jack Algiere was equally involved in the conception of 2.0. “By formalizing the relationship [with Blue Hill] … the work that was previously exclusively in the kitchen and for diners becomes accessible to a broader audience, and we are able to welcome not just the public but experts, researchers, scholars, and artisans to participate in the innovation,” a spokesperson for Stone Barns said. “The ultimate decisions about the Stones Barns Center’s mission and how to implement that mission is and always has remained firmly and completely in the hands of the Stone Barns Center Board and management.”
Most of all, however, staffers’ concern about elitism in their institution, its halting efforts to address the whiteness of its leadership, the relatively narrow demographics of its primary audience, and its overlooking some vast inequalities in the food system had grown profound in recent years. “Our leadership is super hierarchical, all white, very wealthy,” says Taylor*, who was a current Stone Barns employee when we spoke and requested anonymity. “A lot of our visitors were locals, people who could afford to come to programs and, given our location, people from the same socioeconomic background as a lot of diners [at Blue Hill].”
Those issues had been vividly crystalized for staffers in the summer of 2017 during Stone Barns’ inaugural Exchange Fellowship, which included a three-week residency, intended to promote the sharing of ideas across disciplines. One of those first fellows was the writer and activist Shakirah Simley, who in the wake of the 2016 election had co-founded an organizing collaborative called Nourish|Resist. She says that during her three-week residency she encountered, over and over again, the organization’s profound failure to interrogate who, exactly, it was changing the food system for. Simley and another fellow of color, the chef Yana Gilbuena, describe repeatedly encountering storytelling by Stone Barns and Barber that they believed erased or ignored people of color from their grand vision of a new food system. They challenged the organization to do better, culminating in a presentation to 400 people at the Young Farmers Conference that December.
A public call to accountability hadn’t been the plan. But the evening before, during a Q&A following his keynote speech, Mark Bittman, the renowned food writer turned public health advocate, had responded to chef and educator Nadine Nelson’s question about accountability in a manner viewed by a number of other attendees as dismissive. (Bittman later apologized on Twitter.) When Stone Barns initially failed to directly address the incident, Simley, Gilbuena, and two other fellows tore up their planned presentation in order to make sure the conference engaged with what had happened. “These microaggressions — silencing, shaming, sweeping things under the rug — they happen in dining rooms, kitchens, in fields, and they happen within nonprofit organizations,” Simley said in her presentation. In the aftermath of the very public calling out, Stone Barns hired a consultant and undertook some DEI work, but several former employees say that the changes needed to be much more dramatic.
And now, as Stone Barns was preparing for a dramatic transformation, those concerns remained among staff. While documentation pertaining to 2.0 would acknowledge that “the local ‘farm to table’ movement originate[s] in indigenous, African, and immigrant traditions” and that Stone Barns had not done “enough to conduct our work in solidarity with communities of color,” in the view of some staff, the plans they were presented with failed to meaningfully address racial or social justice in the food system in any immediate way; they appeared to, at least initially, primarily benefit the culinary and dining elite, much like existing fine dining R&D programs such as Noma’s famed Fermentation Lab.
In response, employees proposed that “democratizing the food system” become a core plank of 2.0 as internal debates about the plan continued into 2020. It did not. (“A generalized ‘plank’ isn’t needed because this idea is infused into the very core of the 2.0 vision,” Stone Barns said in a statement. “The vision of 2.0 is to democratize the food system through connecting regional networks of stakeholders.”)
Lauren Yarmuth, who was hired as the new executive director in the fall of 2019, appeared open to these staff concerns, and spoke about wanting to break down hierarchies within the organization as well. Going into 2020, few at Stone Barns knew what the actual nitty-gritty of 2.0 would entail, but some of the employees who spoke for this story describe themselves as more hopeful under Yarmuth’s leadership. By April 2020, she would be gone, and Stone Barns staffers would be reporting directly to the owners and top management at Blue Hill.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated how quickly, and thoroughly, Blue Hill and Stone Barns became “joined at the hip,” as Barber later put it. In mid-March, like the rest of the restaurant industry, Blue Hill shut down its dining room and laid off most of the staff. On April 10, it received a Paycheck Protection Program loan for more than $2 million. Under the program’s guidelines for loan forgiveness, the restaurant needed to use at least 60 percent of the loan for payroll.
