THE ONE AND ONLY I was born in Jakarta, an only child, which is not common in Indonesia, where families usually have two or three children. My maternal grandfather was Chinese, a farmer and landlord in Indonesia. My family told me lots of stories about how agriculture gave them a pampered life, getting fresh milk every day, good coconuts, rice and pork. My grandfather was pretty wealthy. My teachers in primary to junior high school thought I was rebellious. The teacher complained to my mom about my behaviour. I said that’s not my problem, that’s their problem – they’re so boring. They thought I was being disrespectful because I’m very direct and straightforward. As an only child I didn’t understand sharing or caring about others. I was also categorised as a super-smart kid, with an above-average IQ. Maybe because of that I was bored at school; it’s not like I was using drugs.
GOING PUBLIC I graduated from high school in 1999, one year after the big riots, when Chinese Indonesians were blamed for the political turmoil. My mom pushed me to go to the best university, the University of Indonesia, which was public. I thought it would be hard to get in because of discrimination against Chinese Indonesians and that I would go to a private or overseas university. Luckily, I was accepted. This was the turning point, when Chinese Indonesians got more access to government, and I felt more confident about my identity.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT I studied communications for development and then did my master’s in Sweden, 10 years later. I love Scandinavian countries, their egalitarian lifestyle, their love of nature, simplicity and quality of life. After two years there, I got a scholarship from the Italian government to study Italian, so I lived in Tuscany and it was a good experience to study food and agriculture. Italians are really mad about their food. I met small-scale producers, to study their heirloom-breed cows, how to make olive oil, wine and cheese, where to find good coffee. Italy shaped my point of view of food. I thought I had to do this back at home, and returned (to Jakarta) in 2014.
BACK TO THE LAND I love to eat and, when you start to eat good food, you reflect on where it comes from. I got the chance to go to remote areas, to learn more about agriculture, cooking techniques and food culture. Indonesia is one of the biggest food producers in the world but it’s losing one million farmers every year because the younger generation wants to live in the city.
The villages are made up only of old people; our farmers are all over 50 years old. They don’t have much land, at most two hectares, so it’s hard to support their families. The rich buy the land and convert it into properties, a problem you find in places like Myanmar and Laos, too. If you are a farmer then you are considered a failure, because you are poor. Even farmers don’t want their children to be farmers. They send them to school and university so they don’t have to come back and work in the village.
SUSTAINABLE FARMING I asked myself, why do farmers live so poorly? My grandfather lived lavishly. I concluded there’s something wrong with agriculture management. It’s very simple, but our farmers don’t know how to calculate. For example, they don’t know how much rice they can produce on one hectare. How can they sell if they don’t know how much they are producing? They don’t include labour costs. How can they survive?
We (PTT Family, the hospitality group behind the Potato Head brand, the flagship of which is a resort in Bali) tell them what they need to take into account. If you do single-crop agriculture you won’t survive unless you have more than 10 hectares of land. And having one single crop isn’t sustainable; you have to depend on fertilisers and pesticides. I tell farmers how they can save money by farming more sustainably; that the quality of the produce will better so they can sell it at higher prices.
We help create demand for their products by opening restaurants and working with chefs to introduce these local ingredients. Then we can prove to the farmers, to the fishermen, that their products are worth it. We can mention the name of their products and regions on menus, and tell the media and public about these ingredients. This will create demand and business will come later. We want to create consistency and quality not on a large scale, but a small scale. There should be a cohesive network between producers, chefs and restaurants and consumers.
NATIONAL TREASURES Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands, with more than 600 ethnic tribes, and is spread over three time zones. Our food has a lot of foreign influences, from India, the Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, the Middle East; our kingdoms established direct trading with these countries. The spices we use were also introduced by these places, as were some of the cooking techniques. It’s a very rich cuisine. We can’t even say what our national dish is. Every region, ethnic tribe has its own.
When I visit remote jungles and deep forests, they don’t have any infrastructure, no electricity, and you sleep on the ground, with no mattress. When I went to the Wakatobi archipelago, I discovered we have local tubers. I collected 23 varieties of them, a total of 17kg. But when I checked into the airport, I could only carry 10kg. I told the ground crew I would throw out all of my clothes but I needed to take these tubers back to Jakarta. They all laughed at me, asking, “Why fight for this treasure?” I said, “Yes, it is a treasure. You take it for granted but this is native to our country.” Another time I hand-carried yogurt made from buffalo milk stored in bamboo onto the aircraft from Sumatra. The stewardess gave up trying to stop me. I said, “This is unique. The local tribe made this and they store it in bamboo.” Indonesia has so much to offer.