Farm deLight grows micro cresses, herbs and salad base veggies—mainly for fine dining restaurants in Singapore.
The aroma of freshly baked biscuits awakens the arid grounds of Khong Guan Biscuit Factory at Jalan Boon Lay. In the depths of the compound, a little sign points to Farm deLight at a wing that could be mistaken for being abandoned or disused. Up a little staircase and a clearing of racks, planter boxes and equipment still does not give hint to the contrary, until founder Edmund Wong opens the door to his 600sqm air-conditioned indoor farm. His racks of LED-lit plants are the signs of life we’re looking for. Here and in a small garden outdoors, he mainly grows micro cresses such as red-veined sorrel, lemon balm and marigold.
His farm seems Lilliputian compared to others who are scaling heights in vertical indoor farming. In fact he says his farm will not factor much in Singapore’s goal of producing 30 per cent of its food by 2030, even if he will soon be growing leafy vegetables in a new 2-hectare plot of land in Neo Tiew Crescent. But his micro cresses have proved popular with fine dining chefs for a number of years now.
Down to earth
Farm deLight uses soil and organic fertilisers to grow their variety of micro cresses all year round. Trials and tests when the farm was set up some five years ago convinced them to stick to soil as the plants would take in more nutrients and have the most flavour this way.
Edmund recalls a time when he was knocking on the doors of fine dining restaurants. At Odette, for instance, chef Julien Royer remarked that if he was offering hydroponically grown produce, he could forget about making his pitch. When he assured the chef that he was growing with soil, they talked for another hour, and that’s how his Greek basil ended up being used in Odette’s kitchen.
Soil aside, Edmund believes that the focus on micro cresses is the right one, not only because they are relatively fast-growing, but because they harbour plenty of nutrients—sometimes even more than that in full-grown plants. He sees greater potential for micro cresses to be used in salads and is working to grow that demand.
Edmund credits Sandro Falbo, former executive chef of Fullerton Hotel Singapore and the Fullerton Bay Hotel for helping him a lot in the early years. Other early clients include The Naked Finn, Regent Singapore and The St. Regis Singapore. The chefs showed him what they wanted and he did a lot of tinkering at the farm to meet their requirements and more. A lot of it was about thorough follow-up, and he says even till today, he does a lot of metric testing to see which LED lights best suit the plants, and if he could improve the irrigation system.
Edmund’s methodical approach to running the farm can be traced to his engineering background. Years in semiconductors and technical sales support had taught him to solve problems immediately, to get to the root cause, and importantly, to be precise. He says, “When I was showing samples of my produce to chef Michael Michaelidis of the former Joël Robuchon, Singapore, he wanted the cresses to be uniform and within certain specifications—down to the cm. For the next three samples, I gave him exactly what he wanted. I even ended up coming up with a data sheet, just like the ones we used in the semiconductor industry. Most of the chefs appreciate consistent quality.”
Newer restaurants have come on board in recent times, including Zén, sister restaurant of three-Michelin-starred Frantzén in Sweden. Says Tristin Farmer, its executive chef who orders items such as baby kale leaves, butterfly sorrel flowers, sprouting broccoli flowers and bronze fennel each week, “The quality of produce from Farm deLight is outstanding and of the highest quality. That they grow them in soil is a good thing for us, as we can keep the herbs and flowers as fresh as possible and pick them just before serving. The team at Farm deLight is also working on test samples of new herbs and flowers which are not currently in their product range, such as onion flowers, thyme flowers and apple blossoms, for our new menu planned for later this year.”
Chef Jeremy Gillon of Restaurant JAG is another supporter, “The team at Farm deLight have made an effort to understand the Restaurant JAG concept—which is led by our herbs from Savoie. What they have curated for me is a selection of micro herbs and micro cresses that complement the herbs I have from the French Alps. For instance I use their pea shoots in my seasonal dish of Icelandic langoustine, fresh green peas from France, and Monarde or Monarda flowers from the French Alps. The langoustine is paired with a green pea mash for the buttery and nuttiness flavour, fresh green pea jus for crunchiness and sweetness and green pea jus for the bitterness and fresh green flavour. But it’s the pea cress that completes the dish beautifully. The delicate pea cress gives it that unique freshness and adds a crunchy texture. The peppery note from the Monarda flowers gives the dish a lovely finish.”
In five to 10 years, Edmund hopes to reduce the city-state’s dependence on imported micro cresses and other plants. He wants to grow better produce that are nutritious and have a smaller carbon footprint. For now, his greatest satisfaction lies in seeing chefs using his micro cresses creatively, as a garnish on a plate, in a sorbet, in a purée or in other presentations. “My customers are all very nice people. They’re what keeps me going. They’re truly passionate about what they do and they are stringent with their standards because they want quality. It’s so nice to see people like that.” His admiration for the chef’s craft sees him giving back in ways such as sponsoring micro cresses for national culinary competitions or chefs’ charity events. That’s perhaps his farm’s way of making its presence felt, and his way of showing that a little goes a long way.
A version of this article was first published in the Wine & Dine July/August 2019: Made in Singapore issue.