That same day, Peggy Dulany sent an email to Stone Barns staff announcing that the organization was “formally implementing” an initiative called “resourcED.” Described as “a plan to preserve the Stone Barns farm and other farms” by providing schoolchildren, front-line workers, and members of the Stone Barns community “with healthy, delicious food,” she wrote that this program would mark the first “joint collaboration” between Stone Barns and Blue Hill, and serve as a “great launching pad” for 2.0.
Barber has described himself at this time as being driven by, “Fear, fear, fear. Fear of failure.” Specifically, the fear of suffering another brutal restaurant closure, like one that had shaped his early career, or of his staff losing their jobs. The joint program, he has said he realized, “is my path out of not failing.”
Even Stone Barns staffers who thought 2.0 could potentially have a positive impact on their mission told me that they were concerned by how quickly and thoroughly Stone Barns leadership routed its pandemic response through Barber and Blue Hill. These concerns began with ResourcED, which Blue Hill was hired to develop and execute by Stone Barns. ResourcED comprised a number of initiatives, but its main offering was “a series of food and farm boxes” prepared by Blue Hill staff and made with products from Stone Barns and other local farms. Most were sold directly to consumers, who could also pay for donation boxes that went to local hospitals and community organizations.
Essentially, Stone Barns was contracting out its pandemic response to the restaurant. (Multiple Blue Hill employees who worked on resourcED told me that they didn’t even realize it was a Stone Barns program.) To fully support Blue Hill’s work on resourcED, Stone Barns paused all other programs, and did not attempt to offer pandemic-friendly versions of their ongoing work, such as virtual training for farmers and teachers. Stone Barns staffers say that the farm was also required to sell all of its produce to Blue Hill, including vegetables that already had outlets in the farm’s existing CSA — one of its only direct-to-consumer sales channels — at a moment when demand for CSAs was exploding nationwide.
Riley*, a current Stone Barns employee, says that reasons for outsourcing the nonprofit’s pandemic response to Blue Hill were never made clear to staff, and in Riley’s opinion, it was not to the benefit of Stone Barns’ mission. “We’re subsidizing this restaurant during this pandemic because it’s the Dan Show,” they say.
According to the Stone Barns Center’s 2020 990 filing — the primary IRS form used by nonprofits, which are required to be made public — that year, the nonprofit paid Blue Hill or otherwise financially aided the restaurant in a number of ways. Some of this was common throughout the restaurant industry, as owners with empty dining rooms cut deals with their landlords — Blue Hill paid Stone Barns $179,100 in rental fees in 2020, down from $1,231,553 in 2019. It also received a $250,000 grant to support resourcED. The restaurant was paid $1,215,502 in contractor fees running the resourcED program, compared to $263,333 in 2019, and just $37,500 paid between 2016 and 2018, before 2.0 began. (The restaurant also paid Stone Barns nearly twice as much for farm purchases in 2020 than 2019, by about $400,000. “Blue Hill did not profit in any way from these programs,” a Blue Hill spokesperson said.)
ResourcED wound down in the fall of 2020, with Stone Barns announcing that it had spent $445,000 on local farms, encouraged 4,000 people to plant gardens, and donated more than 7,000 meals. In a statement, Stone Barns said that it turned to Blue Hill to develop and manage the program because its board “felt that leveraging the existing infrastructural resources of Blue Hill to provide disaster aid” made the most sense. (For instance, as essential workers, Blue Hill’s restaurant employees could work on campus to pack boxes, while Stone Barns’ office staff could not.) Stone Barns also said that its board “closely reviewed [resourcED] at inception to ensure its overall consistency with Stone Barns’ charitable and educational purposes and to guard against impermissible private benefit.”
