This story contains a detailed account of a sexual assault.
In November 2013, a 22-year-old cook named John Schaible arrived in Pocantico Hills, New York, to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Located on a working farm that was once part of a sprawling Rockefeller estate, the restaurant is a beacon of the sustainable food movement. Schaible kept a notebook in his back pocket to write down everything he learned: how sheep-grazing patterns affect flavor, the proper way to butcher old dairy cattle. There was so much to take in, especially from the head chef, Dan Barber.
No chef has shaped the 21st-century conversation about the connections between agriculture, cuisine, ecology, health, and climate change more profoundly than Barber. Hailed as a “philosopher chef” and a “prophet of the soil,” he argues that the choice between a delicious meal and a sustainable future is a false one: Regenerative farming can replenish the land, nourish our bodies, and produce super-delicious squash. If chefs work directly with farmers, he preaches, they can create a cuisine so delicious that Americans will ditch Big Ag forever. This hopeful message, which Barber delivers from behind the pass and onstage at TED, has earned him the devotion of countless fellow luminaries, from Ruth Reichl to the Obamas.
By May 2014, when a camera crew from Chef’s Table arrived to shoot an episode dedicated to Barber, Schaible’s enthusiasm was gone. That spring, he alleges, he was sexually assaulted by a member of the kitchen management, and in the aftermath, was devastated by how the restaurant’s leadership, including Barber, handled his allegation. “I only had four or five months to really be enamored with everything until my world flipped on me,” he says. The Chef’s Table episode, in which he appears in the background hustling on the line, is painful for him to watch. “Last year, I showed my partner the scenes I was in, and he was ecstatic, ‘Cool, my boyfriend’s on Netflix!’ All I could think about is how sad it is. I know what I was going through and know how much I hurt.”
Schaible is one of nearly 20 former employees who’ve told me that they arrived at Blue Hill at Stone Barns filled with passion and ambition, only to leave drained and disillusioned — or deeply scarred — by their experiences there. As Barber found fame by advocating for a culinary revolution, former cooks, servers, and managers say that conditions at his own restaurant could be brutal, rife with grinding pressure and explosions of anger. Many of these former employees say that they endured the working conditions at Blue Hill at Stone Barns because they believed in its mission. But then, they say, they came to realize that the story told by the restaurant — that a fine dining establishment can create a blueprint for transforming the food system — is essentially a fantasy. While staff did work with local, seasonal, unique ingredients, servers and cooks alike say they grew uncomfortable telling stories about some of the restaurant’s sourcing and preparation practices, including for a number of its signature dishes, which they considered misleading.
Over the course of reporting this story, I have spoken to more than 45 people, including more than 20 former Blue Hill at Stone Barns employees whose names were provided by the restaurant or who were otherwise encouraged to contact me. Numerous sources asked to be anonymous, fearful of the enormous reach and influence of Dan Barber. Repeated requests to speak directly with the leadership of Blue Hill at Stone Barns were denied. While this story 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.
Barber often tells the press that the goal of his restaurant is to be a model for how chefs can create a new style of eating that supports local farms, “a model that can be replicated anywhere.” But if workers say that the process of creating his transformational cuisine was exhausting and demoralizing — that it is, one might say, unsustainable — then what exactly is Blue Hill at Stone Barns modeling? And if Dan Barber, who can command hundreds of dollars for dinner on a farm funded by the Rockefellers, cannot fully live up to the ideals he says the rest of the world must aspire to, who can?
The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a nonprofit regenerative farm and educational center, opened in 2004 on the site of a former dairy farm. Connected to it was an “upmarket” restaurant intended to be a platform for — and to financially support — the center’s work advocating sustainable community farming. The chef chosen to run it, Dan Barber, had trained in France and at California restaurants Chez Panisse and Campanile, both famed for their dedication to working with seasonal ingredients from small farms. His own restaurant, Blue Hill in Manhattan — named for his family farm in Massachusetts — became an icon of farmer-centric cooking when whole-animal butchering and kohlrabi pickling were just a twinkle in Brooklyn’s eye. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, he aspired to transcend farm-to-table with a more holistic approach, one where farmers collaborate with chefs to breed for flavor and chefs cook what’s best for the ecology of local farms.
