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Farming in the concrete jungle

Top chefs are turning to urban farming for sustainability, quality control and community health – but not at the expense of luxury.

Michel Roux Jr, chef patron of London’s two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, may be from one of culinary history’s most famous classical French families, but he is no stranger to innovation.

As a director of Growing Underground, the world’s first underground farm – a high-tech hydroponic facility in a World War II bomb shelter 33m under the Clapham Common tube station in South London – he has shone a light on the possibilities for growing fresh ingredients within the city. “I was fascinated with the idea of growing produce just around the corner from where I live in London,” says Roux. “I think urban farming is going to get even bigger. We have a lot of suitable unused urban spaces that can become incredibly productive.”

While Growing Underground’s production is still small, Roux uses the subterranean farm’s micro herbs at Le Gavroche, which have a wonderfully intense flavour.

He calls it a chef’s duty to be careful in their choice of ingredients. “I consider quality the most important factor in selecting produce; sustainability is the second consideration,” he says. “I don’t like the idea of flying in luxury ingredients from across the world unnecessarily. However, if the very best caviar comes from, say, China, and if I want to offer my diners the best, then I won’t compromise. But luxury doesn’t necessarily mean indulgence. For me, eating locally grown produce at the peak of the season is a luxurious experience.”

Michelin Guide now includes sustainability in its assessment of each restaurant in its guides.

 

Food miles become food metres

Other top chefs are transforming the concrete jungle into green opportunities in different ways.

Simon Rogan opened Roganic in Hong Kong, which was awarded a Michelin star less than a year after it opened as a city-centric take on his farm-to-table London restaurant of the same name. While in the UK, he set up his own farm rurally in the Lake District. In Hong Kong, he sources plant ingredients from suburban organic farms and edible flowers and micro greens from an inner-city farm.

He also does his own farming right inside the restaurant, significantly reducing his transport footprint, with Evogro, a plant growing system using LED lighting and hydroponics to optimise the growing conditions to suit each crop. It’s monitored and managed by environmental sensors and smart cloud software, and can be controlled by app. There is a camera in each unit, and sensors send automated e-mails in case of any issues.

Inside his three Evogro cabinets, Rogan grows everything from sunflower shoots, Mexican marigold and nasturtiums to mustard cress, beetroot and kale. He uses the sunflower shoots to garnish dill-brined baby cabbage, while the peppery nasturtium leaves uplift his kohlrabi and sticky egg dish. The floral tang of Mexican marigold adds a unique touch to his dill yogurt ice cream.

“Micro greens and edible flowers often don’t travel well – the longer the distance they have to travel, the more flavourless they become. To optimise the flavour, it makes sense to grow our own on site,” he says. “Moreover, the Evogro cabinets make an interesting talking point and play an important role in helping us to better deliver the farm-to-table concept to guests.”

 

(Related: Burger joint Three Buns launches a sustainable and cruelty-free menu for Earth Month)

 

From farm to plate in minutes

At De Kas in Amsterdam, one of the world’s first farm-to-table restaurants when it opened in 2001, an impressive 90 per cent of ingredients are sourced locally. The restaurant is located inside an 8m high glass greenhouse in a city park, and is supplied by around 200 different kinds of fruit, vegetables and herbs grown in its garden.

Owner and head chef Jos Timmer says their farming balances “the modern with the old-fashioned”: with hydroponics and LED lighting for fragile flowers and herbs in De Kas’ greenhouse in Amsterdam, and farming that requires soil and space for vegetables such as beetroot, celeriac, and potatoes at their farm about 20km away in Beemster. De Kas also sources from farmers in the Beemster region, who grow leeks, beans and plums in the summer – “we know the farms well and the quality is super good”, says Timmer.

“Over the last 20 years, our search for the best products has become more intense than ever,” he says. “Most important for us is that our ingredients are organic, and that they reach your plate as fast as possible. We believe this means our food tastes better and has more nutrition.”

