Most crops are grown close to the ground. But at CapitaSpring, a 51-storey high skyscraper in Raffles Place, harvesting takes place on the roof.
It is home to 1-Arden Food Forest, believed to be the highest farm of its kind in the world. The greens grown here are used directly in the kitchens of restaurants within the building. The project is part of a wave of local F&B concepts that have chosen to plant fertile plots within their premises in the past year.
With the pandemic bringing issues of food security to the fore, these thriving kitchen gardens are bridging the gap between food sources and the dinner table, and even providing a fertile ground for chefs and farmers to collaborate.
“It underscores the importance of properly understanding the provenance of the food we eat, while providing fresh, bespoke ingredients for chefs to cook,” says Christopher Millar, culinary director of 1-Group. At the 1-Arden Food Forest, sustainability is served on the plates of three on-site eateries: Sol and Luna, a Latin-European bistro, the Australian-inspired Kaarla Restaurant & Bar, and Oumi that serves Japanese kappo cuisine.
“Eating locally, of course, reduces the carbon footprint,” adds Millar. “It also highlights the importance of food security as the climate, geopolitical situations, and population growth make food chains less reliable and costly.”
Kaarla’s “closed-loop” salad, made entirely from fresh ingredients, is an example of such a conscious menu. The recipe changes according to what’s in season. Roselle flowers, wild watercress, cat whiskers, or other ripened ingredients are tossed in a calamansi dressing and served with tiger nut curd and pickled daikon. “As crops are monitored throughout the day, according to the microclimate, some are picked just as their flavour peaks,” Millar says.
Christopher Leow, the head farmer from Edible Garden City, keeps an eye on all the rooftop plants. Currently, over 158 species of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, are grown across five thematic plots spanning over 929 sq m to provide a holistic garden-to-table experience. “In essence, I am a plant sommelier,” says Leow. “Farmers can recommend fresh and sustainable varieties to chefs, and chefs can encourage farmers to innovate and grow new varieties.”
During the growing process, iterations occur. Using native species that farmers germinate, Leow cultivates what the kitchens need, whereas the cooks will innovate with the crops he propagates. “It doesn’t get any better — being able to utilise produce at the peak of its flavour and texture,” says Leow. “As a grower, it’s tremendously rewarding to literally see chefs and customers appreciate the fruits of your labour.”
From garden to cocktails
Over at Graft, the chefs and bartenders are also gardeners. Named for a horticultural technique, the space is a collaboration between local bar Jekyll and Hyde and hospitality company The Mandala Group, and aptly spotlights an edible plot. Thai basil and curry leaves garnish locally-inspired plates, while blue butterfly pea flowers, Egyptian starflowers, and others are used as secret ingredients in the drinks menu.
“Having the garden as part of the design means the team needs to constantly think about the food they make,” explains Chua Ee Chien, managing director of Whisical Inc., which owns and runs Jekyll & Hyde and Graft.
As the chef-gardeners and bartender-gardeners approach the harvest, they realise how much effort goes into growing each plant. Chua says: “It’s challenging keeping the garden top-of-mind sometimes when there’s so much to do.” But this also forces the team to relook the role they play in the food system, and in turn, share such stories with those who come to Graft. “Much like people might want to know where their clothes are made, it’s the same for food — and more so because you’re actually ingesting it,” he adds.
The rise of urban farming technology
Aside from the interest in provenance, the advent of modern farming has also made it much easier for people to grow their food, leading to the growth of urban gardens. Grobrix is a soil-less, indoor urban farming system that combines the aesthetics of a green wall with the functionality of controlled agriculture. “We bring the farming to you,” says founder Mathew Howe.
The location can be anywhere. Taking up just 2 sq ft of space, the shelf-like structure provides all the light and water needed to sustain a mini garden of leafy greens, herbs, and fruiting plants. Howe adds: “Many key nutrients are lost after only a few days following harvest, so there are great benefits to eating fresh, locally-grown produce.”
Grobrix has since expanded beyond pilot residential projects to commercial ones, even “painting” the walls of some local restaurants green. Among them is Memo Café at Studio M Hotel, which installed the Grobrix system in March of this year. Rows of Tuscan kale, romaine lettuce, oregano, habanero chillies, and more are grown next to the kitchen.
“The urban garden serves as a centrepiece for the café,” says the hotel’s marketing communications manager Marlene Fan. “It brightens up the setting, while providing a green relief from the usual concrete walls.” In April, Memo Café enjoyed its first harvest of some 3kg worth of greens, which were transformed into salads and other healthy dishes. “We [now] know exactly what we are putting on the plates we serve our diners,” Fan adds.
Forage and pick your ingredients
Some establishments let diners forage and pick their ingredients. Clarence Chua, co-founder of The Sundowner, has transformed the third-floor deck of the shophouse into a bustling ecosystem with a pond, crops of herbs, and even friendly honeybees. “I designed our experiences to reveal the complete cycle of nature,” says the landscaper by trade. “From rich organic soil that grows healthy plants, which flowers profusely, providing food for bees, which pollinate them and create fruits, thus continuing the cycle.”
By curating a series of novel F&B activities, he hopes to ignite and spread a love for nature. “I believe most people are biophilic,” says Chua. “Even something as simple as seeing the colour green has been shown to make people feel less tense.”
At The Sundowner’s rooftop is the only honey-tasting facility in Singapore. It is also where a cocktail-making workshop is held in a desert-inspired tent. One of the most popular activities is the three-hour pizza-making session; participants must first cross a small puddle at the entrance, then forage for herbs on the roof to adorn their hand-stretched pies. Cooking takes place in a hand-built oven, and the remaining charcoal is composted and turned into carbon-rich fertiliser for the farm. Chua emphasises, “The inspiration is sustainability.”