It started as a bet.
I had long been dismayed by how hotels and restaurants in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are completely dependent on product flown in from half way around the world – while being surrounded by cold climate highlands- capable of growing the same European produce. I called them Fedex chefs.
A Singapore restauranteur friend told me it was all in the terroir: That farmers in Malaysia and Indonesia could not produce the same quality tasting radishes that get flown in from France.
I was in Bali for work and met American chef Jack Yoss at the newly opened W Hotel. Tired of cooking with substandard product flown in from overseas, Jack found a farmer in Bedugal in Bali’s central highlands and set about growing the lettuces and herbs then normally imported from overseas.
It was inspiring. Could we also grow European veg in Malaysia’s highlands?
There were hurdles. Namely, we knew nothing about farming. Granted I grew up on a dairy farm in North West Tasmania and my parent’s have been avid organic home gardeners my whole life. But there is a big difference from farming in Tasmania to farming in tropical belt, high humus, one-season, culturally worlds apart, Malaysia.
Alas, we gave it a crack.
My husband, Ewout, searched for organic farmers on Google. I enlisted the wisdom of my old friend Loh Lik Peng (Peng Loh) who roped in two of his chefs- Anthony Yeoh from former Cocotte and Dave Pynt from just-opened Burnt Ends, and we embarked on a bunch of road trips to observe the lay of the land.
One organic farmer we met had a rocket plant the size of a small calf growing in his back yard. When we asked him if he had experience with fennel he told us he had grown them once before- but could never sell them. “It’s just a matter of joining the dots”, said Peng breezily.
Another farmer we met was Fung Chee Siang, a worldly middle-aged man who had spent 20 odd years living in Canada and held similar morals regarding food miles to our own. Fung had 20 acres in a valley outside of Ringlet and was, of all the farmers we met, the most honest to the practices of organic. He wouldn’t even allow natural insect repellent on property. Noted, it did take quite a few trips to see him, drink endless cups of tea, discuss endless world politics (strictly never business) before he agreed to plant some seed for us. Then the fun really began.
We trailed more seed than I care to remember. We had more failures than all of us together have fingers and toes. We put Fung on a retainer, so he didn’t have to worry about failed crops. But radishes, they grew- and grew and grew. At one stage it was all that would grow, especially the hardy, almost unkillable black Spanish radish which became Anthony’s favourite veg.
We changed seed companies half a dozen times, we learnt about the weather and seasons and soil. We studied humidity and heirloom varieties that over hundreds of years have been bred to withstand powdery mildew, a fungal disease that plagues cucurbits. Most farmers in Cameron spray fungicide for powdery mildew. We enlisted the help of neem, of compost, of organic insect repellents we found in Home Depot in Thailand.
We had more success. We grew lemon cucumbers, little white balls bursting with a sweet citrus flavour. We grew pattypan squash in snow white, yellow and deep green colours. We grew golden beetroots and the most delicious purple king beans that any of us had ever tasted.
The two chefs ploughed us with feedback: Anthony was gentle and encouraging and would deal with any produce we sent his way. Dave was meticulous and tough and pulled us into line with any sniff of a cut corner. Both were essential. A year later, we brought on Ivan Brehm from newly opened Bacchanalia. Ivan did fine dining- and knew a lot about plants. The stakes jumped a notch or two.
Variety and flavour boxes ticked, the next hurdle was the transport- getting the stuff down to the restaurants in Singapore in perfect shape. With only a few boxes to transport a week, none of the trucking companies wanted to work with us. Nor did freight forwarders in Singapore. We literally had to bribe drivers to take the boxes, and take care- and even then, they wouldn’t. On one particularly painful day the driver- who only spoke Malay- dumped our hard-fought cargo next to a rubbish skip at Pasir Panjang, Singapore’s mammoth wholesale market, then switched off his phone. Dear Anthony, who doesn’t speak much Malay, spent the good part of two hours trekking around Pasir Panjang looking for the skip and produce. He never found it.
Then there was AVA, Singapore’s strict food safety department. One day Ayu, Fung’s farm manager, forgot to declare 2 kg of leek headed to Burnt Ends. AVA confiscated the consignment and threatened to tear up our license. It was a horror morning. I was holding a workshop in Singapore on the art of a ceviche marinade with Peruvian chefs Virgilio Martinez and Gaston Acurio. We had literally lost Gaston thanks to one very unfriendly taxi driver who drove him to an unknown address then took off with his phone still in the car. Panicking that I had lost Peru’s most famous export, then touted to be the next president, while racing the clock for the workshop to begin, Peng rang to say AVA had confiscated our shipment and my butt was on the line.
Fung spent an hour on the phone with AVA. Anthony and I met with them in the afternoon. The license was saved, the shipment released and lesson number 537637 was learned: The key to correct paperwork.
A few years after we met Fung, he introduced us to his best friend- Mr Liew, a happy go lucky hydroponic farmer who was interested in turning organic. By this stage our demand had well outstripped supply. We were producing less than 30% of our needs and had a waiting list of 20 restaurants in Singapore alone. We always believed that if somebody was committed to farm to table and understanding the peaks and dips of a farm, we grow for them. But it was virtually impossible to keep up.
Mr Liew and his wife have a small farm in Habu, on the far side of Ringlet. It is drier than Fung’s place, more sun, less rainforest. We trialled a dormant patch of tunnelled land with seed we struggled with at Fung’s place- and three months later we had a bumper crop. Their son, John (Liew Ah Chuat), came home from China to help manage and organise. Our farm to table project went from hobby to business overnight. We ramped up production, experimented with new varieties and seed and growing styles. We started meeting quotas – or coming within 90% of them. We started shipping hundreds of kilograms, not just a few.
We now grow and supply around 60 varieties of edible flowers, herbs, garnishes, vegetable and fruits to a clutch of restaurants and hotels in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Least to say, I won the bet.