His ears and nose are slowly turning pink in the midday sun, and it has got to be stifling in that black chef’s coat, but Enrico Luise’s only concern is his tomatoes.
“It’s so hot, if you don’t hand-pick the tomatoes, they explode,” he says as he runs up and down on the slippery black pebbles that separate the tomato alicante from the zucchero, or cherry tomato, trees. There’s a flourishing patch of basil right next to the tomatoes—it’s a Margherita pizza just waiting to be picked.
The 36-year-old Italian chef de cuisine of the Renaissance Mumbai Hotel and Convention Centre has taken over a small plot of the garden at the Powai hotel and grows four varieties of tomatoes (including beef tomatoes and a variety from Simla), as well as herbs such as oregano, basil and marjoram (van tulsi), and vegetables such as carrot, brinjal, cauliflower and roquette lettuce.
Photograph by: Kedar Bhat / Mint
Luise started his herb and vegetable garden by planting a few seeds last September in an effort to have the freshest produce for the hotel’s Italian restaurant Fratelli Fresh. Besides the appeal of organic, in-house produce, he says that growing herbs and vegetables gives chefs, and him, more respect for the ingredients.
Two years ago, at Taj Fisherman’s Cove in Chennai, chef Mohamed Siddiq converted 2,000 sq. ft of the sprawling property into a kitchen garden. The hotel started out growing okra, radish, brinjal, tomatoes and green chillies, and then moved on to herbs such as basil, rosemary and thyme. Now, says Siddiq, the garden produces pak choi, arugula, lemongrass, three varieties of basil, curly and lollo rosso lettuce.
Hand-picked: (top) Luise with his herbs; and chef Mohamed Siddiq in the kitchen garden at Taj Fisherman’s Cove.
The basil grown in the Fisherman’s Cove garden is sufficient for the whole hotel’s needs, and Siddiq says they have also stopped buying radishes, as the garden provides enough. Chefs who have the inclination are divided into teams to supervise the garden every month. “There is a mild cost saving, but the real benefit is the taste. The bhindi (okra) just melts in your mouth,” says Siddiq. He adds that guests equate the “home-grown” tag with high value. But despite his best efforts, coloured bell pepper and broccoli didn’t flourish.
Luise also says his gardening efforts are a learning experience—rosemary didn’t grow too well, and he had to move his tomato beds from one spot to another for climatic and survival reasons (“people who come for party in the night, no joke ha, they steal my tomato!”).
Luise remembers “playing with vegetables when I was young”, as his grandfather was an executive chef in Verona, Italy. “After school I went to live in England and grew herbs on a small piece of land in the back garden,” says Luise, showing off the brick-bordered circular herb patch. “The land here is so rich. The same things were difficult to grow in the Caribbean and Spain,” he says. Next on his agenda—red and lemon basil.