"Two people on different ends of the food system opened up a whole new world.”
This is how Michael Mazourek begins to tell me of his journey with Dan Barber, renowned Chef, author, and Co-Owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
I first heard of this new world and the company looking to crack it open while sitting in a room of produce industry professionals, hanging on Dan’s every word as he spoke of an avid pursuit of flavors he himself never knew existed, and ones that didn’t yet exist for anyone.
Mutual passion, deep curiosity, and a quest for the unknown forged a partnership that eventually became Row 7 Seeds, a company looking to revolutionize fresh produce. But, before all that came an invitation to dinner and a burning question to be answered.
The guests? Michael, of course, who is a Seed Breeder and Associate Professor at Cornell University, along with a group of professionals in his field.
“I had been wanting to work on flavor for a long time, but this was not viewed as a priority when breeding. On Dan’s part, what he took away from the conversation was that there was so much he could be tasting that he believed he might be missing out on,” Michael laughs.
Imagine doing something you love, but having to cut out a key component of why you love it. This, I think, is what it is like to breed for a list of attributes that don’t include flavor. Combine this deep desire for change with Dan’s determination, and discovery is inevitable.
In following Dan’s commitment to telling the story of a food’s origin—be that on the plate, via the written word, or by speaking engagements like the one I attended—a profound passion for possibility becomes prominent. To create the best eating experience, and therefore a need to have the best ingredients with which to create, seems to drive the chef.
"... it’s not about just relying on the farmer, or the soil, or the farming practice—it’s about starting with the seed."
Dan Barber, Chef and Co-Founder, Blue Hill and Row 7 Seeds
“The idea of Blue Hill, and what we have done since we started, was to try and refocus the architecture of the plate to where meats and proteins took less of a center stage and more of a supporting role,” Dan shares with me.
In his busy New York kitchen, a background of clattering and cross-talk floating over the phone, the chef himself is cooking for a breeder as he takes the time to answer my call. “We are not a vegetarian restaurant by any means—we love meats and we love proteins—but vegetables and grains are what got us really excited, and switching the paradigm of a protein-centered plate of food is something that became a part of who we are. That led me to certain farmers that were growing certain varieties in certain soils, and I identified the kind of products that would carry that star role.”
Dan is, among many things, an avid learner. To listen to him tell his journey, or to watch how he found his way to becoming a chef via the first season of Chef’s Table, is to see a drive to understand, and then to apply that understanding to improving his craft.
So, it is no surprise where Dan’s quest for a new plate paradigm brought him.
“It led me increasingly to specific varieties and then, ultimately, to breeders, because they could take those varieties and make them better. We had to ask for it, because the industry is not asking for super jaw-droppingly delicious root vegetables. They are asking, for the most part, for yield, for uniformity, and for all the things that are a part of our food system. So, the hope was to turn that on its head and focus on the flavor of the vegetable or the grain,” Dan shares.
Inevitably, Dan’s appreciation for the details brought him to the very core of where every fresh item originates, and, eventually, to the dinner that brought him and Michael together.
“Consumers want more vegetables and they want more grains, but they have to taste good for anyone to want to come back a second time. That’s why it’s not about just relying on the farmer, or the soil, or the farming practice—it’s about starting with the seed. If the seed doesn’t have the genetics to be expressed then they won’t be expressed, no matter how good the soil is. That, I think, is the trick: Finding the right genetics, then the right farms, then cooking it right. It’s those three components that become three legs of the stool,” Dan explains.
In this equation, the chef shows an understanding many of those in our world of fresh produce have, but few outside of it do.
“Dan was seeking how to better express what he wanted through his work in the kitchen, and why he was only at the tip of the iceberg,” Michael recalls. “We realized that we needed a bigger tent of people like us.”
And, together, the chef and the breeder formed Row 7, a new kind of seed company with one focus: taste.
“Ever since that initial conversation we’ve been sharing versions and steps in programs along the way,” Michael reflects. “The notion of how to get the most flavor and nutrition into a plant, how to make that work for the grower—even sustainability—are all ongoing.”
Now nearing its third anniversary, Row 7 is partnering with more chefs and breeders while magnifying those voices fueled to bring a better palette to the artistry of the plate. Likewise, the company’s portfolio of products is expanding, and even making its way from top-tier kitchens like Blue Hill to grocers like Wegmans.
“We are finding our place in the produce world, where partners can get our products, and the important part of that is we are working on the crop before the crop,” Michael shares. “Where do the seeds themselves come from, and when you talk local, does that include the seed as well? How far can we go?”
Listening to Michael speak of such details and possibilities puts into place what made him stand out to Dan, now over a decade ago.
“Mike was asking questions and thinking like a chef,” he recalls. “I was really impressed.”
Among those thoughts from Michael is the bridge between what our industry has been doing and what Row 7 envisions.
“The biggest constraint, I feel, is we have to change the crop without changing them. There is so much diversity in what we could be eating. Some of those diverse items are solutions to climate change and adaptation issues we as an industry are currently dealing with, but they look too different. Chefs who love exploring these areas are the champions of that diversity,” he shares, telling me that the biggest challenge a grower might have at a produce show is getting a buyer to try something new in a foundational crop—broccoli, for example.
But the demand is there, Dan tells me, and the potential to be ahead of that curve is beckoning.
“I’d love to see a shift toward less protein-centered dishes, more focus on the architecture of the plate that corresponds to what the ecology and the landscape that surrounds you can support,” Dan muses. “And, for most places, that means more of a grain and vegetable focus. It’s better—better on the soil, better on your health, and more pleasurable when eating—so it’s a win all around. It’s also more delicious, so I think that’s the way to go.”
This last note is not an afterthought, but the answer to the burning question that brought a group of breeders to Blue Hill. Discovering what any ingredient might be capable of—what could be more delicious—was the pursuit that launched a quest for what was possible, bringing together two minds with one passion.
A chef and a breeder sit down to dinner and wonder what we might be missing. Two masters of flavor, one from the starting line and one from the finish.
It almost seems too simple now, with the answer staring us in the face: All that was needed was the seed.