According to restaurant critics and well-heeled diners, Barber not only succeeded, he triumphed. Blue Hill at Stone Barns has been showered with raves from national publications, two Michelin stars, and a hard-won spot in the upper echelons of the World’s 50 Best, with Tesla-driving hedge funders, corporate execs, and Michelin list-checkers routinely pilgrimaging 25 miles north of New York City to “forage” for mushroom tartlets from under a pile of oak leaves, sausages made from duck pastured on-site, and whole-grain mini-brioches baked with wheat developed by — and named for — Barber, served with freshly churned butter from one of the Barber family cows. The cost of that meal has steadily climbed over the years. In 2019, Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ most recent full year of operation, it started at $258 per person; tickets to dinner currently cost between $348 and $398.
More than any specific dish though, what brought people to nibble on tiny, perfect radishes was the story that Blue Hill at Stone Barns told: how each ingredient, and the way it was produced, promises a profoundly better way of farming, eating, and living. “It’s about what the radish represents,” Barber said in Chef’s Table. “It has to add up to something larger than a plate of food.”
Aspiring cooks from across the country were also drawn to Pocantico Hills with a version of that story: the prospect of an unparalleled education in working with farmers and a singular opportunity to reforge American cuisine. When Emma Meigneux was hired as an extern in 2016, she says, it was a dream come true. “It was the first time I saw windows in a kitchen, which was something I’d never imagined,” she says. “I thought it would be so much different than the other restaurants I’d worked in.”
But former cooks, servers, managers, and externs told me Barber’s drive to repair the food system largely did not extend to the arena over which he arguably had the most control — the working conditions of his own staff. They say that the kitchen culture at Blue Hill at Stone Barns was defined by unyielding pressure bracketed by 70-hour weeks and minimum-wage labor. Numerous former employees describe Barber or other top Blue Hill leadership yelling at or publicly humiliating them for even minor mistakes.
Some cooks, having arrived from elite culinary schools or fine dining restaurants like Alinea and Noma, say the conditions at Blue Hill at Stone Barns were typical of the mundane brutalities of kitchens in the world of international fine dining — all of them shaped by the French brigade system, like those Barber came up in. They say they were, however, dismayed to encounter that culture at a restaurant which so insistently positions itself as an enlightened institution dedicated to inspiring change. A former front-of-house employee who left in 2020 says, “The goal is for us all to go out and take what we’ve learned and do great things, but what are we learning? Are we learning to underpay people and make people work insane, rigorous hours, and work in a French hierarchy kitchen and yell at people when we’re angry? Which education is actually standing out more?”
A number of cooks — mostly those who contacted me at the behest of Blue Hill leadership — say that they were unbothered by the culture at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, or even thrived in it; people who praise their time there say that they relish memories of banding together with other cooks to do the “impossible.” Will Smith, a former sous chef who contacted me after he spoke to Barber about this story, found it inspiring. “The biggest challenge was keeping up with all this new information, what’s coming next season, and showing up every day with this ambition to fix the food system, which was mentioned probably on a weekly basis,” he says.
Some of the cooks who say that their overall impression of their time at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is positive also readily admitted that there was yelling in the kitchen by Barber and other managers — one recalled that they cried at work when the intensity overwhelmed them — though they believed their experiences made them better cooks.
For a number of other former employees, what Blue Hill at Stone Barns offered wasn’t worth the price. Amy Huo started in 2016 as an unpaid extern. In a locked blog she wrote for friends and family, she detailed her harried life on the kitchen’s bottom rung, from the nasty perfectionism — she writes that she was once screamed at for having dirty nails after cleaning red cabbage — to the little moments that kept her going, like being praised for thinking of new ways to prepare candied celery root. At the end of her externship, Huo turned down a full-time position because she felt that the long hours — she frequently wrote her blog posts in the middle of the night after working a 70-hour week — and low wages brought out the worst in people.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns, like many expensive restaurants with international profiles, ran in part on cheap and free kitchen labor, and has had wage issues with its front-of-house workers, too. Blue Hill paid $2 million to settle a wage-theft lawsuit in 2017, and even after New York City raised the minimum wage to $15 in December 2018 — meaning cooks at the Manhattan location of Blue Hill had to be paid at least that much — employees at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, arguably the more prominent restaurant, still started at the Westchester minimum wage of $12. A cook who left Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2020 told me they received a 50-cent raise that brought them up to just $13.75.
“The minimum wage is now $15 in both locations for some employees, though we pay entry-level dishwashers at least $18 per hour,” Blue Hill said. The restaurant no longer uses unpaid externs, but it disputed the number of hours they worked, and said that “a substantial portion of their much-lower weekly hours was not working in the kitchen, but was educational and often voluntary.” Blue Hill also says that since reopening in 2021, it has reduced the number of covers per night and no longer “turns” tables, allowing staff to go home earlier. Additionally, this summer, staffers are allotted eight working days to pursue independent projects.
