At this restaurant, pick your own herbs for your noodles

At this restaurant, pick your own herbs for your noodles
One reason Caren Poon started the herb garden was to reduce wastage at An Viet.
PHOTO: The Star/ Asia News Network

Vietnamese cuisine is known for its freshness and a garnish of fresh herbs is a must for most of its dishes.

But what happens when ensuring that freshness means throwing away a lot of herbs?

Caren Poon, 39, is the director of the An Viet Vietnamese restaurant chain that has two outlets in the Klang Valley, in The Gardens Mall in Mid Valley City and in Sunway Pyramid shopping centre, Bandar Sunway.

And, naturally, she wants to make sure what her restaurants serve is authentic.

"In Vietnam, they serve their pho with a lot of fresh herbs and vegetables, so when we opened our first outlet in The Gardens Mall, we served herbs in a glass, but then we noticed that we ended up throwing out a lot of it.

"The thing with basil is, after you cut the leaves, they wilt really fast. If we don't serve them right away, and they aren't finished that day, they end up very black and yucky the next day - you eat it raw, so it's quite gross to serve basil that is not fresh!"

Poon worried about the waste, too; she'd seen a lot of it in the 12 years she has been in the food business, from excess sushi being dumped in a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant to tables of food wasted at food tastings when "in the name of market research, you eat two bites of each dish and throw everything else away".

Pots of Thai basil are placed at the table for customers to help themselves to.

She had her awareness prodded when she went on an overseas trip: "I realised how immune I had become to food waste.

"And I realised that I should really do something about it since I'm in the restaurant industry. I asked myself what could I do within my scope to make a difference, however small. We have to start somewhere."

In this month's Ready, Set Grow! column, Poon shares how she uses her little herb garden in her business to mitigate that waste as well as ensure freshness.

How does the garden tie in to your restaurants' philosophy?

After doing the research and realising that one-third of the food that the world produces is thrown away, we actually wanted to use the restaurant as a platform to encourage people not to waste food.

(Diners are encouraged to choose portions that suit their appetites to ensure no food is wasted.)

And yet, here we are also throwing food - the basil - away ourselves. It's not nice! So it was a few incremental steps that started with the question: What else can we do at our restaurant?

The team as a whole contributed ideas for this.

The pots of basil go into rotation to get more sun exposure along the side of the garden space.

What is the main purpose of having the garden?

To ensure we have fresh basil on hand and to reduce wastage of basil in the restaurant.

We thought if we could have basil growing in pots placed on each table, it'll be so much fresher and we would also reduce the amount of waste because customers can harvest only what they require.

We also wanted to make the whole place look nicer, to have greens in the restaurant.

I didn't realise this until we opened An Viet in Sunway Pyramid (which has the container garden) and spent most of our time there, and then when I finally went back to The Gardens branch, I thought "Wow, it looks very different - it's darker and doesn't have that much life".

I think having plants in a concrete setting really lends a bit of life and fresh air to the place.

What challenges did you face in getting the garden started?

Six months ago, when we first had the idea of growing the basil, it was a bit of a challenge because we had to make sure that, operationally, it's not too much of a nightmare for the team taking care of the plants.

Poon (centre) with Lee Koon (left) and Menying, kitchen supervisors and honorary gardeners.

We had questions about how big the pots should be. If they're too big, the tables would be too crowded.

And do we have enough space to grow more plants?

And what if the customers really love basil? They could eat the entire plant! And ask for a second pot, or even run to another table to help themselves!

So we had to make sure that we have enough space to grow all the herbs needed, and think about how else we could replenish our stock or rotate our plants.

Tell us a little bit about your edible garden.

One of the nice things about our garden is that it is integrated into the meals. It's not just a garden sitting there, it's incorporated into the whole dining experience.

Diners are encouraged to choose a portion that suits their appetites to ensure no food is wasted.

When we serve pho, we accompany it with a small bowl of clean water so that customers can harvest the basil from the pot on the table, wash the leaves in the water, and then put them into their soup.

