Inside the UK ‘jungle farm’ that grows Thai vegetables | FT Food Revolution
Holy basil, pea aubergines and bird's eye chilis are not standard UK crops, but Luke Farrell's passion for Thai food has seen him replicate the conditions of a southeast Asian jungle on a Dorset farm, complete with native butterflies. And the resulting authentic ingredients are being used to supply his London restaurants, Speedboat Bar and Plaza Khao Gaeng. Daniel Garrahan and Tim Hayward visit the nursery and taste his food
Produced and presented by Daniel Garrahan and Tim Hayward. Filmed by Tom Griggs and Richard Topping. Edited by Richard Topping
You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So today we're looking at two Thai restaurants in London this week, and yet somehow, we find ourselves in a nursery in darkest Dorset.
TIM HAYWARD: [LAUGHS]
DANIEL GARRAHAN: What are we doing here? What's going on?
TIM HAYWARD: It's an intriguing story. So Luke Farrell's got these two great restaurants, Speedboat Bar, which I'll review for the FT, and Plaza Khao Gaeng, which is in the bottom of the old Centerpoint Building. Both great restaurants, but he's got an interesting backstory because he's been growing Thai ingredients down here-- really rare stuff you can't get anywhere else-- and he's been giving it to Thai restaurants in London.
So I think it's kind of an interesting mix going on with the business he's running-- a combination of restaurant, nurseryman-- it's all very strange and very interesting. Let's go have a look.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Let's go in.
Hello, I'm Dan. Hi, Luke. Nice to meet you.
LUKE FARRELL: Likewise.
TIM HAYWARD: So what I quite like doing is [INAUDIBLE].
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So Luke, the first thing you notice walking around this place is it doesn't really smell like a typical British farm or nursery, right?
LUKE FARRELL: It's a tropical nursery, that's for sure. And at this time of the year, everything is fragrant and delicious, ready to be picked.
TIM HAYWARD: What sort of size operation are you running here?
LUKE FARRELL: We have a larger extended estate of about 100 acres, and we have six tropical greenhouses. There's a seventh one along the way, which would be three times the size, which will be just for supplying restaurants in London.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: But then, there are some of these greenhouses, you can see things growing which clearly aren't indigenous to this country. How did that all come about?
LUKE FARRELL: It's from my travels abroad and wanting to cook the food I wanted there, that I enjoyed there in the UK. My dad's a butterfly expert, and so we had greenhouses here already that were tropical for them. It was easy to put my plants in there and see how they fared.
It's difficult to grow tropical things in the UK. It's a challenge. Lots of these plants need various bacterial and microbial soil structures to perform well.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So how do you overcome those challenges? I mean, is it about the type of soil you use?
LUKE FARRELL: Well, we actually have in our Thai greenhouses a special jungle soil mix that approximates what you would find in Thailand. So it's got things like coconut fibre in it. There are soil experts who will mix it like a cocktail for you.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Right, OK.
LUKE FARRELL: And so we took samples in Thailand to get it just right.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Did you always have this idea that you were going to start supplying restaurants?
LUKE FARRELL: It was simply so that I could grow a few herbs and chilies, so that I could cook some Thai food that I enjoyed when I was travelling around Southeast Asia.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: And then you started supplying restaurants, and then you thought, well, maybe I'll open my own?
LUKE FARRELL: Then I was supplying restaurants, and from here, from the greenhouses, and also from Thailand with dry goods--
DANIEL GARRAHAN: You supplied David Thompson, did you not?
LUKE FARRELL: Yes, I did, at the very start.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: And that, for people who aren't entirely aware, that is pretty much Royalty, isn't it?
LUKE FARRELL: Yes, it is. And he had the first Thai restaurant in London with a Michelin star.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Yeah.
LUKE FARRELL: And lots of people trained under him. And it was those people that I supplied to afterwards. They have their own suppliers now. Some of my ingredients from my greenhouses have gone down to other growers as well. So it is all beneficial for the Thai restaurants in the UK.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Yeah.
LUKE FARRELL: So is there kind of a solid business case for doing this? Would it almost be cheaper to buy the imported stuff?
DANIEL GARRAHAN: There are times of year-- the dead of winter-- when you have to rely on supply from Thailand. But there are also seasons in Thailand, too. There are times of the year when you would-- after you grow things, you would pickle and preserve them. Why not use that towards the winter months? It's still Thai food, but it becomes seasonal.
TIM HAYWARD: Tell me, what's your role
MATT SMITH: I'm in charge of the sort of productive side of gardening here, as well as the walled garden outside. I run a lot of the greenhouses-- so these greenhouses here-- which have aubergines, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes. And we also have got heated greenhouses where I grow a lot of chillies.
TIM HAYWARD: So the Southeast Asian stuff, was that new for you?