Huo also wrote of her struggles with the environment at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which stemmed from, as she wrote, “how cranky and miserable Dan Barber is.” Barber has spoken openly about his anger, even weaving it into the mythology of Blue Hill as a mark of his driving obsession — and, like other famously angry chefs, largely neutralizing scrutiny of it in the process. At a talk in 2010, he described his treatment of his cooks as “a little bit abusive.” In the Chef’s Table episode, an entire segment is dedicated to his temper, which he describes as “a really bad one.” Barber drapes this behavior in tradition, saying, “All French chefs of the old school had huge tempers. I’ve adopted from those experiences a temper that I’m just not proud of at all.”
Several employees did say that Barber could be a caring boss: When they were injured or sick, he connected them to his personal doctor or even paid for their treatment, and he went out of his way to help employees struggling with serious issues like addiction or grief.
But Barber’s self-awareness and acts of kindness did not blunt his outbursts, say multiple former cooks and externs, who described how minor infractions could randomly trigger flashes of anger or scathing public humiliation. At least 10 former cooks told me that Barber made them cry or witnessed him making someone cry. “You were scared any time that Dan would come near you because you had no idea if he was going to tell you you were doing a good job or if you should go fuck yourself,” Meigneux, who started at Blue Hill as an intern in 2016 and worked there in multiple capacities until 2020, told me.
A cook who worked at Blue Hill during the Chef’s Table episode filming in 2014 was one of several sources who described being shamed in front of the whole kitchen for a mistake. “I had a dish where the color was off, and I brought it up to Chef Dan to check on it,” they say. “I thought he was going to say just do it over like he usually does, but he decided to tell me how dumb I am and how disgusting this looks. It was just the most embarrassing thing ever; not only was it in front of my team, but it was with cameras.”
A spokesperson for Barber said that “Dan was trained in old-school kitchens under the brigade system, where chefs were unforgiving of even minor mistakes, and where he learned to yell at staff. He came to recognize that his own training was no excuse for treating his employees that way.” They continued, “Dan also realized that he was not immune to the pressure of the kitchen getting to him and shortening his temper. He cooks on the line in the restaurant every night and for the entire service and serves different menus for every table every night, which is unique for a chef of his stature. But, he recognized that this pressure does not excuse yelling at his team.”
Multiple former employees say that Barber’s squalls of anger set the tone for the kitchen. Kei Ohdera began as an intern at Blue Hill in 2013, when he was 20 years old, and quickly rose through the ranks. Within months, he was put in charge of the amuse station. Uncertain in his authority, he says that he treated the people working under him in the same angry and abusive manner his superiors used when speaking to the team. “I was pretty young, pretty green, and not versed in ways to manage other people. I didn’t do a good job. I allowed the same kitchen culture that everyone is used to and brought up in — that’s something I’m responsible for and I need to make up for. There’s [also] a responsibility [that] should be placed on the chef de cuisine and Dan for allowing this sort of culture to continue. They might deny it, but they know what’s going on. It’s an open kitchen.” (According to Barber’s spokesperson, “Dan did not tolerate his managers or other employees bullying other employees.”)
When Ohdera was promoted above several cooks who’d been at the restaurant longer than him, he believes he became a target. “The butcher invited all of us to his home, everyone in the back of the house, for a barbecue,” Ohdera recalls. While crouching down to warm his hands by a fire in the back, he says that a cook he had been friendly with pushed him, and his hands landed in the fire. “I burned them up pretty bad,” he says.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Ohdera says. He says he told Barber and the chef de cuisine at the time, and that management spoke to the other cook. “Instead of mediating between us or trying to find resolution to move forward, Dan had me come into his office and said, ‘I’m not sure why he did that or what happened between the two of you, it doesn’t matter. You need to quash this thing and get back to work.’”
According to Blue Hill’s spokesperson, the “cook never claimed that he was worried about a hostile work environment” and Barber “does not remember this incident or making the purported statement.” But if he had, “it is likely that Dan would have pointedly told them that whatever personal issue they had with each other outside of work should not interfere in the kitchen.”
Multiple former employees, including Ohdera, say that when they went to Barber about problems with managers, he took the manager’s side, or otherwise diminished the issue. “For me, the toxic culture culminated in all of the manipulation and gaslighting,” Emily Pilkington, who worked in events for a number of years before being promoted to kitchen manager in 2019, told me. “I would try to quit [over an issue with another manager] and Dan would come up with some reason why I was the only person that can do this.” (Blue Hill has human resources to which “all employees have been directed if they have any complaint or concern about how they are treated and if they are not comfortable going to their supervisors,” the restaurant’s spokesperson said.)
