To the untrained eye, Garden to Table’s green space looks like it has been left to its own devices a little too long.
But founder Sce Hwai Phang says that each hanging vine, bush and fruit tree has been carefully placed to complement each other. More importantly, these plants provide the food and creative inspiration for Garden to Table’s adjoining private dining cafe – one of the more unique dining experiences in Kuala Lumpur.
Phang, a food stylist and culinary consultant who is better known as CY, offers patrons both delicious meals made from locally sourced plants, as well as tips and ideas on how to grow food right in their homes. She hopes Garden to Table will inspire other city dwellers to create their own micro-ecosystems at home.
As she takes us on a garden tour around the one-storey bungalow in Petaling Jaya, about 15 kilometres from central Kuala Lumpur, 45-year-old CY explains that all the edibles in the garden are free from pesticides and chemicals.
There are copious leafy greens, huge amounts of Thai and sweet basil, many different fruits and vegetables – even a dragon fruit plant.
Another popular edible plant is the blue pea flower, from which CY extracts dye to colour some of her bestselling dishes.
These include the blue rice in nasi kerabu – a Malay rice dish served with herbs and salad from the garden, salted egg and grilled fish – and angku kuih, a steamed dessert made up of potato and rice flour that’s also coloured with the dye. The colour is subtle and natural, adhering to her principle of cooking without artificial ingredients.
Natural colours from sweet potato are also used in breads to leave a deep, rich purple swirl in the middle of the delicious loaves. Rose petals are sometimes used in salads, together with figs.
The menu at Garden to Table changes every other week depending on what’s available in the garden. If she needs anything extra, CY buys it from organic food suppliers.
The garden “is a whole ecosystem in itself”, CY says.
“That means we produce plants that are used in cooking but also do it in a manner that requires less maintenance, using the forces of nature to help.
“There are bees, also natural predators like frogs, salamanders, chameleons.
“We don’t use pesticides in the garden, as there are praying mantises which prey on the aphids and the pests.”
CY also makes her own fertilisers to add richness to the soil.
“We try to utilise as much natural resources as possible so that nature will help us do the work. We keep bees to help us with pollination because otherwise we won’t be able to get fruit,” she adds.
The main garden is located in front of the house, with smaller sections running down both sides of the old-style bungalow. There is also an L-shape planting area behind the main kitchen at the back of the house. The total area is about 5,000 square feet, of which the planting space comprises 2,000 square feet.
She spent some 16 to 18 months establishing edible garden, using a self-fertilisation system whereby earthworms were introduced to the original clay-like soil. This helped to break down the matter into a nutrient-rich base for plants.
“They [the earthworms] feed on debris and aerate the soil. They are the most important part of the garden aside from the bees,” she says.
Another natural pest control is CY’s dog, which chases away squirrels, rats and birds that go for the fruits. Manual wraps are another method to repel pests.
After two years of hard work and with the help of nature, the entire space is covered in healthy, green and pesticide-free plants.
Eating for the experience at Garden to Table
CY’s expertise stems from her years working as a culinary consultant and food stylist. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Horticultural Science and a Master’s degree in Human Communication from University Putra Malaysia.
As a recipe developer, she initially used the space as a food photography studio. The convenience of having chemical-free edibles on hand whenever she wanted them encouraged her to grow her own food. With the lush garden now set up, a supply of herbs and greens is just 10 steps from her kitchen.
The private dining arm of the business, which opens two days a week, was started to help cover the cost of running the garden, including rent, maintenance and salaries (she employs a gardener and part-time helper).
CY is firm about generating sustainable revenue streams for her business, as she does not believe in donations.
“Apart from the environment being sustainable it is also important to be able to sustain the business,” she says.
“This is why the private dining came into being so the money we get can go back to the community and enable us to hold activities for free.”
She draws on her expertise to understand eating trends, and tweak the menu and offerings to suit the market.
“I am good at [understanding trends] as I travel quite a bit and understand the sensory habits. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you see it and how you relate to it,” she says.
Now, she finds that patrons are eating for the experience, not just the taste or flavour, so she believes it’s important that Garden to Table connects people with the food and creates positive memories of the experience.
Her biggest challenge is managing expectations when they give feedback about costs – many say that the Garden to Table menu is on a pricey side.
“Often they compare us to the mass market – instead, they should compare us to other private dining places.”
CY’s dishes, from bread to ice cream, are all made from scratch. In recent years, rising food prices have added to her costs.
“French butter has gone up over 30 per cent over the last two years, and it’s not going down. We don’t want to compromise on ingredients and quality.”
More than just a garden
CY admits that business is seasonal, both for recipe consultancy and food photography, including orders for her private dining business.
The recent Edible Garden open day in April is another means through which she encourages interest in locally sourced food. All her sessions, from the garden tour to health talk, were fully booked.
Her cooking demonstration was popular and received warmly by keen home cooks and families wanting to eat better.
One visitor, Ong, said he brought his three children to the space to educate them about understanding where the vegetables they eat come from.
Another patron, Faten Nasyrah Zulkifli, was excited to learn about the many uses of the blue-pea flower and determined to try out some of CY’s recipes.
“The cooking demo is interesting, and I’m learning new things especially how to use ordinary plants in our food,” says the 31-year-old drilling engineer.
It’s responses like these that motivate CY to continue to run cooking workshops and classes.
CY wants more people to enjoy her food, but also wants them to learn that they can cook the same dish at home with the help of her recipe book.
“People ask if we have all the recipes in our book, won’t we be worried about competition?
“I say that the whole purpose of this place is to encourage people to know the source of their food, be able to grow their own and be more sustainable, both environmentally and in lifestyle.”