With the recent launch of Ori9in The Gourmet Farm, a unique agricultural partnership between Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts and acclaimed chef James Noble has taken root. Bruce Scott unearths the whole story.
Despite the résumé of James Douglas Noble including time spent running Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK, a stint as Mick Jagger’s personal chef, and overseeing operations at a top-end hotel, for the last number of years he’s been happily tilling soil in Thailand; sowing, growing, and harvesting crops that supply some of the finest kitchens in the Kingdom.
Operating under the company name The Boutique Farmers – with a pair of work boots as the logo – James and his wife, May, set up their first organic farm on a two-rai plot in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. However, as James admits, they soon “outgrew” the land. “The restaurant we ran on the property there got extremely busy, and the ethos was to be totally sustainable and we couldn’t do that after a time.”
In January of 2020 the Prachuap Khiri Khan farm closed down, but even before that James had been focusing his attention on a much larger project – a sprawling 500 rai (350 acre) tract of virgin land in Chiang Mai he now tends in partnership with Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts.
“You have to be very careful about who you get into bed with. May and I work hard to keep our products clean, and over the years different people have asked us to get involved with them and we’ve said no. But Banyan Tree has a really strong mantra and a really pure ethos. So, we said okay.”
The vast, fertile acreage in Chiang Mai was purchased by the hotel brand many years ago, and although originally slated to be a golf course it was never actually developed. Recently, Banyan Tree founder and chairman Ho Kwon Ping decided he wanted to utilise the land in a more agricultural way, and thus the seeds were planted for what would become Ori9in The Gourmet Farm, which officially opened last December.
The farm’s name refers to “where everything originates from – it’s origins”, but the number 9 in the spelling is also an allusion to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. “May and I have followed his preachings and teachings, so what we’re trying to do is just continue his legacy and try and bring back a bit of what he wanted,” James explains, acknowledging King Rama IX’s acclaimed sufficiency economy philosophy.
“To reduce the carbon footprint of Thailand we’re trying to grow products that are non-indigenous and make them indigenous, going forward,” he goes on to say. “We grow figs, finger limes, Genoese basil – which is the only basil for pesto – and over 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes from our own seed bank.”
Along with supplying produce to Banyan Tree properties in Koh Samui, Krabi, Phuket, and Bangkok, the farm also grows specialty crops for hotels like Four Seasons Bangkok and Capella Bangkok, as well as fine dining restaurants such as Sühring, 80/20, R.Haan, and IGNIV.
“The idea is that you come to us and say ‘We want this particular item. We spend a lot of money importing it. Can you grow it for us?’ and we do a bit of research and development to try and create the right soil and climate. For instance, if you wanted 20 kilos of mixed heirloom tomatoes per week, we’ll tell you how much space [soil] you need to rent. And that’s including our taking care of it, delivery, and the seed.
“That makes farming sustainable,” he remarks, “as opposed to fluctuating crop prices, or the government holding back and controlling prices at market, or everyone going to market at the same time with the same product and crashing the market price.”
Visitors to Ori9in The Gourmet Farm can sample some of James and May’s homegrown bounty at Waiting for May, the property’s on-site restaurant (open Friday to Sunday only). And while sit-down dining is available, visitors are encouraged to picnic outdoors. “It’s like a delicatessen. You choose items from the deli, and we put them in a very nice hamper so you can go and have a picnic wherever you fancy,” he says. “Most places try to shoehorn people inside and then have them look out the window at the view. Here you can become part of the view!”
The movement towards sustainable agriculture and agrotourism are both realised at Ori9in, but don’t expect a steady stream of tour buses shuttling visitors back and forth. In fact, James admits he limits the amount of visitors to 100 per day. “Otherwise it becomes a tourist attraction for the masses,” he grumbles.
“You can have a picnic, the children can play in the small hay maze, which is the byproduct of our rice fields, and the adults can play in the corn maze. This is tourism that produces a product that can be sold, and leaves no footprint on the land, as opposed to waterparks or shopping malls, or whatnot. We’re trying to show people that you can have a day out without harming what you came to see in the first place.”
“We also like our promotion to be organic,” he adds. “We like people to tell people they’ve been here to experience it. It’s aesthetic, it’s sustainable, it’s permaculture, and you can actually go and touch things as you walk around. It’s like Willy Wonka’s garden of vegetables.”
To find out more about Chef James Noble’s Ori9in The Gourmet Farm, visit ori9infarm.com