Perhaps no one suffered more as a result of this dynamic than Schaible, who alleges that Blue Hill’s leadership failed him when he reported that he had been raped by a kitchen manager.
In March of 2014, Schaible says he went to a house party that was attended by most of the restaurant’s back-of-house staff. After consuming what he believes was at least half a bottle of liquor while dancing in the basement, he blacked out. When he came to, he was in pain. “I remember basically someone was behind me, and I realized they were forcing their erect penis inside of me and telling me to be quiet,” he told me. “When you’re in a situation like that you say ‘stop’ because your brain immediately goes there. I remember saying that over and over again.”
Schaible says that he realized that the man behind him was the party’s host, a chef who worked in management at the restaurant. Schaible got away, and, still intoxicated, called both his brother and his then-boyfriend. Both told me that while Schaible was not clear what happened in that moment, he sounded so distraught they called the police to conduct a wellness check. When officers arrived, Schaible could not bring himself to reveal what happened, and sent them away. “I was so scared and didn’t know how to handle the situation,” he says.
For nearly two weeks, Schaible didn’t tell anyone, including his brother and his boyfriend, that he had been assaulted. He was afraid to tell Blue Hill leadership, because he feared that he would lose his job. The kitchen manager who allegedly raped him had been with the restaurant for more than a decade, and Schaible believed he had a close relationship with Barber. He was scared to go to the police “because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Eventually, Schaible broke down and confided in a fellow Blue Hill staffer, who encouraged him to go to management. When he ultimately relayed his allegation to Barber — that a kitchen manager had raped him — he alleges that while Barber displayed concern, he also appeared somewhat skeptical, noting that he had worked with the accused chef for more than 15 years. “Nothing’s ever given me the inclination that [the chef] is gay,” Schaible recalled Barber saying. (“Dan never said this, and he would never say this, especially in a situation where someone might have been sexually assaulted,” a spokesperson for Barber said. “Dan would never have reacted to a potential victim, especially a potential victim of a sexual crime, with skepticism, and he did not in this instance.”)
Barber’s brother, David, the co-owner and president of their restaurants, took over the matter and began an investigation, which initially came as a relief to Schaible. “HR and David Barber, who don’t know [the chef], they’re gonna help me,” he recalls thinking. “I felt a sense of protection with the idea that somebody was doing an investigation and they were gonna figure it all out.”
During their initial meeting, Schaible recalls being asked if he filed a police report, and feeling reassured that the restaurant would handle it, so that he wouldn’t need to. (A spokesperson for David Barber disputes this. “David asked him if he wanted to go [to] the police and [Schaible] said he did not,” he said. “David might have expressed empathy with that decision … but he never discouraged [Schaible] from going to the police.”)
Schaible says that he was told not to talk to anyone about the matter while the investigation proceeded. Barber gave him permission to step out of the kitchen any time he felt overwhelmed, and would come up to him on the line “every and now and then and say, ‘Are you okay?’” But as the days went by, he “felt very alone,” Schaible says. “I wanted somebody to be on my side and they weren’t giving me any resources.”
The investigation concluded a number of weeks later. Schaible was devastated by the final result: The restaurant would not fire the chef. It would keep the two separated, and the chef had been instructed not to have any more parties with employees. “I just had to live with that basically,” he told me. “The only way to have standing in that kitchen is to just work as hard as you could and pretend nothing was hurting you.”
Afterward, Schaible says, the frequent hostility in the kitchen became increasingly unbearable. Eventually, during buyouts of the restaurant, Schaible found himself once again working alongside the chef he alleges assaulted him, but he tolerated it for as long as he could. His dream had been to work in fine dining, and he was determined to stay at Blue Hill long enough for it to count. Finally, in late 2014, he gave multiple months’ notice, as was expected at the restaurant. “My last month there, I was probably the angriest person I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “You feel dead inside and that’s your reality until you can execute your escape plan.”
Blue Hill, Dan Barber, and David Barber dispute a number of elements in Schaible’s account, including that he ever accused the kitchen manager of rape. “A now-former employee told Dan that another now-former employee had tried to rape him off-hours,” a spokesperson said (emphasis theirs). “When David investigated what happened, [Schaible] told David that he did not remember or know what had happened because he had been drinking.” They also say that it “[Schaible] who asked Dan and David not to discuss the matter with anyone,” and that both Dan and David asked if he wanted to file a police report, which he “adamantly refused,” their spokesperson said.