Part of the cost of supporting Blue Hill through the pandemic, multiple former Stone Barns employees say, was damage to their organizational culture. Blue Hill’s leadership — Dan Barber, his brother David, sister-in-law Laureen, and then-vice president Irene Hamburger — directly supervised members of Stone Barns staff during resourcED. Under their management, current and former staffers say, there was yelling and public humiliation at Stone Barns, reminiscent of the alleged culture in the Blue Hill at Stone Barns kitchen. “There was a cultural shift from Blue Hill leadership culture, and it’s a very aggressive, extreme, putting-in-your-place tone,” Taylor says.
“We went from working at a nice little nonprofit to working at a restaurant,” says another former Stone Barns employee.
“The working culture at Blue Hill is generally different and more intense than that at Stone Barns. Whether one culture is better than another is subjective,” a spokesperson for the Barbers said. “Dan is aware of one Blue Hill employee who raised her voice at both Blue Hill and Stone Barns staff at that time. He disciplined the employee as soon as he heard about it.”
Capping Stone Barns employees’ frustrations, that summer, staff who made above a certain salary at both the office and farm sides of Stone Barns were asked to take pay cuts, which was later framed as a step taken in “solidarity” with Blue Hill. The financial rationale was never explained, multiple former employees say, and it was mystifying to them why a nonprofit with assets of more than $100 million needed to cut into its employees’ salaries, even temporarily.
The skeleton crew of cooks called back to Blue Hill to assemble the resourcED boxes discovered an unexpected perk: After years of working together, they were finally getting to know their coworkers. “We didn’t have service, didn’t have 14-hour shifts, we weren’t constantly running around, we weren’t being yelled at,” says Emma Meigneux, a cook who worked on the food box assembly program. As they started talking, they realized many things they’d struggled with individually at the restaurant were actually problems many of them shared. They also realized that it might be an opportune time to speak out.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, the social media backlash that swept across the culture came for Barber, Blue Hill, and Stone Barns. In late May, Barber called for cooks to storm Battery Park under the cover of night and plant vegetables; his Instagram post was criticized both for its joke about daring the police to retaliate, and for erasing the work of Amber Tamm, a Black farmer and activist who had been advocating for urban farms, including a project of her own in Central Park. (A representative for Barber said, “Dan took these criticisms to heart. He had not known of Amber or her work before, he spoke with Amber multiple times, and she helped him realize that part of his project’s success was due to white privilege.”)
Another ResourcED initiative masterminded by Barber, Harvest Corps, involved sending laid-off cooks to work for free on organic farms, and specifically invited BIPOC cooks to apply; it was compared by commenters to slavery. (“Harvest Corps offered educational opportunities to culinary students and unemployed cooks while helping small farms in need,” Barber’s spokesperson said. “It is false to report that the program ‘was geared toward’ cooks of color. But, we were certainly working hard to attract members of the BIPOC community to make the program more inclusive and diverse. Accordingly, BIPOC students and out-of-work cooks were encouraged to apply for scholarships to cover travel and insurance costs. Every volunteer received room and board, including three meals per day.”)
The pushback Barber received on social media — an arena where he was usually showered with likes and comments of “oui chef!” — caught the attention of a group of Blue Hill at Stone Barns cooks, as well as recently laid-off front-of-house staff, who decided to write a letter to management. The letter’s demands included raising wages at Blue Hill at Stone Barns to the New York City minimum wage of $15 an hour; compensating interns and stages beyond free housing; expanding trainings to address issues of racism and sexism in the workplace; and diversifying the restaurant’s executive ranks. “We just wanted to talk about the underlying sexism and racism and how we wanted Blue Hill to address it and find professionals to help systemically change the business,” Trang Tran, who was a baker at Blue Hill between 2018 and 2020, told me.
