An accidental gardener with a passionate message constructs a backyard urban farm-cum-fine-dining experience
There are a lot of stories about sustainability and ethics, and the lengths chefs go to in order to devise and promote some newfangled kitchen gimmick that’ll set them apart from the herd. Most of the stories you hear are phony marketing yarns, created by PRs to push and promote their client, to thrust them into the spotlight of an ever-growing local-seasonal-organic food movement.
It’s rare that you’re able to meet a chef and see and hear their message in real-time. To witness their approach and their philosophy. It’s even rarer to see it applied. So, as I sat with Chef Deepanker ‘DK’ Khosla in his new restaurant, Haoma (named after a divine plant venerated by ancient human societies), tucked around a corner at the far end of Sukhumvit Soi 31, I’m impressed; surrounded by potted plants, shrubbery, and hanging vines.
Inside and outside of Haoma, seedlings thrive in an almost zen-like space. Turf grows up the sides of walls, flowers flourish, and plants overhang from wooden beams. The two-storey glasshouse has become an inside-out allotment of produce—a bounty of ingredients for an ever-evolving menu.
With a passion and focus on sustainability (there’s that word again) and environmentally-friendly gastronomy, Chef DK has created an on-site garden and an approach to growing, harvesting and cooking he calls “Progressive Urban-Farm Dining and Mixology”. Unlike many of the missives advocated by so-called caring chefs, he preaches what he teaches, so that diners to Haoma walk through—then dine in and around—seasonal, growing and transformative produce.
“I look around to see what’s here and celebrate the ingredients,” he tells me over a Bell Pepper cocktail (with whisky, pink peppercorns, and bell pepper). “I don’t constrain myself to other cuisines. They all influence me—French, Italian, Mexican, Indian—but I can’t be restricted by them. Here, we grow what we cook, and we cook what we love.”
Almost all of the menu comes directly from the plants next to me, above me, or thriving in their grow-bags through the window, otherwise, “it’s from the markets my sous chef Tarun Bhatia [winner of Southeast Asia S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016] and I visit every day.”
On the flavour wheel, expect earthy textures with pickings from the garden, like salt-baked baby beetroot, heirloom carrots, and sous vide asparagus. Ask Chef DK and he’ll show you the impressive installations: the aquaponics, hydroponics and growing troughs. There is also an impressive water recycling system installed, and certified soil, plus those little brown puff balls (hydroton pellets) you grow plants in that look like a chocolate breakfast cereal, but aren’t.
A relative newbie on the culinary circuit in Bangkok, and still only 28, Chef DK arrived from Mumbai in 2014. In India, he grew up on the banks of the Ganges River with aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot, but soon left behind ambitions of the cockpit for the kitchen and enrolled at Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration (WGSHA). “I was an energetic kid, always full of excitement, so it was natural for me to create things,” he recalls.
After training in Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and running a restaurant in Mumbai for a number of years, he was told of an opportunity in Bangkok. After a successful trial at Charcoal Tandoor Grill (Sukhumvit Soi 11), he was hired. He left Charcoal in January 2016 and travelled from Pai to Phuket, looking for new ingredients and experiences. “Cooking within the realm of hotels and their fast-paced kitchens was no longer my calling,” he says with confidence. The next step was a food truck, cooking and promoting healthy eating.
“My two passions are cooking and being on the road,” he says. “I’m a Ducati enthusiast and love being on two wheels. The food truck meant that I could cook and travel.” Then came his business NutriChef, specializing in delivering “wholesome clean food to help lose weight, save time, and feel amazing!” The creation of Haoma is a much bigger project, though—built on land next door to the chef’s own house. “It’s personal for me,” he adds.
From the menu I sample ‘Stick to the Roots’, a beautiful arrangement of colourful root vegetables, specificity plated to showcase the root growth, as if you were seeing them from under the earth. “You get it, right?” he enthusiastically asks, ordering more cocktails for the table: Kale (with gin, avocado, apple and celery) and Strawberry (with lemon, strawberry leather, and Salak extract).
Then, as the largely veg-centric menu continues with Chef DK’s self-confessed Alan Passard approach to haute cuisine végétale, a plate of ‘Burrata with the Bubbles’ appears. Followed by meat courses: ‘Hungarian Goulash’ using local veal with pearl onions and ‘Lamb in the Hills’ (New Zealand) with Himalayan garlic. Simple, yet inventive.
Chef DK has proven himself an accidental gardener—even learning from YouTube Channel The School of Aquaponics—growing and championing on-site urban farming. Now, with a dining room alongside his farm, he intends to create Bangkok’s first 0 km restaurant. From the looks of things, he has all of the tools and talent to achieve it.
Interview by David J. Constable