Dan Barber offered to fire the manager on the spot, his spokesperson said, but because, he claims, Schaible “was equally adamant that he did not want anything negative to happen to [the chef],” and there was no “corroboration, police report, or witnesses” of the incident, the decision was ultimately made to separate the two. While eventually conceding “[Schaible] and [the chef] might have been in the same room on some fraction of those limited times” there was a buyout of the restaurant, Barber also said through his spokesperson that Schaible told him he did not want to be separated during such events to avoid drawing “unwanted attention.” Finally, the spokesperson contended that “[Schaible] had many resources to help him through what he was going through. He could have taken sick leave; he could have taken disability leave; and he had health insurance to help him access medical care and counseling.”
Schaible moved on to other restaurants, and eventually to Portland, Oregon, where he and Ohdera partnered to open a butcher shop, restaurant, and marketplace focused on dairy cattle — a concept they had first been introduced to at Blue Hill.
Schaible, who says his past trauma guides him to focus as much on his business’s workplace ethics as its sourcing, believes that he and other cooks working at Blue Hill “disassociated what was right and what was ethical because the goal was this thing that was greater than us.” The restaurant’s crusade to change the hearts and minds of its influential audience required equally profound conviction of its employees. But some say that the longer they worked at Blue Hill, the more uncomfortable they became with those stories.
“COMPOST oven: 155 degrees. Temp outside: 29 degrees,” Barber posted on Instagram in January 2020. In the accompanying video, a hand reaches into the hatch of a large metal cylinder jammed into a hulking pile of dirt and hay, as if delving into a portal to an underground dimension, and fishes out a sous vide bag. This was the latest iteration of Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ compost oven, which cooks food in the most sustainable way imaginable — with heat from waste being recycled on-site. At the end of the video, the camera pans up to reveal a rooster strutting on top of the pile.
Gillian Teall recalls ferrying VIPs — known as PX and PX+ guests at Blue Hill — down to those waste piles in a John Deere Gator. A meal at Blue Hill at Stone Barns could roam around the property, from a bread sampler in the custom-built bakery to a bite at the chef’s table in the kitchen, and Teall sometimes found herself escorting select diners to a special course of a slow-poached egg pulled straight from the compost oven. What her guests didn’t know was that it was actually a return trip: Prior to their arrival, she’d driven the Gator down to place fully cooked eggs into the oven’s hatch.
The compost oven wasn’t reliable, she says, so the restaurant had prepared the eggs in the same kind of immersion circulator used in kitchens around the world for sous vide cooking. This was a far cry from the farm-to-table idealism that had brought Teall to work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2016 as an extern. She had since worked her way up to market forager, a manager position overseeing sourcing. “The compost egg was such a blatant lie it felt silly,” she says, adding that it left her wondering, “Why am I doing this?”
According to 10 former employees whose time at the restaurant spanned 2013 to 2020, the compost oven did not consistently work during their time at the restaurant, at least not in any way that would allow it to be meaningfully used for service. These employees say Barber and the other cooks tried different oven designs and compost mixes over the years, but none of them consistently cooked dishes to completion, even as guests and media were often told otherwise. A former sous chef who worked at Blue Hill from 2014 to 2017 says the version of the compost oven featured in Barber’s 2020 Instagram video was the most promising design. “The story of compost-cooked stuff was still out in the world, so they were trying to continue that story, but could never get it to work,” they say.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a restaurant built on storytelling, and sometimes, the story appears to have taken on a life of its own. Fine dining restaurants regularly regale their guests with descriptions of their rare and pristine ingredients and ingenious cooking techniques. But Blue Hill at Stone Barns stands out in claiming their high-end meals are not only worth paying hundreds of dollars for, but that they’re helping to save the world by creating a model of sourcing and cuisine to replace destructive industrial agriculture that others can follow.
Many former employees say the stories that made them uncomfortable were the ones that transformed Blue Hill at Stone Barns from an ambitious farm-to-table restaurant sometimes doing 100 covers or more a night to a fairytale land where the constraints of season, supply, and nature fell away. “Obviously we were buying more locally than most do,” Teall says. “When you’re saying things are possible when they’re not possible, it’s an unattainable goal no restaurant can achieve.”