There were smaller cultural critiques, too: Former Blue Hill cooks say that they were sent out to speak to guests from their own ethnic background, such as a Japanese cook being sent to speak to Japanese guests, and the letter asked that this labor be recognized and rewarded. Blue Hill cooks understood less about the overall 2.0 plan than Stone Barns staff, but they knew the restaurant was planning changes, and urged leadership to address social justice more directly. The letter proffers a list of potential policies to implement as the restaurant transitioned, including buying from more BIPOC producers, helping Black farmers find larger markets for their goods, and donating food to mutual aid and food banks.
The George Floyd uprisings sparked action by Stone Barns staff, too. On June 2, black squares covered Instagram, and Stone Barns took part in the meme. The comments were blistering. “Put your money where your words are, Stone Barns!” wrote a Black farmer named Dare Arowe, who had been accepted into the Stone Barns 2020 apprenticeship class. But when she asked for financial assistance for the move to Westchester, the organization declined. When the black squares appeared, Arowe was fed up. “I was like, let’s start this fucking conversation,” she says. (“The inherent inequities in the apprentice program is one of the reasons we ended the program,” Stone Barns said.)
Stone Barns staff also decided to write a letter urging their organization to take up the cause of social justice. The letter from Stone Barns’ administrative staff and farmers was sent to the Center’s board, with the subject line “A Heartfelt Request.” In it, the staff demanded that Stone Barns move toward becoming an “anti-racist” organization, and to do substantive work to change the culture of the nonprofit until it could truly address the racial injustices embedded in the food system.
The Blue Hill letter received two replies from Barber and the management, which broadly agreed with the issues raised, and promised to review training, hiring practices, and sourcing practices to make them more inclusive. Dulany, as chair of the Stone Barns board, replied to the Stone Barns letter promising to do better on the grounds of racial justice.
The Blue Hill staff behind the letter had hoped for a more substantive conversation. “I think we were very naive in thinking that we could just have a meeting with everyone to discuss why this was written and what we want to see from the company,” Tran says. “That didn’t happen.”
“Blue Hill worked hard on the issues the staff raised,” the restaurant said in a statement that detailed its efforts in employee training and hiring practices, equity and transparency, and “culinary work grounded in an anti-racist lens.” Stone Barns said that it “is committed to diversity in all its forms and has taken concerted action to address the issue. Dating back to at least 2018, we hosted trainings, workshops, and formed a DEI committee which met to address shortcomings.”
Trang and others who worked on the Blue Hill letter say they were unaware of any of these new DEI initiatives as they were being developed. Instead, in the days and weeks after sending the letter, they went back to work.
About a month after the Blue Hill staffers presented their letter, the New York Times reported that Dan Barber would “step away from kitchen duties” and Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns would both close through at least 2021. Blue Hill at Stone Barns would be replaced by Chef in Residence at Stone Barns, which would host a rotating cast of visiting chefs. Barber told the Times the program’s inspiration came in part from his staff, who had been “pushing some of the issues” that summer. (The Blue Hill staffers who spoke for this story and contributed to the original letter say that they were not involved in conceiving the Chef in Residence program in any way, and that its announcement came as a shock.)
The Chef in Residence series marked the second and more elaborate phase of Stone Barns’ partnership with Blue Hill. In the run-up, Stone Barns announced in November 2020 that four former Blue Hill employees, including VP Irene Hamburger, the restaurant’s HR director, its director of facilities, and one of its event planners, would move into a number of key positions at Stone Barns — all in addition to the multiple kitchen staffers consulting on the Stone Barns culinary labs. And despite publicly stepping away from Blue Hill, Barber and his team helped select the chefs for the residency, worked with them at the culinary labs, celebrated them on Instagram, and chatted up critics who happened to come to dine.
The residency launched in January 2021, and would ultimately feature nine chefs, including Omar Tate, Victoria Blamey, and Bryan Furman, each helming the Blue Hill at Stone Barns kitchen for a month. The reception to the dinners, which cost between $75 and $225 per person, was overwhelmingly positive.