MATT SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, pretty new. I'm experienced in growing the sort of standard vegetables that you would naturally find in an English garden. But yeah, new ground for me, and quite an experience coming here, and being exposed to that and learning new things.
TIM HAYWARD: My experience of this is either big farms or tiny gardens. It seems strange that everything's like mixed in together in a very humane, and lovely, and quite small way. It seems to be all balance biological control, selective planting, because there's no-- you're not spraying anything.
MATT SMITH: No I didn't use any herbicides or pesticides as such. I'm a great believer in organic systems. I work from the soil up. So I create a really healthy soil using lots of organic material and work from there, basically. That's the base.
And if you've got a good soil, then plants are going to be healthier. They can be able to resist disease and pests. And you don't get as much of a problem.
Everything from the veg garden gets recycled into the compost bays we've got things. Called hot bins, which are basically insulated compost heaps.
TIM HAYWARD: Wow.
MATT SMITH: Which work the compost really quickly. Quick turnover on that-- a couple of months. And we try and keep as much of a closed system as possible here. But you can never have enough compost, so we do have to import other bits.
TIM HAYWARD: And how big's the team here? How many people?
MATT SMITH: There's four full-time, I think, and various part-timers through the summer, helping them with all the jobs that need doing. In an estate this size, it's hard to keep on top of them.
TIM HAYWARD: Do you have to go to the supermarket much?
MATT SMITH: Not for vegetables, shall we say.
TIM HAYWARD: [LAUGHS]
[ENERGETIC MUSIC PLAYING]
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So the first thing you notice is the butterflies flying around.
LUKE FARRELL: Well, Yes, These are all natural pollinators, so they pollinate some of the ingredients that we have in here. So there's chilies in here. This is a cumin basil that we have, a bitter gourd at the end, and the butterflies help pollinate it all.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Do they also give you a sense of climate control? Because you're trying to recreate, essentially, the general conditions, right?
LUKE FARRELL: Absolutely, so the butterflies are the barometer, if you will. If they're happy and flitting about beautifully, then most of the plants are going to be in top condition.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So what have we got in here? We've got some chilies, which I recognise, but we've got lots of smells which I don't.
LUKE FARRELL: Yes, well, a lot of the Southern Thai ingredients-- the ones that don't last the journey being flown over from Thailand; they have these fleeting aromas-- are things like the clove basil, the holy basil that we have here that appears on the menu. We have a tiny curry leaf that we found in Southern Thailand. So all of these things that are dotted around so the butterflies can get to them make our restaurant hyper-seasonal in the fact that we can get these things together and bring them up for just one special curry on the menu, for example.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: What kind of things would we be eating? Obviously, there's the chilis here. What else? What else have you got?
LUKE FARRELL: We'd be having the chilies. There's aubergines down here, like that. Proper emoji that one.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Yes. [LAUGHS]
LUKE FARRELL: And there's curry leaves up here.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Yeah.
LUKE FARRELL: You can see, what's the cloud of butterflies that's going to--
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Oh, wow.
LUKE FARRELL: Yeah, so you've got curry leaves there. This is a very small one from Southern Thailand, very light flavour. And then, up here is a clove basil. If you smell that, you'll see it smells just like cloves.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Goodness me, yeah.
LUKE FARRELL: And in Southern Thailand, this is an essential ingredient.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Yeah.
LUKE FARRELL: And, I think, probably quite a new ingredient to the UK.
TIM HAYWARD: I'm sitting here sniffing [INAUDIBLE], which is lovely.
LUKE FARRELL: [LAUGHS]
TIM HAYWARD: That I like, that sort of-- there's stuff in there I've never tasted before, never seen before. And to bring that to a plate in a restaurant and sell it to enough people to make it work, you're also kind of evangelising this stuff.
LUKE FARRELL: I'd say there are some diehard Thai food fans, some real curry nuts. And when-- especially at Plaza, my Southern Thai restaurant. That particular cuisine, Southern Thai food, is very, very new in the UK. The audience has never appreciated it or tried it before.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Yeah, so before you guys started supplying a lot of the Thai restaurants here, how would you describe British Thai food?
LUKE FARRELL: Traffic light curry, would be one word, one phrase I would say. Red, orange, and green, tin of coconut milk, curry paste, and whichever protein.
TIM HAYWARD: And you think you can bring the nation along to the same kind of understanding that we have, maybe, of Italian or French food, where we get the regionality, we get the specialisations, the seasonality?
LUKE FARRELL: I think absolutely. And I think that people, when they travel as well, I want them to be as happy and engaged and enjoy the food that they had in Thailand in my restaurant.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So Tim, from authentic ingredients at the nursery down in Dorset, here we are in Soho at a restaurant which feels pretty authentic to me. I mean, it looks great.
TIM HAYWARD: It's lovely, isn't it? And it's got elements of film set about it. It's that authentic. I know a lot of that's been brought over from Thailand and [INAUDIBLE] here, and it looks just great.