Several former employees who were distressed by how Blue Hill represented certain dishes to guests went out of their way to say that there were no issues at Blue Hill that rose to the level of ingredient fraud alleged by former Willows Inn employees in the New York Times, and noted that Blue Hill’s practices far surpassed those of the countless restaurants with a long list of farms on the menu that serve almost nothing from them. “I don’t want to say Blue Hill was intentionally pulling wool over everyone’s eyes,” the former sous chef says. “It was maybe cutting corners.”
I asked Blue Hill at Stone Barns about the sourcing of a number of dishes and their components, and how they were represented to guests. It maintains that it has never intentionally misrepresented any of its preparations, dishes, ingredients, or their provenance, and that what it serves is “overwhelmingly locally sourced.” According to data provided by the restaurant, in 2019, its most recent full year of operation, by dollar amount, 21.7 percent of its produce came from Stone Barns, 40.8 percent from the Union Square Greenmarket, 15.6 percent directly from local farms, and 8.2 percent from local produce distributors; 13.7 percent of its produce was nonlocal.
Blue Hill also admitted to a number of claims I put in front of it, in part or full, though nearly always couched in an explanation that it says means there was no deception involved. Regarding the practice of placing pre-poached eggs in the compost oven to retrieve in front of guests, for instance, it said, “We only do this with eggs fully cooked in the compost oven, so we are not misleading guests about eggs that were partially finished conventionally.” While stating that “we certainly reached the period well before 2020 when the compost oven regularly worked and meaningfully contributed to service,” it also admitted that “the 2017-2019 period was the period in which the compost oven was less reliable and when we would inform guests if their dishes were partially cooked in the compost oven.” It further clarified that in those instances, “the compost oven would get the eggs 80 percent cooked, at which point the eggs would be finished in the kitchen.” (Multiple front-of-house sources, including ones sent to me by Blue Hill, say they don’t recall ever telling guests a compost-oven egg had been partially cooked by some other method.)
Some descriptions omitted details in ways multiple former employees say they felt were misleading. With the kitchen operating from a 40- or 50-dish playlist that shuffled from night to night — the restaurant famously eschews a set menu — staff kept track of the dozens of possible dishes they might serve with an internal document known as a “call sheet.” It describes every dish with a “call,” or scripted patter, meant to be said verbatim by staff when it is served to guests. One of Blue Hill’s signature dishes is the Badger Flame beet tartare, made with the Barber-designed vegetable, the seeds for which he also sells through Row 7, his seed company, which is famously so sweet and tender it can be eaten raw. In theory, every guest who received the dish was told it was the same thing: “Badger Flame beet tartare.” However, for an extended period of time, it was possible they were receiving a dish composed partly with other types of beets that lacked the texture and flavor Barber says is the driving focus of his breeding work.
In a statement, the restaurant said that “there were occasions — especially between 2014 and 2019, when there were limited supplies of the beet — when we used local yellow beets as a puree to complete versions of a Blue Hill dish called Badger Flame beet tartare. But the Badger Flame beet always constituted the bulk of the tartare and defined its flavor (which is what we were noting in particular). Given these two facts, we did not call attention to the other beet contributor as it simply operated to support the Badger Flame beet.”
In another, similar example, a pastry cook from 2013 to 2015 says they were disappointed to learn that desserts were sometimes supplemented by frozen puree purchased from a supplier. “At that point, I was accepting the fact that there were a lot of lies in our industry,” they told me. The use of frozen purees instead of local fruit was intermittent but recurring under a particular pastry chef from at least 2013 through 2019, say multiple former pastry cooks, a practice that frustrated them. “I came all the way from [abroad to work at Blue Hill], and I thought we were using fresh fruits,” another former pastry cook told me. “I saw all these fruit purees being used, I was upset.”
While admitting to several distinct instances of using frozen puree purchased from a supplier, Blue Hill disputed the overall frequency of the practice and repeatedly emphasized that because it “did not attribute any fruit source” in the calls for any dishes that used frozen puree, it was never misleading. “Any suggestion by Eater that we misrepresented these desserts to our guests or that we used frozen puree other than in fantastically small amounts would be false,” it said.
A number of the stories that former employees felt uncomfortable telling tie directly into not only the restaurant’s narrative, but Barber’s own. The chef’s transformation into a farm-obsessed crusader, in his telling, was sparked by the family farm, Blue Hill, for which his other ventures are named. He and his brother transformed it into a dairy operation, and accordingly, one of his signature obsessions is butter. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, captains would begin the meal by telling guests about the cows that feasted on the grass at the Barbers’ farm.
