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The great outdoors

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 11 min read
The great outdoors
From farm to table – two Michelin-starred chef turned sustainable farmer James Noble, together with the Banyan Tree Group, wants to change the way we look at dining. But more than anything else, Noble also wants everyone to care about where our ingredient
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Hospitality group Banyan Tree has always been at the forefront when it comes to sustainability. Stay at any one of their resorts and you will see items in your room or in the boutiques that offer items and fair-trade gifts that are made by global artisans. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the group is driving a sustainable future through food with the launch of ORI9IN — the first gourmet organic farm and restaurant in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand — in July at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the group, consumer surveys post-Covid have shown that over 75% of consumers will choose to live healthier lifestyles post- pandemic, with food choices and nutrition ranking as one of the top areas for change.

Gourmands, of course, will know English chef James Noble from the dishes at his acclaimed Bangkok establishments Sühring, Paste and Gaa. But to drive the sustainable food movement, the Banyan Tree Group has entered into a joint venture with Noble, a two Michelin-starred chef turned sustainable farmer and the chef-proprietor of Boutique Farmers. Based in Pak Nam Pran — an idyllic location three hours away from the Thai capital of Bangkok — the farm is the brainchild of Noble and his wife Khun May and aims to teach consumers the art of growing and how to save costs on healthier products that are suitable for both commercial tables and homes.

This partnership of agrotourism aims to lead the curve in sustainable retained farming and cooperatives for living and eating well. It is the only retained farming operation globally that partners with a network of top restaurants and hotels, focusing on import substitution and reducing carbon footprint without sacrificing flavour. Set on 350 acres of land, ORI9IN is a multi-faceted biodynamic farm with extensive facilities and market distribution of high-quality organic products planted by local farmers. This is clearly a partnership that is based on a shared passion for a sustainable future through food, this enterprise leverages the post-Covid quest for better health and wellbeing. This venture of agrotourism aims to lead the curve in sustainable retained farming and cooperatives for living and eating well.

In an email interview with Options, Noble says: “Banyan Tree Group has owned the land in Chiang Mai for several years. The Banyan Tree team and I share a passionate vision of expanding my retained farming operation, and after they had visited my farm and tasted my cooking, we co-created together to develop ORI9IN.”

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Can you tell us more about ORI9IN and its sustainability programmes?

ORI9IN is the first gourmet organic farm in Chiang Mai where the number nine in its name pays tribute to the country’s farming father King Rama IX. Together with Banyan Tree Group, this joint venture of agrotourism aims to be ahead of the curve in sustainable retained farming and cooperatives for living and eating well. Championing local procurement and sustainably sourced food, ORI9IN is the only retained farming operation globally that partners with a network of restaurants and hotels to focus on import substitution, and reduce carbon footprint without sacrificing flavour. We hope that this encourages other players in the industry to rethink their supply chains too.

What is agrotourism?

A growing global trend, agrotourism refers to activity that brings visitors into a rural location either to stay on a farm, ranch or small-holding, or to become involved, in one way or another, with working life there. Come October this year, the ORI9IN farm will be officially opened to the public to promote agrotourism from 9am to 6pm daily, with ticketed options for different journeys. A 30-minute drive out of Chiang Mai towards Phrao (a district in the north-eastern part of Chiang Mai province), guests can enjoy a full-day of fun on the farm, the highlight of which is Asia’s largest Maze grown from maize, and experiencing first-hand the practice behind crop planting jam making and permaculture.

Guests can learn new skills, have their own piece of soil (rented per year) to come and spend a day at and teach their children that things do not arrive in plastic bags and vegetables do not need to be uniformed in size in order to be tasty. Additionally, the spacious Wooden Farm Sala and Lanna House food venue will soon welcome MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) groups and wedding events.

Tell us more about the Boutique Farmers in Pak Nam Pran.

As we enter the “new norm”, ingredients and produce are now more important than price and plate presentation. Boutique farmers are about the journey of the food, planting items to plating ingredients, knowing who and how it was grown by. It is about challenging and changing the way we grow, the way we transport the food, the way we cook along with the way we manage waste. We are re-defining the way we perceive quality.

As a two-Michelin star chef, how do you plan to champion local produce through your years of experience as a chef?

With the opening of ORI9IN, it features retained farming with farm rental spaces to grow specific ingredients as well as to test and plant overseas products for over 15 top Michelin-star chefs hailing from Thailand’s restaurants and hotels.

Families can also rent land, bond over farming and enjoy the harvest of vegetable and fruit salad, delivered to their home weekly. The farm’s community garden grows a variety of vegetables (aubergine, kale, chillies, pumpkins, green beans, basil, lemongrass, garlic, heirloom tomatoes and more) and provides complimentary vegetables harvesting to villagers daily. With the change in seasons, each dish of the world’s very first White Menu dining experience may never repeat itself. Ingredients dictate the culinary direction and incorporate healthful traditional local techniques of solar-baking, 16-hour earth oven roasting, fermenting, sun-drying, pickling and curing of the food.

