On giving life to a farm...

In conversation with Arul and Shalini of The Farm,

Any anecdote or story about how The Farm has supported a community either directly or indirectly; something which reaffirmed all the faith and effort you've put into this project?

We work with farmers around the country. While some of our produce comes in from Ooty, & Kodaikanal, we get our spices and honey from Kerala. We also source a lot of food from our boys who work here as well. Every time they visit their hometown, they come back with a lot fresh food as their families and friends there are mostly into farming.

Shalini travels a lot. One such anecdote would be about how we procure the Chamomile flowers for our favourite teas here from the foothills of the Himalayas.

She was on a trip to Ladakh and on a break at a café got to taste a lovely cup of Chamomile tea. It was so good, we tracked down the guy who supplied the flowers for the café and instantly began working with him for ours.

As an idea, is The Farm inspired by an experience you had or was this something you planned right from the start?

It wasn’t something that was carefully curated for a long time. While my family has been into farming throughout their lives, something which started as a hobby and later became a profession, we never planned to do anything else with this space back then. This is the sort of lifestyle which I aspire to anyway so it didn’t make sense to give it away as well. 

We’ve always hosted friends and family on weekends on The Farm. We started by converting a buffalo shed into the kitchen and a wood fired oven. This would mean having friends over every other weekend. What started as a very basic set up started to evolve as we began to bring in more of the farm into the restaurant. Over time, we realized our guests were not just those who wanted to dine here but who also came back specifically to buy our ingredients like our jams, pickles and other produce too. The turning point for us was when we learned how to make our own cheese. We figured out how to make mozzarella with the help of a good friend of ours.

Everyone started connecting to how things work at The Farm so the identity sort of developed by itself. Then my room here was converted into the shop where we sell our cheese along with other things we make here. It started evolving bit by bit and we keep at it. There’s always something new going on here and not everything is planned.

What kind of morning rituals does the farm have? 

Similar to the rituals you’d see on a daily farm life! The cows and buffalos are milked,    fed and sent out for grazing; the cheese making starts; the bakery starts at 6:30 in the morning; there are a bunch of people doing agricultural work, some of them pick vegetables and everything is up and running till the evening. 

About your restaurant - your favourite recipe and the story behind it? 

We have an entire section of our ‘Staff specials’ which are those recipes that have been inspired and contributed by our staff. It may be something that’s a popular dish in their hometown or a family recipe. Our Naga pork is inspired by one of our staff who is from Nagaland. After doing something like that, the boys here began taking ownership of our food because they felt like they are making their dish instead of something that’s just on the menu and they feel so proud! I feel overall we have a good balance between being spontaneous with what we have going on here and at the same time we are organized with the process we follow as well.

I noticed you take your guests on a farm walk. What was the idea behind it?

We are a restaurant on a farm. We want people to understand where the food is coming from as well. We initially did it as a courtesy to our guests but in time we realized people are drawn to the place because of this too. We tie up with schools to conduct farm visits because on one of our walks a child pointed it out to us that milk comes from packets and not cows. We were shocked by that response and we realized that these walks may be able to have another purpose too. Apart from the schools, we don’t encourage the idea of the farm walks being open to the public; it’s something we do only for our guests.

Lastly, do you see the farm evolving as a space on its own or is there a plan?

The whole farm to table idea has changed the way we think about food. It’s amazing that we have learned so much about ingredients that maybe forgotten or about a particular way of cooking something and to be able to add it on our menu and share it with other people. We always felt it’s good to explore and add things the way we want it to be. We never planned our restaurant menu to be cuisine specific, and on the menu we have a section of pizzas sitting next to a Khow Suey and Kara kuzhambu. We look at everything and see how we can make it and not buy it and that has inspired us to travel more and also inspired us to grow more on our farm. We do things so differently now and even our space doesn’t look the same as it was before. We keep reflecting on what we do to see if we can do it some other way. The Farm has a life of its own and I feel like we’re just facilitating where it’s going. That’s the kind of growth we want for this space.

You can check out the Farm here - https://www.thefarmchennai.com

Words & Photographs: Chaithraa Jagadeesha