Later in that meal, guests would receive a special bread-and-butter course, which from 2018 to 2020 often involved a server or cook hand-churning butter in front of guests. According to former employees, they would again describe Blue Hill Farm and its cows while churning the butter. However, these same employees say, most of the butter served with the bread course — including butter that was described as “Blue Hill Farm butter” — was made with cream from Ronnybrook, another local dairy.
In another version of this course, served to a smaller number of guests, former employees say diners were presented with a butter that was always made with Blue Hill Farm cream: the restaurant’s famed single-udder butter, made from the milk of a single Barber family cow — the sine qua non of Barber’s quest for sustainable and delicious terroir. But multiple former employees say that Blue Hill Farm cream was often in such short supply that single-udder butter was largely reserved for VIPs, and if there was a large number of VIPs in one night, some of them would get butter made with Ronnybrook cream, too.
In a statement about the butter that totaled nearly 1,000 words and began with the sentence, “We want to further explain our butter,” Blue Hill acknowledged using Ronnybrook cream in butter that it said it describes as “Blue Hill butter,” or simply as “fresh butter.” It also acknowledged that most guests receive this butter most of the time. After previously denying it had ever served anything called “Blue Hill Farm butter,” it later described it as a third category of butter that was “made from cream coming from a mix of cows at Blue Hill Farm.” It continued, “If anyone wrongly named a butter as Blue Hill Farm butter during a service when the butter that service was made with some amount of (or all) Ronnybrook cream, that would have been a rare, unintentional mistake.”
Between April and November, when the restaurant receives large amounts of Blue Hill Farm dairy, “about one-third of our guests have gotten single-udder butter,” Blue Hill said. “Sometimes, all our guests have gotten single-udder butter,” but “we limit these occasions” because of the labor involved in producing the cream used to make the single-udder butter. The restaurant explained its general approach of quietly reserving its most rarefied ingredients, like single-udder butter or more experimental produce, for VIPs partly as a product of seasonality and supply: “At the beginning and end of a season, we may have limited quantities of a product, but in a season’s heart, we may have plenty for every guest. So, PX items fluctuate in and out of being PX-only.”
Finally, Blue Hill said that captains begin the meal by discussing Blue Hill Farm’s dairy because “almost every meal includes dishes made with Blue Hill Farm milk,” such as ricotta cheese or ice cream. (In late summer and early fall, the restaurant says it receives as much as 100 gallons of Blue Hill Farm milk a week; from April to November, it says it receives about 16 to 32 pints of Blue Hill Farm cream.)
Former cooks felt that tableside storytelling also unnecessarily embroidered ingredients they already considered to be wonderful, such as the various iterations of honeynut squash Barber developed with one of his Row 7 co-founders, the breeder Michael Mazourek, a signature item at Blue Hill. On the “New York City” episode of Somebody Feed Phil, for instance, Barber presents Phil Rosenthal and his guests with a puree of an “experimental” squash by saying, “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever had. I didn’t add salt. I didn’t add butter. I didn’t add pepper.” When the chef Alon Shaya sampled some of the squash and asked Barber how it tasted salty, he laughed and said, “I don’t know!”
Meigneux, who cooked at Blue Hill from 2016 to 2020, says she was told to tell customers a similar story — that the 898 experimental squash, now available as seeds for purchase from Row 7, was so sweet it didn’t require seasoning, after she herself had seasoned it. “Having to tell tables that felt wrong,” she says.
Early in Teall’s tenure, she received an informational sheet on the honeynut squash during a chef’s meeting. On it, she scrawled a note that it was never seasoned because Barber, in his educational mode, had announced that was the case. When Teall asked other cooks about it later, she says, they told her it wasn’t true. This was frustrating, she says, because she believed consumers would enjoy the squash if they knew how to prepare it. “Someone’s going to go home and cook honeynut and be like, What did I do wrong?”
Blue Hill explains this practice as one born out of the unpredictable nature of farming seasons — an example of the way that the restaurant told stories about seasonality and small-scale farming while often opting to shield guests from its limitations and disappointments. Blue Hill acknowledges that “in falls 2019 and 2021, the squash had bad seasons and, about half the time, a drop of honey, a drop of butter, or both were added so the squash would be more flavorful.” Through his spokesperson, Barber said that “he knew this was happening infrequently when the squash was not as sweet as it usually was, and that it was wrong. He blames only himself and not his cooks for this.”
Another area where multiple former cooks say Blue Hill at Stone Barns engaged in practices they were uncomfortable with was in serving vegetarian and vegan guests. The restaurant has an elaborate playlist of substitutions for people with dietary restrictions, including vegetarian and vegan diners, as well as a multilayered protocol for tracking those guests throughout the meal, and physical descriptions of the guest noted on tickets; their plates are also tagged with neon-green tape at the pass.