Also, letting the customer experience the actual plant as opposed to something prepared gives them an idea of where their food comes from.

How do you choose what kind of vegetables to grow?

One of the main things that we were throwing away, and having issues getting a fresh supply of, was the basil.

It's very commonly used in Vietnamese dishes and we use about 10kg a week at each outlet, excluding what is harvested directly from pots.

What challenges did you face once the garden got going?

We know how to run restaurants but taking care of plants, beyond the basic watering and trimming, is a whole new ball game for us!

For example, we found black spots on the leaves once and didn't know how to get rid of them. After consulting with Eats, Shoots & Roots, we learnt to spray the leaves with water infused with chilli.

View of the area in front of the restaurant before the herb garden was set up.

We also initially left the potted herbs on the tables for several days on end and found the leaves turning yellow.

We gradually learnt how often we have to rotate the pots from within the outlet to the outdoor area to ensure the plants get enough sunlight.

Along the way, we have slowly learnt how to take care of the garden.

We also get man-made pests - there are people who actually discard their cigarette butts inside the pots! This is actually a nonsmoking area but there are still those that do that.

What is your go-to pest control/pesticide?

We don't use pesticides; we just kill the bugs if there are any. We do everything manually.

Sunway Pyramid's management has been very supportive of this initiative.

Besides allowing us to use the balcony to grow our plants, they also inform us before they fog (for pests) twice a month, to give us time to move the plants inside.

How has your lifestyle changed since starting the garden?

I find the garden quite cathartic. Just looking at the plants brings a sense of calmness and peace.

I'm not the key caretaker, we have a few people on the team who take turns to care for it, but sometimes when I'm here at the restaurant, once in awhile … when you just focus on plucking the dead leaves off and trimming the plants, you are focused and in the moment, you're not stressing out about anything else, but just focusing on getting the plants looking good again.

Why do you think urban gardening is important?

It helps people to reconnect with nature and to remember where their food comes from, and when people start to grow their own vegetables, they might also think about wasting food less, because they realise how much work goes into producing food - so many months of effort and labour.

What advice do you have for those just starting/thinking of starting an urban garden?

Just do it! I think the best way to learn is to stop thinking too much about it and just figure it out along the way.

And you can always stop to get advice from other people who have done it or know more about it.

It definitely helped to have somebody with more knowledge and experience to guide us, because in the beginning, we weren't sure how many racks we should have, how big the pots need to be, or how many pots to start off with.

Has the garden impacted your business in any way?

I think it has definitely impacted the business.

The customers get really interested in the plants, and they come here not only to eat the pho but also to specifically get fresh herbs.

Sometimes they bring their friends the next time they come and you can hear them excitedly explaining to their friends how to harvest the leaves to put into their soup.

Some customers were concerned about the plants dying - for example, if they harvest so many leaves, would the plant die? We explain to them that the plants will continue to grow more leaves.

And sometimes, the kids get really excited, so the parents enjoy teaching their kids about the plants.

It creates a lot of interest, as people are really curious to see what the plants are all about.

When they walk by, they actually stop to sniff the plants and see what they are, so the garden does get people more interested and curious about plants.

Some customers have even asked us if they could take the plants home or if they could buy them. And I have friends that say they are now growing their own basil at home!

How much waste have you reduced so far?

We estimate that we have reduced the waste by 20 per cent to 30 per cent at the Sunway outlet now.

Anything else you'd like to add?

If you buy a big packet of herbs at the supermarket, you might only use a handful of leaves and the rest gets thrown away.

So I'm really glad that people now think having potted herbs on their table is a good idea, and I hope that more and more people, after eating here, will think of doing things like this at home.

And, hopefully, more people will get on board with urban farming.

I think we have learned a lot from the garden. And it has been interesting hearing all types of responses from the customers.

But in terms of gardening itself, the technical bits, we still have a long way to go and so much more to learn.

 

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