John Martho Buenaventura shows off his baby eggplant with all the pride of a father. “I’m so happy,” he trills, talking to Gulf News tabloid! on the deck outside his second-floor restaurant at Dubai’s Business Bay. “Come back in two weeks and we’ll have a lovely crop!”
Rather improbably, we’re standing in a greenhouse bang in the middle of a dense cluster of high rises, in a very Dubai take on the heightened trend for organic produce and locavore eating. “A lot of people have been growing their own food, but we’re the first restaurant to actually do so on our terrace,” he says.
Buenaventura grows several different kinds of lettuce, a range of herbs, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and edible flowers in a space that can’t be much bigger than 40 square metres. The results are served in his modern tapas restaurant Cuisinero Uno at the Steigenberger Hotel Business Bay.
Diners can tour the greenhouse anytime. Until March 9, as part of Dubai Food Festival, the restaurant is hosting a tour and tasting session each Friday. Interested visitors can take part in an experiential planting session and learn how to make healthy smoothies and mocktails — and taste some of this food. We loved the fantastic burratini salad with homegrown cherry tomatoes — the tomatoes juicy, fresh and sharp, the basil nice and peppery.
“My food costs have gone down between 3 and 5 per cent, and the food tastes better because it’s locally sourced and organic,” Buenaventura tells me. The volumes from his terrace farm are nowhere near enough to sustain the restaurant, but as he says, at least he’s doing something to create a greener world and be sustainable. “In our own small way, we want to do a farm-to-table experience and we want to showcase that you don’t have to spend a lot of money for good food.”
And although he faced high installation and set-up costs for this urban farm, these will be amortised over time. He is now also experimenting with making his own compost.
The greenhouse uses a combination of hydroponics and aquaponics. The former is simply growing plants in water and is largely responsible for the spurt in locally grown produce now available in UAE supermarkets. Aquaponics is a system of aquaculture, where plants live off used water from aquariums. The plant beds subsequently purify the water, which loops back into the fish tanks. Nutrients are automatically added as required.
In March last year, Gulf News reported how the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has prioritised the use of hydroponic technology on farms as part of its food security strategy. The number of greenhouses in the country has grown from 50 in 2009 to over 1,000 in 2016, official figures show.
Buenaventura wants to take that one step further. He hopes to inspire similar projects and seed a discussion about sustainable habits. “The UAE is a hot country and not a lot of crops grow here. But if it was mandated by the government that all buildings in Dubai had to dedicate one floor to vertical farming, nobody would go hungry,” he says. “What do we eat in Dubai? Tomatoes, lettuce, cucumber, lemon, aubergine — we spend a lot of money on those, but we can grow these ourselves.”
He acknowledges that apartment residents won’t achieve the volumes needed to feed their families with a small balcony garden, but he says it’s a viable business model for those looking at alternative sources of income. “In a bigger set-up, like a grow truck — about the size of a trailer truck — you can grow 3,000 heads of organic lettuce in a month with hydroponics, which shortens the grow time by up to 30 per cent. So that’s a good business.”
For the moment, Buenaventura is happy to be making a difference in his own small way.
• Friday tours of the Cuisinero Uno greenhouse run from noon to 2pm.
• John Buenaventura will host cooking demos at the Etisalat Beach Canteen on March 8 and 10. Check Dubaifoodfestival.com for details or the event’s Facebook page.
Get your fix of all things Iberian at a one-off tapas night at Cuisinero Uno on Sunday March 4. John Buenaventura and private chef Luis Ezqueta Figueroa will serve authentic Spanish paella and tapas dishes, while guest chef Reif Othman will mentor and add a Japanese twist to the evening.
“Spanish gastronomy is world reputed due to the quality of the ingredients and the variety it offers through its regional cuisines and ways of cooking. Tapas is the best representation of the social orientation of the Spanish people and a great reflection of its culture,” says Miguel Nieto-Sandoval, Tourism Director, Gulf Region, Embassy of Spain — Tourism Division. “We love to meet and socialise with our family and friends and the most traditional way is to get together and enjoy tapas — these bite-sized portions are usually eaten standing at restaurants as people mingle with each other.”
The official Dubai Food Festival event aims to promote Spain and Spanish cuisine in Dubai and is organised by WG Magazine. Authentic flamenco music and dance performance will provide entertainment.
Details: March 4, 7pm onwards, Dh200 per head including a range of 14 tapas and paella. Beverages extra. Call 04 431 7816.