Hydroponics are a slippery slope. You might find yourself, one Sunday morning, at a Santa Monica farmers’ market, loitering among the apples, say. You come across a bunch of papalo, a leafy herb native to central Mexico, and toss it in your mouth (your tastes are expansive; a papalo leaf is nothing to you) and wham!: a brand-new flavor. Suddenly, you’re up at all hours, watching vertical-farming videos on YouTube, ordering seed packets from eBay, buying rhizomes—rhizomes!—and worrying about spider mites. You get some fennel crowns and a pouch of parasitic wasps, and you’re on your way.
Alex GuarnaschelliIllustration by Tom Bachtell
On Worth Street, in Tribeca, deep underground beneath the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Michelin-starred restaurant Atera, lies Farm.One, Manhattan’s largest hydroponic farm. That’s distinct from aquaponics (farming with fish) and aeroponics (farming with air and nutrient-dense mist), explained Rob Laing, a thirty-eight-year-old Australian tech entrepreneur, who, in thrall to papalo, set up the farm two years ago. “We, sadly, don’t have any fish,” he said the other day. “It’s enough difficulty to get the plants to be happy.” A year ago, Farm.One, having overgrown its original home, at the nearby Institute of Culinary Education, was invited by Atera, a client, into the restaurant’s subterranean space. At twelve hundred square feet, the digs are roomier, but, “agriculturally, it’s still pretty tiny,” Laing said.
Laing was standing next to a floor-to-ceiling rack of neatly labelled seed packets, in a small antechamber of the farm. He had on a black smock, jeans, and rubber clogs. The greens were visible through a window next to a pressurized door designed to keep out pests. “We have microgreens, rare herbs, and edible flowers,” he said. He held up a seed packet. “The first seed we ever bought was akatade, which is like a spicy Japanese water pepper. And then amaranth. It’s red, like the grain, but it’s a microgreen.”
Rounds begin each morning at 6:15, David Goldstein, a hydroponicist at the farm, explained. He listed some of the responsibilities: “Planting, harvesting, general upkeep, maintenance of the hydroponic systems, testing the water we use in the hydroponic systems, the cleaning of that water.” Later, the greens are packed into boxes for delivery, by bicycle or by subway, to restaurants around the city (nasturtiums for Jungsik, dianthus flowers for Freemans). In the evening, the foodies arrive for a “sensory farm tour”—a “glass-of-prosecco-type thing,” Laing said.
There’s no earth to commune with at Farm.One per se (hydroponic systems are soil-free), but sometimes chefs stop by to browse. One recent afternoon, Alex Guarnaschelli, a Food Network star and the executive chef at Butter, visited for the first time. Laing handed her a hairnet, shoe coverings, and a lab coat, which she slipped on over a pink sweater. “This is to stop you from bringing pests into our farm,” Laing explained, apologetically.
“A chef gets dressed and undressed twenty times a day!” Guarnaschelli said. The door to the farm opened with a whoosh, and they entered. The plants sat on rolling shelves, like books in a library basement. Everyone applied Purell.
“We have some sorrel here that was planted, like, two weeks ago,” Laing said. He handed Guarnaschelli a leaf.
“I’ve eaten this so many times,” she said. “It’s delicious. You know that taste of stevia that’s good? It has that acrid note, right at the back of your tongue.”
A row of marigolds caught her eye. “The taste of a marigold is one I deeply associate with my first tomato,” she said. She recalled how her grandmother would plant marigolds next to tomatoes because they keep the bugs away.
Laing was collecting a sample from a top shelf. “We’ve seen more people using it for desserts,” he said. “Like with chocolate, even.”
“Oh, that’s so fucking Swedish,” Guarnaschelli said. They moved on. Guarnaschelli ate some anise hyssop. “The thing to note about that is how tender it is,” she said. Laing handed her a curly mustard green, and she praised its stem. “Stems have become so chic. Broccoli stems, cauliflower stems, pesto from stems.”
They tasted micro-dill (“artistry”), mizuna (“the hot chick in the club”), candy-popped mint flower (“imagine that with bok choy!”), and bronze-fennel fronds (“I would sink that into a brick of fat”). Guarnaschelli recalled a chef she’d once had who would create showstopping arrangements of edible flowers. “Everyone in the kitchen would be, like, ‘Oooh! ’ I’m, like, ‘What are you doing? You just mixed eighteen flavors together,’ ” she said. “People are such suckers for color.”
Laing asked Guarnaschelli if she had tried natto, a Japanese dish made of fermented soybeans, which shares a pectiny texture with the nasturtium plant.
“That has the slime,” he said.
She nodded. “Yeah, that has the funk, man.”
An observer remarked that the wood-sorrel flowers were beautiful. Guarnaschelli scoffed: “Forget it, forget it, destroy it with your teeth! ” ♦