APIECE APART WOMAN
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, dinner is more than a meal. The restaurant, housed on the former Rockefeller estate 30 miles up the Hudson River, has worldwide renown for elevating dinner into an art form, where “ farm to table” and gastronomy intersect. (There’s lots you can do to self-educate on all that’s going onat Blue Hill,we’d suggest this or this to start.) Meanwhile, standing in the back and discussing the entirety of the experience is Laureen Barber. As co-owner and design director, Laureen’s daily life brushes against every facet of the business: to give you a sense of the breadth, she’s been a participant on a panel titled the “Ideal Dining Experience”; on the flip side, she was recently knee-deep in research centered around the ideal shape of a yogurt container. She juggles a lot of responsibilities. To learn more about her work, background, and what drives her professionally and personally, we visited Blue Hill to observe a day in the life.
Laureen wears MARTYNA BUTTON UP BLOUSE in navy wool.
Can you share a bit about your upbringing —where you are from, and what your childhood was like?
I was born in Pittsburgh where both of my parents’ families are from, but we moved to Bucks County when I was young. Bucks County is where I have most of my childhood memories—playing in cornfields and hay barns with lots of neighborhood friends. Having the freedom to get to any friend’s house with just my bike and not coming home until it was dinner time. It is a beautiful place with many farms, stone homes, and history. Actually, my first paid job was picking strawberries at a local farm. I was the only girl so I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother. They were very good cooks. Although my mother worked most of my childhood, she made a priority of the family eating together each night. They were not complicated or extravagant meals, but they were delicious and comforting. Now that I have my own family, I have adopted the same devotion to the family meal. It happens every morning and each evening.
Your work with Blue Hill is driven by details: macro, large scale projects aside (like marketing company wide or establishing branding and identity), can you share some unexpected small details that are part of your daily job?
Storytelling at Blue Hill is the way in which we engage our guests (whether it is through a narrative or design) about where their food comes from and how it is grown. Diners tend to find their flavors more delicious when they are connected to stories that have meaning. To make visual connections happen naturally, we pay close attention to the interactions the diner has with space, texture, color, and scent. The way that eating is a sensory act, so too is design. We hope that those design details are subtle and reveal themselves quietly and unexpectedly. We offer a journal of ingredients instead of a traditional menu; our bread and butter plates are handmade with the wheat that we grow in four varieties; instead of china, a plate could be a stone from the farm; the vines above the farm table are from fallen trees from the property.
The palette of the room celebrates its natural setting in an attempt to diminish the boundaries between the outside and inside. What are some specific ingredients or meals that have recently inspired you creatively from a design perspective —whether in palette, texture, or unexpected pairings of the two?
Blue Hill has been collaborating with the Bread Labin Washington State to develop new, more flavorful breeds of wheat. And, recently we built a bakery adjacent to the dining room so that guests can experience the art of bread baking first-hand. Creatively, this was an opportunity to allow design to support and elevate the diners’experience and understanding of the flavor and value of freshly milled, whole wheat grain. We took an approach to the interior design that highlighted local artisans and still provided the bakers with the practical tools they need. The lights were handmade in Long Island with bronzed metal and wood. The stools are crafted from blackened wood from Sawkille, an upstate New York furniture maker, that takes a modern approach to traditional, country design. Reclaimed wood is a key textural element of the space, which was essential to seamlessly integrate this “new” space with the existing structures. Our goal was to make the bakery feel like it had the age and gravity of the original space, but with the fresh simplicity of a modern design. A small design detail here would be that we allow customers to take home their freshly baked wheat bread in an old-fashioned muslin bag. An attempt at again blending the old with the new.
Outside of Blue Hill, you are very involved in volunteer and with non-profit work —I’m curious about where you think your sense of social responsibility comes from? Is it upbringing, education or external influences?
I began volunteering when I was a young and always felt it was less of a responsibility but more of a way to bring perspective and appreciation to my life. As an adult, I have met some of the most inspiring women and made some of my most meaningful friendships through volunteering. I mostly believe that “When I do good, I feel good,” as Lincoln said. And, I believe that no child should ever be hungry and not have access to nutritious food. The fact that within our local community we have children who do not have enough food seems unacceptable. I have great respect for the Food Bank and our local grass-roots efforts who are making difference.
What is something you are passionate about?
Responsibly caring for our land and parks.
What is something you are still trying to figure out?
How to pack it all in—family, work, and fun.
What have been some of the biggest turning points in your life or career?
Deciding to pursue a career in design even though changing my focus seemed daunting and scary. Becoming a mother (of course.) Starting a business.
At home, what’s always in your fridge and pantry?
In the fridge we always have grass-fed milk and yogurt. We like the whole milk variety. Fruit and lots of veggies. (Our CSA is still happening, so this week we had swiss chard, lettuces, garlic, carrots and beets.) We make a salad every night so I try to keep the fridge stocked. We’ve been into Sir Kensington’s condiments and have their entire collection. We redesigned some of our Blue Hill packaged products recently –jams and honey, so I have an abundance of small batch producers that I have collected. And, of course, the usual suspects: probiotics, flax, chia, turmeric, raw honey, local honey and whole wheat bread. Not to mention, about 20 different types of herbal and black teas. We all drink tea at home—every night.
Laureen wears DAMARA RUFFLE TOP in navy stripe.
What’s the best meal you’ve had recently?
Blanca. The presentation was artful and the food was delicious. The attention to detail was impressive and the service was warm.
What do you cook for dinner when you’re alone?
That is very infrequent, but I have to eat something hot for dinner. It’s a habit that started with my mother. Pasta with sautéed vegetables and herbs is nice and easy for one.
What are some of your personal interests, hobbies, or passions?
I am most happy outside. I am a novice gardener relatively speaking, but I put lots of time and energy into it. Simple things that I enjoy doing are walking my dog in the Reservation, reading and playing tennis. I love traveling, especially to places where I can learn about design and food.
What’s a dream project for you — in or outside of Blue Hill?
Designing an Inn from the top to the bottom that shares the same values as our current business.
Photography by MICHAEL A. MULLER | Interview by LEIGH PATTERSON | Styling by ALEXA HOTZ