Whether at the grocery or in a restaurant, how many of us really know where the produce we eat comes from? Andrew Headspeath follows our food straight to the source. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Bell pepper yellows, beetroot purples and lettuce greens: the refrigerated shelves of Organik’s vegetable section gleam with sealed-in freshness. Arlene Fast, head of customer relations and wife of co-owner John Fast, is showing her inventory as we meander through her Thao Dien store. Different areas feature vegetables grown at their farm in Dalat, produce grown organically and non-organic products that are still clean.
According to Fast, there is a fear that vegetables grown in Vietnam are generally unsafe since many smaller, more local farmers use harmful chemical pesticides on their crops. This is simpler and yields faster growth with larger products.
“When you have a small farm, the bigger and quicker the better. It’s all you can do to make a living off limited means,” she says.
Yet cleaner, fresher and safer food is on the rise in Vietnam, both through the efforts of suppliers and the demand of consumers.
“At Organik we aim to grow as clean as possible,” says John Fast, who started the company in 2004 with Arlene and business partner Dr. Nguyen Ba Hung, a geneticist. To achieve this aim, the Fasts and Dr. Hung employ a variety of growing techniques to deter pests.
“Some pests are plant-family specific. Lettuce has predators that will get at them but the same predators will not get a potatoes,” he says.
By moving the different crops from place to place the predators remain out of harm’s way. These methods help alleviate the need for harmful chemicals.
Many vegetable farms are based in Dalat which, according to Bob Allen of VeGGy’s, is the ideal location in Vietnam.
“My farm is set in what was three mountains, at an altitude of 1,500 metres,” says Allen. His property opened in 1995 with a handful of local workers and now employs around 40.
Yet things aren’t always easy in the region’s cool, rolling hills. Fast says: “Vietnam doesn’t have the calendar seasons we have back home. But the rainy season means more clouds and less growth.”
The torrential rains of Vietnam are a challenge to both farmers, who employ the use of greenhouses for stable production.
“We find ourselves having to constantly refine our methods,” he says.
The challenges of cleaner growing are met head-on at Allen’s farm through hydroponic systems. Plants are grown without soil: instead, water and nutrients are delivered straight to the roots. For VeGGys’ lettuce, Allen has developed the Nutrient Film Technique, in which plants are placed in a growing tray with alternative padding such as coconut fibre. Nutrient solution is then air-pumped to their roots from a reservoir below. The slight tilt of the tray allows the solution to drip down into the reservoir and the process begins again. Eighty percent of Allen’s lettuce is cultivated this way.
“With hydroponic systems you have less soil-borne diseases, less chemicals, better quality, storage and growth and a perfect-looking appearance compared with conventionally soil-grown vegetables,” he says.
Vegetables aren’t the only products created with love in Dalat. Local eatery Pizza4Ps owns a cheese factory in Dong Duong, producing fresh cheese daily with products ranging from mozzarella to burrata.
“Cheese is the key factor to any pizza restaurant, and we needed cheese with a pure, fresh quality,” says Yosuke Masuko, owner of Pizza4Ps. “Much of the cheese used in other restaurants is processed from the US or Australia. You can’t find any fresh cheese in Vietnam, so we decided to make it ourselves.”
Pizza4Ps currently sells its cheese to five-star hotels, stores and restaurants in Saigon and beyond. While the likes of Masuko, Organik and VeGGy’s rely on the sale of their own goods, Snap Cafe’s head chef Steven Lyons believes imports – in this instance, beef – are crucial to a restaurant’s success.
“The biggest goal for any chef is consistency,” says Lyons, who has been at Snap Cafe for over four years. It’s a mark of a restaurant’s success, which Lyons says has a direct relationship with the food supplier.
“In Vietnam we are denied the luxury of searching for a supplier, picking up the phone and going to visit the cow farm. Since our beef comes from Australia and New Zealand, we rely on the supplier’s information and integrity that the produce we’re using has been farmed in a clean and ethical way.”
While Lyons can taste the product and get the story behind it, it’s the supplier’s job to act as the middle man in these transactions.
“They need to forecast the needs of each client, then ship over tonnes of beef for delivery,” he explains. It’s a difficult job, which he says can lead to complications if communication isn’t maintained properly.
“Sometimes suppliers run out. Then we need to scramble and find a different supplier, which means our meat tastes different,” Lyons says.
By giving consistent feedback, Lyons can avoid situations like this and ensure Snap Cafe’s food is up to scratch.
Having his own farm means that VeGGy’s Allen can cut out the middle man and do what he proudly calls “getting the produce straight from the gate to your plate”. VeGGy’s, like Pizza4Ps and Organik, sells its produce to other businesses. The companies pre-cool and ship their produce in foam boxes every night by bus or truck. However, the poor quality of roads in Vietnam means that the food is sometimes spoiled upon arrival.
“It’s a little primitive,” says Allen. “For our smaller orders we do deliveries by motorbike. You just have to do the best you can with the resources available.”
According to Lyons, finding these resources can be challenging: “You find you’re kind of walled into Vietnam. You have to know where to go and that takes time when you’re not Vietnamese.”
This gap in knowledge is commonplace for many new expatriate business owners who settle here. The key, Lyons says, is to utilise the community of Western foodies that exists in the country.
“I use Organik, I go to VeGGy’s…and ask, ‘Where do you get this? How do you get this?’ We’re a small community that helps and supports each other source food in a foreign country.”