But multiple former cooks say that due to the complexity of the playlist system and the restaurant’s ethos of seasoning vegetables with meat and other animal products, sauces containing creme fraiche, chicken stock, or egg emulsion were served to vegetarian and vegan diners. “If there was a substitution planned, we would try to stick to it,” a former back-of-house employee says. “There were so many dishes on the menu, you don’t [always] have time to prep for a substitution. The rhythm would take priority over the components of the dish — if they need this dish to be out, they would use whatever they had.”
At a sous chefs’ meeting in 2017, one employee confronted Barber about his frustrations with the restaurant sending out dishes made with animal products to these diners, to which Barber responded, “You try writing a whole fucking menu on the fly and see if you can do better.”
Blue Hill denies that it consistently or intentionally served vegetarians and vegans dishes with animal products in them. “There have been very, very few times when this has happened, and it was never intentional — each time was the result of a mistake, but rare mistakes happen,” it said. Acknowledging the incident at the sous chefs’ meeting, Barber’s spokesperson said that “Dan strives for perfection, and these mistakes almost never happened, but it happened this time. Dan was angry about the mistake, and Dan lost his temper.”
One example that particularly confounded numerous former cooks was how the restaurant served its trademark bone ash cheese, which was coated with the ash of house-made animal bone charcoal. Multiple former employees say this cheese was sent to vegetarian diners; the playlist system called for vegetarians to receive a cheese made with plant ash, but multiple former cooks, including ones who worked with the restaurant’s cheese, attested to me that they never saw any ash-coated cheese labeled “vegetarian.” “One of those things you validate while you’re there, and is so fucked up to think back on, we gave vegetarians actual bone,” Teall says.
Blue Hill acknowledged that “a very small number of times, cooks in the kitchen mistakenly served vegetarian guests the wrong cheese preparation.” It estimated it to “have happened to less than a dozen vegetarian and pescatarian guests.” It also said that cooks might have been “confused” about how “rarely” guests with restricted diets were unknowingly served animal products, because “vegetarian, vegan, and pescatarian guests ask expressly and knowingly for dishes outside their restricted diets,” such as the bone ash cheese, after they “hear dishes described for other guests at their tables or see dishes at other tables,” and the substitution “plays out at the pass,” out of the cook’s sight. This happens “multiple times a week,” according to the restaurant.
Some former Blue Hill employees who spoke for this story say the storytelling practices did not bother them while they worked there. Joseph Otway, who worked at Blue Hill in 2016 and was encouraged to contact me by the restaurant, says his experience at other fine dining restaurants, where waste is rampant, persuaded him Blue Hill’s storytelling was essential to the industry. Otway says he never told a story he believed to be untrue, though there were some that used what he characterized as “artistic license.” He recalls taking a tillage radish the size of his arm out on a meat slicer to slice in front of guests, and informing them that this delicious product usually went to waste, a victim of a system that saw no market for such a wonderful vegetable. “Is it that delicious? Probably not, to be honest, but it tells you a story … Is it a waste of time? Probably. But not for Dan. It’s powerful and got a message behind it and it makes people think.”
Telling guests stories about salvaged radishes and compost oven eggs does present a vision of a better world; those stories are also the foundation of Blue Hill’s worldwide fame, and bottom line. But Teall and numerous other former employees say they felt a deep disconnect between the image that brought them to work at Blue Hill and the daily realities of it — the challenging working conditions and the practices that they felt uncomfortable perpetuating in the dining room. They came to Blue Hill out of ambition, yes, but also to serve their values. The crushing pressure and emphasis on dazzling guests with inspiring stories, they say, caused them to compromise those values, in ways they now regret.
This disconnect was never apparent to the guests, who were only ever invited to consider the broken system of how they ate, not necessarily the people who labored within it. And if their meals were actually shaped by bad crop seasons or faulty compost, they were not necessarily told, unless it served the larger story. Part of Blue Hill’s luxury was the illusion that every thorny problem had been solved — at least for the night. But many former employees left believing Blue Hill was not the solution at all — it was part of the problem. “I don’t think Blue Hill was worse than any other,” Teall says. “But they weren’t trying to do better.”
>> Part 2: Can This Farm Fix Agriculture If It Can’t Fix Itself?
Eighteen former workers at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture allege dysfunction in the livestock program at America’s most famous regenerative farm.
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