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: Monday to Thursday, we close at midnight, and Friday and Saturday, we have a late-night menu that we serve food until 12:30. So it gets pretty packed on Friday and Saturday.
TIM HAYWARD: So talk me through the food. What do we expect to eat here?
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: So it's based on a That sharing family style, and we're inspired from Bangkok's Chinatown kind of cuisine.
TIM HAYWARD: Right.
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: Thai and Chinese cuisine combined. It's pretty much like what you will find in Thailand. We try our best to take the dishes from Bangkok and like really redo it here. We just want everyone to have fun, enjoy. It's like where you want to hang out after work.
TIM HAYWARD: How is this place different from other Thai I might have had?
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: I would always get a question from guests whether we do like pad Thai, we do a green curry, red curry, yellow curry, just like the basic. And we say, no, we don't. And a lot of guests would be like, how can you be Thai when you don't serve Pad Thai?
TIM HAYWARD: [LAUGHS]
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: This is another cuisine that we wanted to bring to London as well. I would say you can never find this in anywhere else in London.
KHOM: My name's Khom.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: You lived in London for long? You've been a chef elsewhere?
KHOM: Yeah, I opened a restaurant in Thailand, and then I just came here for my daughter to study here. So I look after her.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: What is it like to work here, and how does it compare to the restaurants that you worked in Thailand?
KHOM: They're similar because here is original Thai food-- yeah, are authentic Thai food.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: What is it like with the ingredients that you use here? Are the ingredients here like the ingredients that you have back at home?
KHOM: Almost is exactly right.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Are you using any of the ingredients that Luke grows in the nurseries here?
KHOM: Yeah, we bring from his farm like a chilli, lemongrass.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: And how does it compare? It feels just the same as the stuff that you'd get at home, yeah?
KHOM: Same, the same.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: So if you're from Thailand like you, and you're eating at a Thai restaurant, a typical Thai restaurant in London, you can tell it's not really the real thing.
KHOM: Yeah, it's not really the real.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: But you feel this place feels different? This place feels like authentic Thai?
KHOM: Authentic That, definitely the real Thai.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: It's definitely not a theme restaurant. That's the thing that I can't get around in my head, but it seems kind of theme-y. And then, you've got that level of authenticity when you get in there. Do you have to explain yourself a lot?
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: We would ask them for us, like, have they been here before? Would you like me to guide you through our restaurant? And a lot of time, we do have guests who have sat down, and they have no idea that they're in a Thai restaurant at all. We kind of have to guide them through the menus and the drinks, our concept, and why we have things on the walls, and the speedboat.
A lot of Thai people come here, also, for beer [INAUDIBLE], the pool table, and they just say that they just love the vibe here so much. Sometimes they ask me, oh, can we switch to a Thai music? And I say, yeah, of course, yeah. If you want the whole thing to be super Thai, we can do that as well OK.
TIM HAYWARD: I'm, coming back with "Super Thai" now. That's correct.
MIMI SAENGMEEKUN: Super Thai.
TIM HAYWARD: [LAUGHS]
DANIEL GARRAHAN: Look, it's only 1:00 o'clock, and this place is already packed. There are people queuing around the block. It's only been open, what, a year or something?
LUKE FARRELL: Slightly under a year. We've got a one-year birthday coming up. Plaza's been open one year. So yeah, there's two brand new Thai restaurants on the block, all within a year.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: You've got two on the block now. Do you see that turning into 3, 4, or 5, 6?
LUKE FARRELL: I think we'd like to represent Thailand fully with all of the regions that are in Thailand. Not just the Thai restaurant of Thailand; it should be a restaurant of the North, of the South, of Bangkok, or the Northeast.
DANIEL GARRAHAN: And will those restaurants all be supplied by the produce grown at the nursery? And is the idea in the future maybe to grow that and to supply other Thai restaurants with the authentic Thai ingredients grown here in the UK?
LUKE FARRELL: I think so. And what I'd like to see is more growers growing larger amounts of one particular Thai ingredient. That means someone making a whole greenhouse full of green papayas or holy basil so that those fleeting aromas and fragrances from Thailand don't need to be shipped over; they're already here. They have a control over their supply as well. It's often problems with shipping stuff in with this. It takes a lot of stress off the shelf basically they can put on a dish with confidence that they'll have the greenhouse full of that produce to supply him with.
TIM HAYWARD: In the nicest possible way, you're a tremendous nerd, aren't you?
LUKE FARRELL: [LAUGHS] I love Thai food in Thailand, and I want to do that here. It's as simple as that. I'm interested in changing people's perceptions in a way of just saying, look, Thai food's incredible. Let's just do that here. Let's not do an anglicised version of Thai food. I think that doing food in this way is of Thailand, and I want to see more of that, basically.
[UPBEAT MUSIC PLAYING]