The farm has created cooperatives in the community and helped develop livestock farmers, fishermen and artisans who contribute to the menu from plates, furniture and food. Examples of a menu focused on creativity, seasonality and surprise are Fig and Tomato Bruschetta Garlic Flowers, Sweet and Sour Duck Hearts, Sambal Baba Ganoush Croquettes and Duck Marquez Sausages with Pumpkin Chilli Mash. From the Herbalist Medicine Garden, healing plants such as turmeric, ginger, dok kajon and echinacea (edible flowers) and gingko can be picked and mixed into tonics according to traditional remedies to build immunity.

What lessons can we learn from Covid-19 in how we treat food?

Food choices greatly impact not only our health, but our collective future, and food carbon footprints through the value chain make up one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Consumer surveys post-Covid have shown that over 3/4 of consumers will choose to live healthier lifestyles after this pandemic, with food choices and nutrition ranking as one of the top areas for change.

Luxury is changing. Fine dining is changing. What people want from the new norm is to know where their food is coming from. They care much more about the process than whether there’s a white cloth on the table. This is the future. Our White Menu experience enables guests to just write their preferences and allergies on a white piece of paper, and they love the surprise factor of seeing what I’m able to come up with between that and when I put the dish in front of them. It’s in the moment, yet incredibly considered.

What does the future of dining look like?

I really think business as usual needs to change, it should have never got this far. We should be in business not only for ourselves, but also to protect and improve the health and livelihoods of the local community. In my small way, I also hope to inspire people to rethink the way products are grown and prepared. Our children need us to do things differently. We need to farm for the future, we are guilty in one way, shape or form to the situation the generations behind us have to deal with.

In kitchens across the globe, a lot of food goes to waste. How do we, as home cooks, practice zero-waste cuisine?

To practice a zero-waste kitchen, we should purchase the ingredients needed for that meal only, instead of grocery-shopping in bulk for the week. Weekly shopping generally results in higher volume purchase of packaged ingredients and impulse purchases. This creates not only wastage in ingredients and money but also plastic issues, when thrown away unused. As a global nation, we have a tendency to over-shop. If you “live in the now”, it will reduce wastage. Consider the portion size, select what’s in season to create meals and cook with ingredients that can have a secondary use or multi-function when preparing dishes.

How do we educate and inspire people to rethink the way products are grown and prepared?

In the example of ORI9IN, consumers can learn the art of growing and saving costs on healthier products suitable for both commercial tables and homes. When they dine at our farm, they enjoy fresh ingredients, almost all of which come from the farm itself or from local cooperatives of 30 km radius. To enable a zero-waste kitchen, diners experience an alternative gastronomy of fine dining where ingredients and produce take centre stage over price and plate presentation. Just because it hasn’t flown anywhere to be on our plates doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent, it’s the chef job. A cook will follow a recipe while a chef creates with what’s at hand.

I like the idea that families can rent land and enjoy the harvest. Can this model be rolled out in other countries where Banyan Tree is present?

This new farm in Chiang Mai is Banyan Tree Group’s flagship pilot for sustainable farming for healthier eating (and) the group definitely has intentions to expand. A partnership grounded on the passion for a sustainable future through food and herbal medicine, this enterprise leverages the post Covid-19 quest for better health and wellbeing. Everybody should be able to have affordable access to soil and farming knowledge. It’s our given right, this is what ORI9IN and Banyan Tree aim to make available to as many as possible over the next five years.

How did you develop your interest in organic farming?

I had children. It is my responsibility to my children to repair the damage that those before them made.

Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

I had a great childhood mostly outdoors. I ran in fields, swam in lakes, enjoyed family holidays and ate what was prepared by my creative mum based on the food provided by my father’s veg patch. My school days were about sports and the occasional romance, I wasn’t a great fan of the school meals. I had no desire to cook until the time when we experienced a financial slump in the UK and we all had to pull through together. From the age of 13, I became the meal-maker at home as both my parents had to work. I vividly remember opening fridges and foraging in allotments and scouring cupboards at home to create dinner for my brother and me. My creativity is thus nurtured through my growing-up years — adapting to cooking with whatever ingredients at hand, no matter how simple. I started my journey as a culinary humble (washing up for two years in Cambridge University, so I guess I went to university) and moved through the ranks after that. I have never forgotten the image of a creative mum, tired father and a surprised but not always enamoured brother… empty cupboards guided me to truly value the provenance of food and a zero-waste kitchen.

What’s next for you?

There is no next, I am where I need to be. I am busy and content with my work in the fields. I intend to spend time with my daughters and wife Khun May, swim in lakes, run in fields and swipe fruit from our neighbouring farmers’ trees. Plant trees in my memory and scatter me to the wind when the time comes. I have zero regrets.

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