Thanyamundra Organic Farm
SUSTAINABLE REVOLUTION OR CULINARY MYTH-MAKING? A FEW YEARS INTO THE FARM-TO-TABLE TREND, WE LOOK AT ITS EFFECTS ON BANGKOK RESTAURANTS, THE SUPPLY CHAIN, AND WHETHER IT'S PRODUCING BETTER FOOD FOR DINERS.
In January 2012, Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones held the city’s first ever urban farmers’ market. Their restaurant, Bo.lan, had opened two years earlier to wide acclaim, serving Bangkok with a refined take on frequently forgotten Thai recipes which emphasised native, seasonal ingredients.
Called “Eat Responsible Day,” it was something the city had never seen, but which took off immediately. As dogs lolled about and children played in the restaurant’s flourishing kitchen garden, middle-class, urban Bangkok got to meet directly with farmers selling not just fresh local vegetables, but also the high-quality Thai larder items used in Bo.lan’s kitchen: rice from Sisaket, palm sugar from Samut Songkran and limes from Petchaburi.
That day introduced to Bangkok a consciousness towards sustainability and food provenance that it had been sorely missing, but which echoed trends in other major metropolises across the globe. In Denmark, Renee Redzepi’s Noma was ranked number one restaurant in the world for its fanatical devotion to Nordic terroir and ingredients harvested from the wild; in Great Britain, farmers’ markets had been pulled from countryside communities and transplanted to the heart of London, serving Covent Garden with the kind of organically grown, local produce being espoused by TV chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; and New York reconnected with its all-but-forgotten agricultural hinterland through restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Michelin-star darling Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen.
Fast-forward to today and buzzwords like organic, farm-to-table and nose-to-tail have propagated on Bangkok’s dining scene. The city now has food events branding themselves as “farmers’ markets” every weekend, which serve as much as outdoor gourmet shopping sprees for imported delicacies as they do spaces for local producers to sell their products directly to consumers and restaurants.
“We were young and idealistic and we thought there should be a farmers’ market in Bangkok and that people need access to good-quality, healthy food without the middleman,” says Bo.lan’s co-head chef and owner, Dylan Jones, from the dining room of their new premises on Sukhumvit Soi 53. Much like the original restaurant, the space flows between indoors and outdoors, with the garden of what was once a detached family home turned into a kitchen garden to provide herbs and vegetables for their set-menu-only Thai restaurant.
“So we said let’s get our suppliers in and start a farmers’ market. It was a challenge because the farmers didn’t want to come. They didn’t feel there was a market here for it. They didn’t want to leave their farms because then there’s no one there making the food or growing the food.”
Bo.lan no longer holds its farmers’ market (“it grew into something that wasn’t in line with what we wanted it to be,” says Dylan), but is still vocal within a movement of Bangkok restaurants who look upon these phrases as much more than marketing opportunities; restaurants which say they are intent on building relationships with farmers that ensure organic, sustainably produced, seasonal ingredients of the highest quality for their diners.
In fact, ask around Bangkok chefs and Bo and Dylan’s names come up repeatedly as two of the most devoted restaurateurs at ensuring they can trace the provenance of nearly everything they sell in the restaurant. The result: fresher, tastier ingredients for the diner, which connects each plate of food to the exact season it’s being served. The menu changes quarterly, ensuring produce is used at its absolute peak, with diners given the choice between two set menus only. There is no longer any a la carte menu, says Dylan, as it interfered with their ability as chefs to guide the customer through a cohesive, well-balanced meal.
And that carefully selected produce is not just for show. Salads burst with the uncommon flavors of native leaves rarely seen on Bangkok menus, while proteins, from the herbal-fed chicken to the Thai beef grown as part of Kasetsart University’s farming cooperative, have a robustness at odds with typically favored import species. Even the germinated brown rice, which they source exclusively from the Bangkok-based Raitong Organics, has its own, powerful and earthy flavors.
Lalana Srikram, the founder of Raitong Organics, exports her organically-certified rice all over the world, but also works with a network of farms nationwide to provide Bangkok with ingredients from conscientious, small-scale producers, and has been instrumental in Bangkok’s nascent move to sustainably minded dining.
“Organic is much more than certification,” she explains from the tranquil, makeshift upstairs living space of their four-story shop-house near Phra Khanong. Downstairs serves as a production facility for their ginger beer company (a product chosen because rice farmers can grow ginger all year long and harvest it between rice seasons), and the smell of fermenting ginger wafts through the whole house.
“All certification means is that you can do paperwork and pay a bill. Organic is a whole ecological approach: the people, the soil, how you manage pests, how you treat the market fairly, how you use the best of the old to get the best of the new. That to me is all part of organic. It’s so much more than just paper.”
Dylan of Bo.lan agrees. “When I say organic I don’t mean a certified product. For small-scale producers that process is just too expensive and unnecessary. There are a lot of different standards and some are not transparent—cash often changes hands under the table, I’m led to believe.”
For him, it’s more important to get out of the kitchen, visit the farms, see how they work and taste the produce to make sure that it’s right for the restaurant. “If we visit them and make sure what they’re telling us is the truth then we can certify it ourselves,” he says. “Organic means people growing food how it should be grown, with an ethical and moral consciousness of what they’re putting into the food.”
And for anyone who wants to use fresh, Thai, organically grown ingredients, says Lalana, then the produce is out there. The problem, she explains, is firstly getting it to Bangkok, and secondly getting the Bangkok restaurants and diners to switch on to native Thai ingredients.
