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Up the garden path


Restaurants across the country, from an artisanal pizza joint in Bangalore to a five-star in Udaipur, are gradually warming up to the idea of growing kitchen gardens and acquiring produce from local farms.

In the restaurant business, the circle of influence is closing in. Early on, table talk was about sourcing produce from within a short radius, supporting neighbouring farmers, scaling down food miles, going seasonal and biting your tongue before you asked for bluefin tuna. Then restaurants decided to raise the stakes, and plant their own gardens. Food now has added cachet if it arrives gate-to-plate. The best of them grow it in their backyard: L'Arpege in Paris, Pied Terre in London, Henne Kirkeby Kro in Henne, Denmark, Manresa in California, Mugaritz in Spain, and The White House (not Michelin-starred, but difficult to land a table).

India has yet to mosey up the garden path. Progress has been made on shortening the supply chain, and tapping local resources, but when it comes to growing their own crop restaurants are not yet up to seed. Most of them, particularly in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, barely have enough room to accommodate their diners comfortably. Surely a veggie garden was a distant dream.
"A kitchen farm has amazing potential, but there's not much space for one in Bombay, " says Gauri Devidayal, who with her husband, Jay Yousuf, owns The Table, a restaurant in Colaba. Located at an intersection, and flanked on two sides by buildings, the only room for greens here is in the decorative pots. And yet, The Table gets its spinach, white onions and mangoes from its very own garden - removed though it may be from its kitchen by a few nautical miles.

On certain mornings, Devidayal's gardener will ride the ferry across the harbour from her farm at Alibaug, hauling the day's harvest straight to The Table. "We've been using the produce in salads, desserts and cocktails, " she says, acknowledging that the current supply cannot satisfy her establishment's demand. They get about 84 mangoes once a week, and 40 bunches of spinach every three days - because the quality is good, these hold up for two or three days. But they need to step up production (in range and quantity) if they want to rely on the farm - one acre of which has been earmarked for the purpose. "I've enlisted a young urban farm specialist, Adrienne Thadani, who is putting together a production schedule for us, " Devidayal says. "We will experiment with 20 fruit and vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, tomatoes and micro greens, which are normally very expensive. By growing them ourselves, we want to make them cost-effective for the guests. "

If Devidayal is gung-ho about her greens, Chef Moshe Shek is anticipative about his lemons. Shek, who runs the eponymous chain of cafês and restaurants in Mumbai, has a 2, 000 sq ft garden behind his bakery in Navi Mumbai, where a single lemon tree (raised from a seed shipped over from Israel) will yield its first bounty later this year. The garden also grows herbs like basil, oregano and spearmint that Moshe dispatches to his central kitchen in Colaba where the food is prepared.

Rithika Gupta, co-owner of Bangalore's artisanal pizza joint, Huckleberry, sources coffee and herbs for the restaurant from her fields in Sakleshpur in the Malnad region of Karnataka. "All our coffee needs are met by our own produce, " Gupta says. "We don't need to buy any commercial coffee at all. " Huckleberry gets its cheese from a cheese-making Benedictine monastery, whose speciality is the Vallombrosa, a mozzarella made from buffalo milk.

Space, in this regard, may indeed be the final frontier to immediate and proximate food supply, but even those with plenty ought to see the virtue in greening it. Some have. The Leela Palace Udaipur grows a variety of micro-greens like basil, cress, arugula, nasturtium, cilantro and spinach, and is ready to sow a new batch of sorrel, microbeetroot, watercress, Japanese green Shiso, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, parsley and bell pepper. "In Udaipur greens and fresh herbs are often in short supply, and while we don't expect the kitchen garden to meet our daily requirements, we know it will serve as a substitute should the need arise, " says Senior Sous Chef, Chandra Kumar T K.

Even though they are presently unable to invest heavily in kitchen gardens, restaurants in India have made a start. Ones that are outside the city had a head start on their urban counterparts. Rajwadu, a Gujarati restaurant in Ahmedabad - a favourite with IIM-A and NID students - set up a sustainable business model in 1998. This eco-friendly eatery has been utilising ingredients straight off its farms, without preservatives or additives. Even the curd arrives directly from the barn. "We grow our own vegetables to bring the freshest flavours to the table, " says owner and agriculturist Manish Patel. He has a posse of 12 farmhands, whose reliance on natural farming practices and technological innovation guarantees a healthy farm dividend and keeps the customers coming.

Kitchen gardens make sense for restaurateurs as they yield produce that is tasty and economical. Because they operate on a smaller scale than commercial farms, they use sustainable (often organic) practices that palpably refine the flavour of vegetables.

"If I had the space, I would consider it God's gift, " says chef Ritu Dalmia about the kitchen garden. Deprived of this endowment, she relies on a substitute - a friend's organic farm, Encore Organics. "I give her my wish list, and she grows whatever I need, " says Dalmia, who obtains freerange poultry and meat from Delhi's French Farm, an organic outfit. For many restaurateur-chefs like her, 'outsourcing' the farming to a reliable local is the next best alternative to owning a kitchen farm. Although, this has its problems too.

Olive Beach in Bangalore has made many serious attempts at buying small and local, but the list of small growers has whittled down to a couple, says Manu Chandra, executive chef, Olive Beach Bangalore and Olive Bar & Kitchen, Mumbai. While the restaurants continues to buy fresh produce like fruit - mostly passion fruit and avocados - from kitchen gardens and small farms, Chandra makes it clear that a restaurant the size he runs cannot depend on this source. "It is quite erratic, " he says. "We do have small suppliers for some ingredients. For instance we buy chillies from a gentleman who is passionate about them and grows varieties such as the habanero that are not easily available in the market. But are they consistent suppliers? I'd have to say no. At the same time, it's a pleasure to support any endeavour with passion and I believe that product also tastes and feels better. " At Olive, the produce from small farms ends up on the specials menu because it is not possible to put them on the regular menu.

One of the suppliers at Olive is Amin Manjrekar, a farmer-by-choice who started his own company Green Fundas a few years ago. Green Fundas supplies fresh organic greens and veggies to several Bangalore restaurants and hotels.

Local sourcing is also a form of community outreach. The twin eco resorts in the Western Ghats - Wildernest and Swapnagandha - have commissioned the villagers of Chorla in northern Karnataka to run a two-acre kitchen garden for them. "But they only keep a winter garden, as the rains in these parts are unreliable, summers are scorching and there's no guarantee of the crops lasting, " say Nirmal Kulkarni, Director Ecology of Wildernest. The two restaurants on the 450-acre expanse plan their menus around available produce and don't ask the farmers to customise production. "We get our onions, pumpkins, capsicums and so on from the farm;the rest of our supply comes from local, chemical-free farms in Belgaum, " Kulkarni says.

The restaurant kitchen garden will only flourish when restaurateurs pay closer attention to urban farming, terrace and balcony gardening and vertical gardens. The concept is ripe for the picking.

Inputs from Shrabonti Bagchi in Bangalore and Chitra Unnithan and Runa Mukherjee Parikh in Ahmedabad.

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