How to start a local urban farming movement

Sure, we’re a green city. But Spa Esprit Group CEO Cynthia Chua wants to take it a step further. Here’s how...


WHO IS SHE? Cynthia Chua, 44. The head honcho of Spa Esprit Group is pushing for a farm-to-life movement with the F&B and lifestyle group’s latest offering, Open Farm Community. Here at the 35,000 sq ft restaurant-cum-farmland, urban farming courses are conducted, and the farm-to-table dining experience is available for those who just, er, prefer to eat. A self-professed nature lover, Cynthia has also started rooftop gardens at Wheelock Place and Raffles City, an indoor nursery in a converted Rowell Road shophouse, and an outdoor herb farm at House in Dempsey. Where do the harvested greens end up? Anywhere from your dinner at The Tippling Club to beauty products at Strip.

8 DAYS: You’ve dabbled in everything from beauty to F&B, but we didn’t quite expect you to add ‘farmer’ to your CV.
CYNTHIA CHUA: I first had the idea [to promote local farming] three years ago when we wanted to do a farm-to-table concept with a French chef. But his condition was that we find a building with a rooftop garden. I told him, “You’re crazy!” But it got me talking to farmers in Singapore, and visiting mushroom farms. I began to think that this could be possible. The people at Edible Garden City are so passionate about urban farming that they quit their jobs to be professional urban farmers. I was very lucky to meet them and that our ideas collided. It’s about community spirit, bringing people together, and experimenting. It’s not just about growing some kangkong. We want to promote local farming, and to do that, you need to get the community to come together, educate them by showing them how it’s done, and make it relevant to customers.

What farming experience did you have prior to this?
I can’t tell people to try growing at home if I haven’t tried it myself, so I did. Like everybody else, I was skeptical initially. So I started with a little vegetable garden plot in my house, growing my own sweet potato leaves and dill. Even my dad was like, “Are you sure or not? You always have these crazy ideas.” But when I managed to grow my own sweet potato leaves and stir fried them for dinner, my dad tasted it and said it was better than the restaurants’. (Laughs) I don’t have green fingers — I even managed to kill a cactus before. So once I saw that I could grow [my own vegetables], I knew it was idiot-proof.

What’s your earliest memory of farming?
When I was a little girl, my grandparents grew rambutan trees and sweet potato leaves. But as time passed, people began buying produce from wet markets and now, supermarkets. The problem we have right now is that we’re so separated from nature — everything comes readily-packed in the supermarket — and what you see is what you understand. So we’re here to show what can be done and to promote urban farming ’cos when we show people how it works, it slowly removes mental blocks that they may have.

What about folks who live in flats with no gardens to grow their crops?
There’s still space in the corridors! Instead of growing pretty plants, you can grow herbs and edible crops. You need very little space for planters.

What are some unexpected ways you can use plants that you grow?
A lot of people know about the passion fruit and what it can do for drinks and food, but no one has really thought about what can be done with passion flowers. It’s actually very calming, and we’re making it into a tincture, and even putting it into tea. We’re growing passion flowers at our Raffles City rooftop garden after we discovered this with Edible Garden City. My dream is to create a handwash using a native flower or plant that we grow here, process this, and make it into a signature series of products for Singapore Airlines.

How would you convince someone who hates eating veggies to eat them?
It’s about how you cook it. If you just gave me two sprigs of asparagus, I wouldn’t want to eat it. When I had roasted cauliflower overseas, I told myself, “If it tasted like that all the time, I’d eat it every day!” I love Ottolenghi in London. It’s a lot about grains and vegetables — you get dishes like aubergine cooked with pomegranate molasses which is very tasty. If I were to live there, I’d find a place right beside it so I can eat it every day. Plus, my shop, Ministry of Waxing, is just next door. (Laughs)

What did you learn on the job that they never taught you in school?
A three-pronged approach [to life]. You must love what you do. But that alone isn’t enough. After all, everybody has passion, right? I learnt quickly that things are not always a bed of roses — it’s a lot of hard work. So you need to find a rhythm. It’s a marathon — if you sprint, you’re going to run out of breath and die. And lastly, you need tenacity.

Open Farm Community is at 130E Minden Rd. 

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