“As much as I love the Western ingredients, why is it that farmers’ markets are only selling this foreign produce?” she asks. “I’m from Sisaket. The traditional diet in Isaan is very clean, very low-fat, semi-domesticated ingredients; clean flavors, clean taste. You come to Bangkok and all the amazing leaves—you can’t find them here unless you go to Nahm or Bo.lan. These ingredients should be so normal.”
Like Bo.lan, the Old Town’s Mediterranean-influenced Seven Spoons restaurant also makes use of connections to rural farming communities. Opened in 2011, this inviting, urban-rustic bistro and its head chef, Somkiat Pairojmahakij, have since gained a reputation for using native Thai ingredients to make Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.
“My partner’s job is community fostering within the region,” says Somkiat. “We come across a lot of forest-based, remote rural ingredients. It's a missed opportunity. We have a real interest in local produce, herbs, expanding knowledge to build biodiversity and incentives for local communities. And so we want to insert these ingredients in dishes that are commonly known.”
Freshness pervades across Seven Spoons menu, with seasonal vegetables taking center stage. Dishes like crispy and slightly chewy lentil fritters have the familiar flavor of Chinese radish cake, while in contrast, the summery watermelon salad dressed in aigre-doux vinaigrette is light, sweet and vibrant.
Somkiat describes Seven Spoons’ food as “Mainly western-oriented but with each dish playing on one local or regional ingredient.” Their tahini salad, for example, is made using a combination of wild local leaves and spiced with turmeric, while the grilled paneer on chickpeas in a delicately flavored butter and ginger sauce features paneer cheese made right around the corner in Pahurat.
Inner Bangkok, says Joke, can itself be a source for local ingredients. “There’s a type of lettuce leaf grown locally and sold right around here that’s perfect for salads. It’s like a peppery type of rocket, there’s no reason we can’t use it. Auntie Ong, our neighbor, farms it herself two districts over and sets up her little booth on the corner. But there’s an ingrained preference for things that aren't local. People like the idea of local but then they want to go for ingredients they can identify. There is a lot to change in people’s perception.”
But Bo.lan and Seven Spoons are all small-scale operations; single-venue restaurants with the capacity for fewer than 100 covers per night. Taking on the challenge of scaling up sustainable, local produce for use in a big-scale F&B operation is Ryan Dunn, executive sous chef at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. Right now, he’s in charge of bringing the Bangkok property in line with Hyatt international’s global initiative to have 35 percent of the seafood at all its properties sourced from small scale fisheries with either local or international certification.
“Our hope is to focus on one outlet and see how that can develop,” explains Ryan. “Logistically, it’s not the same as working with someone like Bo.lan or Gaggan who need to order very little. The main challenge with local fisheries is delivery time and getting the fish we want.”
“Small-scale fisheries only have what they catch, so if they can’t guarantee something then we can’t specify it on the menu,” explains Ryan. “Popular species like the cheap sea bass and grouper aren’t readily available, a lot is seasonal.”
He’s working with a Thai company called Pla Organic, headed by coastal management academic Supaporn Anuchiracheeva, to set up an infrastructure that will deliver a reliable source of seafood from accredited sustainable Thai fisheries to the hotel.
Together, they hope to address the issue of supplying local seafood from reputable sources in large volume to an establishment that doesn’t have the flexibility with its menu that is generally expected of sustainably-minded restaurants.
Supaporn, a coastal management PhD graduate with 20 years’ experience working with Thai fisheries, explains the challenges involved in working with an operation like Hyatt:
“We can only work with people who can be flexible and understand the season,” she says. “A popular fish like grouper we cannot promise. We can call up a hotel or restaurant when we have 20-30kg but we cannot guarantee it, so they need to be flexible. But for banana prawns, we can say that in two weeks you can get 100kg—it relates to the fishing period and the full moon. Within 15 days there is a peak period to catch, so the buyer needs to take a big amount and have good equipment to freeze it properly.”
Her project, Pla Organic, now has EU funding to bring the catch from small-scale fisheries in six provinces—Satun, Krabi, Phangna, Songkla, Patalung and Petchaburi—to market in Bangkok. The objective, she says, is to promote sustainable livelihood of small-scale fishers.
“We believe that their fishery practices are friendly to the environment and that they naturally employ a lot of conservation initiatives. We want to promote their livelihood and the high quality of their fisheries’ products. It’s amazing quality but there’s a problem with the logistic system.”
Although the number of Bangkok restaurants monitoring the provenance of all their ingredients is small, it is growing, and organic producers point to the same names: Thitid Tassanakajohn of contemporary Thai restaurant Le Du and its down-to-earth sister establishment, Baan; Tim Butler of Eat Me, whose latest project Daisy Matthews is set to open early in the new year on Sathorn Soi 12; Gaggan Anand of his eponymous, globally-lauded restaurant on Soi Lang Suan; Nan Bunyasaranand of Thonglor restaurant Little Beast, which blends culinary influences from New York, France and Hong Kong; Daniel Bucher, who was instrumental in championing sustainable food and energy practices at Plaza Athenee hotel before earlier this year moving to El Osito, a low-key Spanish deli and brunch spot in Phloen Chit; and Prin Polsuk, the head chef at Nahm, who even uses the roof of the Metropolitan hotel to grow leaves for the restaurant’s salads and curries.
In a city of several thousand restaurants, it’s enough to count on two hands. And that, says Dylan, is Bangkok’s problem.
“Food should be organic,” he says. “People are championing chefs for using these products but what they should be doing is the opposite and yelling at those who are not. Organic isn’t special; it’s just right.”