While not a vegetarian restaurant, De Kas has always appealed to diners interested in plant-based cooking. Now that the approach has become much more mainstream, the restaurant is attracting a new set of patrons.

“We have customers now that we wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. People are realising that we can’t eat the amount of meat we used to. Even diners who used to regularly eat at steakhouses are opting for vegetarian meals every now and then,” he says.

 


  • Roganic Bar, Hong Kong

    Guests can enjoy a sustainable tipple before their meals.

 

Transforming a community

Changing public perceptions about food and how it is produced is part of the mission at Singapore’s Open Farm Community. The urban farming group recently opened Noka, a Japanese restaurant, and just bought land adjacent to its restaurant on Minden Road to create a full-production farm.

Chef Oliver Truesdale-Jutras says the benefits of urban farming are myriad. “Being self-sufficient means you don’t have to rely on other farms for produce. You have better control over what you put in your soil and how you treat your vegetables and fruits, and you can minimise waste as you use only what you need,” he explains. “It’s also a good way to promote community bonding and teach people to appreciate food better by giving them a clearer understanding of how it is grown and sourced, and how the food system works. Lastly, urban farms can make a space appear a whole lot greener.”

Until the new farm comes to fruition, Truesdale-Jutras relies on the existing organic garden, where they practise composting, permaculture, insect farming and companion planting, and source ingredients from South-east Asian farms.

Being strict with ingredient sourcing can be limiting, but Truesdale-Jutras says he sees it as stimulating. “When one is faced with restrictions – whether due to ethical or geographic reasons – it forces a chef to be more creative,” he says.

From plants grown in his garden, he serves papayakraut made from white papaya, which he ferments for three months, resulting in a dish reminiscent of sauerkraut. From torch ginger, he makes ceviche with lemongrass, kaffir lime, chillies and garlic, and from roselle, a type of hibiscus, he creates jam that is served with his local Peking duck rillette.

 

(Related: Heston Blumenthal on sustainability)

 

A personal commitment

Urban farming is taking off in Thailand, too. Chef Deepanker Khosla, who co-owns Haoma, probably Bangkok’s most sustainable restaurant, grows 17 different herbs and vegetables, including kale, Indian borage, basil and mint, inside the restaurant on vertical stacks of growing beds among dining tables. More impressively, Khosla farms his own fish on-site. He now has about a thousand tilapia in koi ponds that run the length of the restaurant in an aquaponic system in which fish waste becomes plant fertiliser.

Khosla, who taught himself urban farming mostly through YouTube videos and books, only employs kitchen staff prepared to farm as well as cook. “Everyone at Haoma must turn the soil with their hands every week and work with the fish. I want them all to be one with nature and embrace their roots,” he says.

More than half of the space in the restaurant is used for farming, reducing the amount of tables he can fit in for paying diners. But this is a price he is willing to pay. “The sacrifice of business I make is my contribution to saving the planet. Our biggest issue is that we always look to find the person who will save the Earth. But I think that person is within us.”

 

The future of farming in Singapore

The average temperature and humidity in Singapore, where space is scarce, is prohibitive and unsuitable for growing non-indigenous plants.

Investment, therefore, tends to be in high-density indoor farming, and it is likely that urban farming will continue on this path in the future.

Oliver Truesdale-Jutras, chef at Open Community Farm, grows a wide range of fruits, vegetables and herbs in the restaurant’s edible garden.

Homegrown ingredients include tapioca root, turmeric, hibiscus, mulberries, kaffir lime, bilimbi (related to star fruit), Indian gooseberry, blue pea flowers, and laksa leaf.

“We mostly use these ingredients, which we grow in fairly limited quantities, in our special off-menu dishes or for pop-ups and events,” says Truesdale-Jutras.

“There’s a wide variety of plants we can grow in this climate, so I don’t feel restricted by having to use what I grow. I still see a lot of value in real, traditional land-based farming, and I hope that it won’t be phased out as the city continues to develop,” he adds.

 

(Related: Sustainable grocers to check out in Singapore)