As the Instagram accounts that came under so much fire over the summer of 2020 — Barber’s, Blue Hill’s, and Stone Barns’ — filled up with photos of Black and brown chefs cooking their own food and demonstrating the same passion for ingredients that Barber had performed for so long, Barber and Blue Hill became one of the few restaurants to have a visible response in the wake of the George Floyd protests; former Blue Hill and Stone Barns staffers who were critical of their time there praised the diversity of the dinners. “It definitely shared resources and a platform with chefs of color and also female chefs,” Taylor says.
Chef in Residence became Stone Barns’ primary initiative for 2021, so it included charitable and educational components: During the first season, guest chefs designed “family meals” that were donated to a number of organizations on a weekly basis, including Open Door Family Medical Center, Mixteca, and Rockland Pride Center. Each chef in residence also spent time working with the culinary labs, while public programming for the residency, meant as a companion to the dinners, “included virtual education, conversations, cooking classes, and much more” led by the chefs, as well as dozens of other guest speakers, by the time the residency ended in summer 2021.
But current and former Stone Barns employees had serious doubts about the reach and impact of Chef in Residence, particularly with regard to education. The guest chef talks were only open to staff, ticketed diners, and Stone Barns members — supporters who paid an annual fee for various perks — for the first six months of the program, and even after they became accessible to the public online, viewership and engagement was low, according to multiple current and former Stone Barns staffers. As a result, most of the education, they say, went to Blue Hill staff, who worked closely with the guest chefs and regularly attended their talks — meaning that the majority of the series’ public audience were the paying dinner guests. “With the exception of a few donated meals once a week, the amount of people who were actually impacted — truly impacted, not just ‘I signed in for a 20-minute virtual Zoom’ or ‘I’m a chef and it’s my job and I went to my mandatory cook’s meeting’ — are the diners,” says Riley. “And what is that person doing with that information?”
Part of staffers’ discomfort with the scale of the impact was the program’s substantial cost, and how it was paid for. Stone Barns’ budget for 2021 was $10 million; each four-month “season” of Chef in Residence cost roughly $2 million to produce. Tickets to the sold-out dinners did not fully cover their cost, so Stone Barns led a dedicated round of fundraising for Chef in Residence — much of which was paid to Blue Hill, which had once again been contracted to run the culinary aspect of Stone Barns’ programming.
Even though Barber visibly participated in fundraising — and according to Blue Hill’s spokesperson, “raised millions of dollars” to support Chef in Residence — the flow of money from the nonprofit to the restaurant left an increasingly sour taste in the mouth of some Stone Barns staffers as their concerns deepened about the impact of the organization’s new direction. “We were asking people to subsidize programs that have no impact and is going to run this for-profit restaurant,” Riley says. “That money wasn’t going to feeding community or providing education programs to hundreds of people. It’s going to paying chefs’ salaries and buying ingredients for a program that is 99 percent white-tablecloth experience.”
Stone Barns said that Chef in Residence was “highly successful in promoting our mission to broad audiences.” It also said that it was successful “as a charitable and educational initiative … The program was designed to combat some of the racial and gender inequities in the kitchen by giving chefs from these underrepresented communities a platform at one of the top-rated restaurants in the world and to provide a means of educating others about their food culture and traditions.”
Some of Stone Barns’ farmers, who were still in the fields growing food and caring for animals during the pandemic, also felt disconnected from the dinner series; former farmers say they had little contact with the visiting chefs, especially compared to Blue Hill staff. For instance, Victoria Blamey’s stint led to “three extended research projects on kelp’s effect on soil, animal health, and the culinary applications” at Stone Barns, according to the organization, but it was Blue Hill cooks who took a field trip to the Maine coast with her, documented on the restaurant’s Instagram page. (“This trip was initiated independently by Victoria Blamey and was not organized or supported by Blue Hill or Stone Barns,” Stone Barns said.)
Partly as a result of that disconnect, farmers I spoke with also expressed frustration about how much money they perceived to be going to Blue Hill as a contractor versus to the farm. The purported $2 million cost for each four-month season of Chef in Residence is equivalent to the farm’s entire 2021 budget. The apparent discrepancy was thrown into stark relief by a freeze on infrastructure spending that meant requests for new equipment on the farm were rejected at the time. “I couldn’t get $10,000 for equipment that would make things a lot more efficient and safer,” one former farm manager told me. “They put $1.5 million into a residency.”
