We’re standing in what looks like a giant kitchen garden. Tomatoes dangle from vines, beetroot and spinach greens peek out of raised beds and bees buzz gently past our ears. Some of us head off with pairs of scissors to the patch of microgreens, others attempt to coax soil mix into a wheelbarrow. There is much wobbling, swearing and giggling amongst us debutant farmers. Later, three chefs cook us lunch with the ingredients we’ve spent the morning harvesting.

The Tabland tomato patches at The Table Farm, Alibaug
The Tabland tomato patches at The Table Farm, Alibaug

Inspired by the locavore movement, chefs all over the world are embracing a farm-to-fork approach which, at its heart, means that the food they plate up comes directly from a specific farm. And often, the farms are run by the restaurants themselves. While restaurants like Earth Kitchen in Bengaluru, where space is not a huge constraint, have their own farms, even in Mumbai—a concrete maze that seems to grow ever upwards—a handful of chefs and proprietors have begun to grow their own food.

“While at culinary school, I ate in Italian homes where the food was just bursting with freshness. I realized it was because it was grown and picked in backyard patches just a few feet from the kitchen," says Anand Morwani, partner and chef at Brewbot, a brewery and eatery that opened in Andheri last year. “Our farm has been in my family for generations, and when I came back home and began working on ideas for the brewery, it seemed natural to grow our own produce."

For Gauri Devidayal, owner of The Table, it was more of a eureka moment. “It wasn’t an idea we started out with. We grew things for our own consumption at the farm and, one day, we had all this extra spinach," she says. She brought it to the restaurant and the kitchen was amazed at the quality. “And I thought…..oh, of course, how silly, this is what we should be doing."

On realizing the challenges of finding consistently good produce in the quantities it required, the Four Seasons in Mumbai also began growing its own vegetables and fruits about a year after it opened. Now, six years later, its farm near Panchgani supplies 60-70% of its needs. “I’ve never had to ask for anything to be specifically grown," says Hossam Saied, the executive chef who came in from Egypt a year ago. “Whenever I want to include an ingredient on the menu, I discover they’re already growing it."

White radish growing at Brewbot’s farm in Karla. Courtesy Anand Morwani
White radish growing at Brewbot’s farm in Karla. Courtesy Anand Morwani

The grow-’em-as-big-as-you-can approach means that most vegetables in our markets are overgrown by at least two-three weeks. “It makes for horrible, fibrous, tasteless produce," says Cheung. Ellipsis doesn’t have its own farm, but Cheung works directly with growers to teach them when an ingredient is at its peak, what it should taste like, and how to pick it. He’s beginning to see a change in their understanding of food.

Devidayal says that The Table’s chef Alex Sanchez also works closely with Trikaya, a company that grows non-indigenous vegetables. “While 100% of our greens come from our own farm, we can’t meet all our needs," says Devidayal. “So it’s important to engage with other growers."

The uncertain supply chain is one reason why chefs take the seasonal route with menus; it also creates an interesting space for constant innovation. “It’s best to use an ingredient when it’s in its prime. There is a connection between seasons and food in any case. For example, pumpkins mature in winter and they’re also very warming," says Morwani.

The popular Table Farm Salad changes constantly, depending on the fruit, flowers and greens growing at the farm. And at Ellipsis, the menu is reworked almost every day. “Even if I randomly find a bag of something new and super fresh, it goes on," says Cheung.

Less obvious than chefs but as crucial in driving the change are the discerning consumers. Along with acquiring a more adventurous palate, more and more Mumbaikars want to know what’s in their food. “They’re aware of the chemicals used in commercial farming and scary things that happen along the way, like the use of colouring agents in carrots," says Morwani, whose farm is certified by Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (Haccp), an internationally accepted standard for food supply chains.

Morwani doesn’t publicize the farm but it hasn’t gone unnoticed. “I’ve had customers say to me, ‘I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something different about this salad…,’" he says.

The trend has obvious benefits for farmers, who gain expertise by dealing with chefs and receiving higher rates for quality ingredients. The Table Farm also sells its onions directly at the restaurant while Morwani’s six-acre farm in Karla, near Lonavala, has generated employment locally. Farms that supply to restaurants are also much more likely to engage in multi-cropping, moving away from the high pesticide and fertilizer use required by monoculture. This translates into long-term benefits for the soil.

While the idea of farm restaurants is romantic, Devidayal is not sure Mumbai restaurateurs will be jumping at the idea. “A tremendous amount of work and investment goes into it," she says. There are also obstacles to sourcing directly from farmers. The Table, for instance, tried to source from the Farmer’s Market held at Dharavi’s Maharashtra Nature Park, but ground realities such as logistics are often an impediment.

Nevertheless, Morwani says that the farm-to-fork movement will catch on. “In Paris, boutique farmers have tremendous control over where their produce ends up. Before they agree to supply to a restaurant, the chefs interview them, much like renters here interview with building societies. They’re so involved with what they grow that they want to make sure the ingredient is treated right," he says.

We may not quite be there yet, but Cheung sees it all as an opportunity. “We’re at a very cool time right now, where things are just about to explode. The restaurant business is still new and people are still worried about their bottom line. But with more chefs coming in from overseas and new ideas forming in the Indian culinary scene, the future looks good."

*******

The shortest distance

Will travel for food, but don’t want your food to travel too much? Your best bets

• Matsya Freestyle Kitchen, attached to the Samata Holistic Retreat Center (samatagoa.com), Arambol, Goa. Most of their meals are vegetarian, and the produce is home-grown.

Samode Bagh, Jaipur district, Rajasthan, grows 60-70% of everything it needs in the kitchen.

• Earth Kitchen, Hessaraghatta, Bengaluru, Karnataka, grows all the vegetables, fruits and herbs it uses in the restaurant.

Lumiere Organic Restaurant in Bengaluru sources all its produce, including organically reared chicken, from its own or affiliated farms in Kanthalloor in Munnar, Vypin in Kochi, both in Kerala, and Kolar in Karnataka.

Silver Oak Farm, Nandi Hills, Karnataka, grows much of what it needs, but the quantity depends on the season.

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