The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney
Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold.
If you’ve ever eaten great Thai food in Sydney, chances are you were at one of the Chat Thai group’s venues. Their eateries include three Chat Thai restaurants, Jarern Chai Grocer, Boon Cafe, and Samosorn Thai Local Food Hall.
After returning from living overseas in 2010, Palisa Anderson and her husband Matt joined the family-run hospitality business. The group was founded in 1989 by Anderson’s late mother, Amy Chanta, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Opening new and varied venues across the city was the start of their work together – then, they went as far as Byron Bay, starting a farm to supply their burgeoning outposts with specialty, high-quality produce.
Anderson is especially – and contagiously – passionate about the regenerative methods used at Boon Luck Farm, yielding subtropical treasures like Hawaiian pink guavas, winged glory beans and red Panama passionfruit. Situated over 30 acres, this is no backyard veggie patch; it’s an ambitious and principled operation, modelling a vision of true integration between ethical producers and the hospitality sector.
Follow Palisa Anderson here: @palisaanderson
Tell me about your journey into farming.
My mother and I used to do R&D trips all up and down the east coast, from Darwin to Byron Bay. We would literally be cold calling farms to find holy basil or a particular type of Thai mango. It was – and still is – a very niche market growing those kinds of crops. At the time, we were about five restaurants in, and already having trouble getting the ingredients we wanted to put on our menus.
All of the Southeast Asian diaspora I know in Greater Sydney grow produce for themselves, but to grow enough for our restaurants, we had to look further afield. Produce from other growers looked really good, but a lot was grown using hydroponics or polytunnels and pumped with synthetic fertilizers. I became more and more aware of the fact that our topsoils are depleting, and I was very sceptical about the nutrient content.
Byron Bay had this beautiful aura to me about how life can actually be, and it has a very unique microclimate – it’s coastal, with volcanic soils and red basalt subsoil that’s super, super fertile. My mother and I got talking to local stallholders at the markets, including John Picone, who grows a lot of Southeast Asian produce – peppercorns, betel leaves, jackfruit. All the things we recognised from Thailand. We visited his farm many times, and eventually, the farm next door went up for sale. We fell in love with it, settled on the property in 2015, and started growing right away.
You had no training in farming back then.
How did you learn about organic and regenerative methods?
It’s been a very steep learning curve that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of. Before the farm, I really wanted to try my hand growing food at home. It was all in pots! I took a permaculture course, but at the time a farm seemed so far-fetched. But my mum was adamant that she wanted to have a farm.
I always joke that I’m growing the way I used to in my backyard, but on a larger scale. It’s a complete hodgepodge – it’s not a neat farm. We’re certified organic, don’t use any synthetic chemical inputs, and grow our own mulch onsite.
Between the farm and your venues, how does it all work?
I live in Sydney and travel to the farm as needed. Our demand outstrips our supply many times over, and that’s the reality of the food system. I don’t see the farm as a way to make money; I want to keep going forward with being equitable, not even necessarily profitable. I’ve adapted the menus so they say ‘seasonal’, rather than ‘this is our stir-fried vegetables with oyster sauce and it has this and this and this’. There’s a seasonality to what we serve, and I love that challenge. Being able to see that on the farm and experience it first-hand, it gives me such pleasure
Do you think others will follow the restaurateur-turned-farmer path?
I don’t think it needs to be chefs or restaurant owners who have their own farm – everybody should try their hand at growing some of their food, in their backyard or on their balcony. Rip out those lawns and put in some trees! For me, it’s not aspirational to grow your own food, it’s a necessity because it connects you to nature and it grounds you as a human being spiritually and physically. Once you know how hard it is to grow, you really start to appreciate the quality of that food. You’ll start to wake up.
A lot of my contemporaries are aware of these issues because it’s so broadly talked about in our industry. I think everyone is on this wave already, and wanting to use growers who really nurture and steward the land properly. I just happen to sit somewhere in between being the restaurant owner and the farmer. I don’t even think I went out there trying to be outspoken. The thing is, when you’re on the ground and you see it and you do it and you live it, I can’t help but feel very passionate about it.