They’ve built a restaurant empire from scratch – now they’re redefining paddock-to-plate dining with 30 types of eggplant and more types of basil than you can count.
When Palisa Anderson was growing up, she’d carefully clean banana leaves and leave them to dry on coat hangers around the house. “And if it was raining outside, we’d have the heater on – even in the summertime – just to dry everything,” she says. Her mother, Amy Chanta, was in the restaurant business – a fact reconfirmed by the noodles also dehydrating throughout their home, or the pots of food she’d leave out for Palisa and her brother Pat, to compensate for her late hours. “I’m lucky my children were good kids, they understood that I had to stay at the restaurant almost every day,” says Chanta.
The pre-prepared meals were like a calendar for the week: “we’d know if it was a Monday because the meals would be a little more elaborate because she didn’t have to start work until later in the afternoon,” says Anderson. There’d be chilli relishes that began at an entry-level of spiciness and amplified in heat as the kids grew older. And there’d be fried fish because their mum had visited the fish markets.
But the week’s end, though, it was “dire straits” says Anderson with a laugh. “By Friday, it’d all be the dregs of the fridge.” By Saturday, “it’d all be good again” because they’d drive to Cabramatta or Marrickville to restock their supplies of Asian groceries. Back in the 1980s, though, some Asian ingredients weren’t so easy to access (“Thai basil was hard to get”) and on Sundays, they’d have papaya salad parties, using fruit picked from a friend’s house, because that was the only way to find it. (For the full multicultural effect, they also served fried chicken from KFC, too.)
So when Chanta opened her first Chat Thai restaurant in 1989, on Liverpool Street in Sydney’s CBD, she made some concessions to Western palates – these desserts included chocolate mousse, creme caramel, ice-cream and jelly. “And they sold so well,” recalls Anderson. But as they expanded and gained a following in the Asian community, they started doing sticky rice wrapped in the bananas leaves (yes, using the ones drying on coat hangers in the family home) and fully embraced the Thai direction of the restaurants.
Chat Thai’s evolution has led to the addition of other venues – such as Boon Café and the Jarern Thai grocery – and the establishment of Boon Luck Farm. The family wanted to grow its own produce, to ensure the Thai basil, pea eggplants and other key ingredients hitting their woks and salads were of a reliably good standard. There was a Darwin property they considered taking over – until Anderson noticed “there wasn’t a single insect on their farm”. Despite having no prior agriculture experience, she knew she didn’t want to run a farm where every ant, bee and caterpillar had been practically annihilated from the site from industrial spraying.
In 2013, they found a former avocado farm in Byron Bay that had been left fallow for seven years.
It settled a year later and after some composting and heavy mulching, they were ready to go.
I wanted to grow a lot of diverse varieties. If it’s eggplant, I’m not going to grow one. It takes forever to pick and when you pick them, these tiny hairs fall off the tree … and they blow off this spiky powder. It blows onto you and you itch for days.
I itched for a week after that… I was so red.”
Boon Luck Farm also has countless types of basil: there’s purple oak, cinnamon clove and multiple Thai, Greek and Italian varieties. There’s even sticky rice corn, which tastes like “buttered popcorn”. Anderson adds, “it’s so pretty – you steam it up and it’s blue and white, and it just goes speckly, like an Easter egg.”
Even though the family could have taken the easier route of mass-farming using soil bags that are dumped after one use or relying on hydroponics, the intense amount of weeding, composting and intricate human care that occurs at Boon Luck Farm is full of pay-off – the soil is alive with critters, which is a sign of the property’s health. And it translates to the produce.
“I remember the first delivery I did to a local wholesaler in Byron. And I’d packed the truck with our coriander, shallots and parsley and I took it down. As soon as I drove into the industrial estate, they said, ‘oh my God, the smell!’ We just had our windows down, but the smell was so pungent and strong.” The perfect-looking but clinical hydroponic produce that usually turned up didn’t have the same way of activating all your senses.
This embrace of diverse, organic ingredients has shaped the menus at Chat Thai and its restaurants. As has Chanta’s pescetarian diet. “I want to stay healthy and take care of myself,” she says, and it’s reflected in its kitchens serving more dishes focused on seafood and vegetables.
So it’s apt that on Food Safari, Chanta cooks a vegetarian green curry for the show. “We are very careful about the stock, we use vegetables.” And instead of shrimp paste, she relies on a fermented soybean disc, which she rehydrates. “This is like the Northern Thai’s answer to shrimp paste,” says her daughter, “because obviously shrimp paste is a coastal thing.” It’s a way rural farmers can use soybean – a cover crop – and ferment it into a paste, sun-dry it and turn it into a vegan flavour enhancer that can be used instead of shrimp paste or fish sauce.
“Usually when we cook vegetarian, we will use salt or soy sauce instead of fish sauce,” adds Chanta.
“At home, there’s a vegetable-focused dish they enjoy that’s like the Korean approach to Assam. They make a nam prik chilli relish and all the accoutrements to go with it: steamed vegetables, raw vegetables and fresh herbs. They’ll add a boiled egg or omelette fried with some acacia leaves in it (“the protein element is so minimal,” says Anderson) and serve it with this spread. “It’s an array of everything that you gather around you. When we cook at home, that’s how my mum loves to eat.”
The key is having quality produce: “when your vegetables are so fresh, you don’t need a lot of trickery,” she says.