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Ready to pick
IF your mental image of Ryan Clift is that of science geek working the dials of his fermentation contraption and creating mind-bending edible fantasies at his flagship restaurant Tippling Club, it's time to change the channel. Come June-July, you're going to find the fast-talking, speed-thinking tattoo-ed chef pottering in the garden, plucking fresh greens and fruit and making home-made pasta in his new dining concept in Minden Road, called Open Farm Community.
The 6,000 sq metre space is the culmination of Clift's 7.5 years (the length of his time in Singapore) of being told he could not grow any of the special herbs and vegetables that he wanted, and finally finding someone who could. Last year, he teamed up with Edible Gardens' founder Bjorn Low to turn part of Wheelock Place's rooftop into a vegetable patch that grows everything from zucchini and carrots to exotic borage and nasturtium flowers for Tippling Club's use. The success of that ongoing garden - which sees Clift doing twice weekly harvests - proved that his dream of "sitting in the dining room and looking out into a beautiful garden" could finally be a reality in Singapore.
Hence Open Farm Community - which takes pride of place in a former golf driving range behind the Jim Thompson Thai restaurant on Minden Road. As the name suggests, it will be a place for people to gather, hang around in a beautiful garden where everything is edible, playing lawn bowls and learning how to grow their own food at home.
"We'll have two lawn bowling lanes - that will be a first in Singapore - it'll be fun," laughs Clift. "The restaurant itself will seat 50 to 60 people, with a little cafe in front for takeaway coffee. There'll be a beautiful indoor terrace garden. Bjorn's putting in a fruit orchard - rambutan, jackfruit and even a 150-year old mango tree all on the property."
The menu will be tailored according to what's grown in the garden and in season, says Clift. And it will not even remotely resemble what he does at Tippling Club. "The food is going to be very simple - we're not trying to re-invent the wheel. It'll be very natural, focusing on simple pasta dishes. We brought in this crazy pasta machine from Italy which can make any type of pasta we want. So every day the chef is going into the garden to take some herbs and make sauces, vinaigrettes, pesto and do a simple pasta for the day."
Another first will be a "crazy" custom-built charcoal oven by eccentric Italian artisan Paolo Parisi that "instead of just one unit where you put the charcoal like those Josper grills, you've got 10 decks so you can be cooking 10 different things at 10 different temperatures but from one charcoal pit."
Yes, it's huge, Clift concedes and he will be the first in Asia to have one. "We'll do simple grilled meats and fish, roast vegetables - very rustic food, not trying to be avant garde in any way. It's simple, tasty, with everything handmade and using as much produce from the garden as possible."
It can't be called farm to table since they won't be growing all their vegetables and "there are no animals in yard, but we will get chickens and quails, and maybe beehives stashed at the back," says Clift.
Apart from creating a garden space that people can hang out in, he also wants to make it affordable, albeit in a nicely designed environment created by Alan Barr of Grey Matters, who also designed Tippling Club.
"It'll have the bells and whistles of a beautiful dining room but we try to be as rustic as possible using lots of natural wood."
Clift has his concept down to the last detail.
"We're essentially trying to build a community farm project so it's open to anybody. We're doing regular farmer's markets, pop up garden shops, edible garden training classes, a kid's area, informative activities that are community-based."
Clift readily acknowledges he has no green fingers, but growing his own produce came out of his frustration from importing delicate flowers and herbs from Europe and having to throw most of them away by the time they get here. "You pay 25 cents a leaf for nasturtium and they're all dead when they come. Or one punnet (of herbs or flowers) costs S$18 and S$7 goes into the bin. It's a waste and I hate wasting food. But now I can pick buckets and it costs like S$4."
For this, he credits Edible Gardens' Low for proving all the naysayers wrong. "For years people told me it couldn't be done in Singapore because of the temperature and the soil but Bjorn has proved it can be done." Their proudest success has been to successfully grow borage flowers "which are easy to get in Europe but 50 per cent is dead when you get it. But Bjorn succeeded and now we have them".
Clift hopes that Open Farm Community (OFC) will inspire others to follow suit because "the more people who get involved the better it is for the environment". He adds: "I'm not a greenie or a hippie but it's important to be responsible. The fact that Singapore imports pretty much everything, the more restaurants that can do it, the better it is for the environment and for the consumer at the end of the day."
While OFC marks a departure from what he has been doing at Tippling Club, "it's something I'm passionate about," says Clift. And now that he has enough chefs working with him, he's able to devote his time to being "purely creative". He expects to be cooking in OFC for the first couple of months at least to make sure everything runs smoothly. As for the manpower crunch, Clift says: "Just by talking to (potential staff) about going into the garden and picking their own herbs - everybody's taken the job immediately and we're nearly fully staffed. And all are Singaporeans."
Obviously, they're buying into the same motivation as Clift as he says: "Imagine waking up in the morning and thinking, 'ok, that's ready to be picked - I'll just put that on the menu today'. It's so exciting."