“Department budgets are created annually in collaboration with the department director, the director’s team (in this case, the Livestock team), accounting, and the Board finance committee,” Stone Barns said. “The annual budget includes significant room for flexibility due to equipment repairs and maintenance.”
Blue Hill at Stone Barns returned in the fall of 2021 with Barber once more at the helm. The official Instagram account celebrated the reopening by posting images of cooks and servers overlaid with their reflections on what the Chef in Residence program meant to them. “When you’re in the weeds, it can be really hard to get into that [positive] mindset,” reads a post featuring a line cook named Musashi Osaki. “But it’s so necessary to be deliberate about this attitude. As Blue Hill at Stone Barns reopens and I’m working through a mile-long prep list, I remind myself to stay focused, yes, but also to cook with joy.”
Earlier this year, Barber described the new relationship between Blue Hill and Stone Barns as “kind of a model maybe for the future of restaurants.” Blue Hill is now “sixty percent restaurant,” with what he says is a far less punishing schedule for its employees. The other 40 percent of the restaurant’s time, he said, was taken up by culinary R&D for Stone Barns. “The center is paying us to do this research and development and to run these education programs to the public, and to partners, and to disenfranchised communities who are partaking in all this research and education,” he said. A meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns now begins with “an exploration of the property guided by cooks and farmers to serve as an introduction to our most exciting work.” Dinner, which cost $258 before the pandemic halted service in March 2020, now costs between $358 and $398 per person.
This summer, Stone Barns rolled out a new slate of programs designed to showcase its lab and conservation work. These include guided hikes both in the mornings and at night, tours of the innovation labs, a flower-arranging class, and several culinary offerings, like a cafeteria lunch tray or a vegetable tasting of new breed trials. Tickets to every type of Stone Barns experience are sold via Tock, a reservation platform used by high-end restaurants. Meals by Blue Hill staff are on offer, too, including a pizza night where tickets start at $125.
The programming page notes that these “experiences,” which emphasize access to the Stone Barns grounds, are almost always designed with adults in mind, while the classroom-reaching Food Ed. program, “including any work with teacher training and classroom support [is] on hold for the foreseeable future.” In a statement, Stone Barns said, “there are many organizations working on school education and we felt we could add value as a place-based organization by pivoting away from a broad range of programs to do deeper work with researchers, farmers, and other partners.”
When confronted in the press about the elitism of his project, Barber maintains that changes in our diets can trickle down from high-end chefs, and paraphrases Michael Pollan’s argument that major political changes in American life can stem from elites. But Blue Hill’s appeal to its well-heeled guests is inherently a romantic one, as is the vision for Stone Barns 2.0, by training food artisans to mill the heritage grain, butcher the grass-fed cow, and preserve the experimental beets. It sounds like a lovely means of restoring enervated food traditions. But it’s not innovation: The wealthy seeking salvation in the humble authenticity of rural life has a millennia-old history in Western culture.
Of course, addressing centuries of racial injustice, or tackling the growing horrors of climate change, are large, ugly, and maybe even overwhelming problems. They’re not pleasant to think about, especially for people with the means to donate to nonprofits, who may feel implicated by these problems, rather than galvanized. It’s much easier to garner support for a legion of artisans laboring to make you a delicious, healthy meal, which could lead to changes for people in need, someday, further down the road. On the podcast Time Sensitive, Barber said, “I’ve got to raise money, so I’m out there fundraising, which is storytelling. That’s all there is. I just got through telling about facts, but fact is, we’re in a post-truth world, aren’t we? Facts don’t matter. There’s only stories, that’s it. So that’s what I do.”
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s senior correspondent.
Kailey Whitman is an illustrator and designer. She likes to draw, drink coffee, and go outside, sometimes all at once.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler and Jasmine Liu
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