Herbs From the Underground

Farm One just opened an indoor rare herb and flower garden in a TriBeCa basement, and many prominent chefs are flocking to it.

In the basement of a loft-style building in TriBeCa that houses a vet, a dog swimming pool, an eye-and-ear infirmary, and a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, there is a working farm.

Farm One is a hydroponic facility, which means that the plants do not grow in soil. Many of these farms are located indoors, in controlled environments, with artificial lighting.

The new two-room space, which opened in November in a former cycling studio for high-altitude training and an old storage area, is only 1200 square feet. There is no fresh air or natural light; there is not even a window. Yet the venue can grow around 580 varieties of rare herbs and flowers (200 at a time) that supply New York’s top restaurants. Le Turtle, Le Coucou, Mission Chinese Food, and The Pool get regular deliveries from Farm One, sometimes several times a week.

“I wouldn’t want to pay for a space with great retail frontage,” said Robert Laing, the farm’s chief executive and founder. “All we need is a floor drain, water, power, temperature control, and the ability to seal the space so bugs don’t get in.” The farm does deliberately bring in a few types of insects that are beneficial for plants, like ladybugs. “You can buy them on Amazon,” he said.

Seeds are planted in materials like coconut husks and are put in a tray so water and nutrients can circulate below them. LED lights above simulate the sun. Growing time is not long; many plants, like microgreens, are ready in a little over a week.

People who find it weird to eat food grown in a basement have no reason to worry, said Neil Mattson, associate professor and greenhouse extension specialist at Cornell University. “There is nothing icky about it. Plants don’t care whether they get light from the sun or the lamps. It’s the same thing.”

Matthew Hyland, the chef and owner of Pizza Loves Emily, a client of Farm One, agreed. “A hydroponic garden in general is an amazing thing,” he said. “It’s lit nicely; it smells good in there; the temperature is nice; everything about it is very pleasing.”

The plants grow on shelves that can be expanded or contracted like the stacks in a university library (this setup almost doubles the growing space.) On one level there might be anise hyssop, an herb with tiny lavender-colored flowers and square stems that tastes strongly of mint and licorice. On another, mustard green, a plant that tastes a lot like spicy horseradish. The colors are so diverse and vibrant that the head horticulturalist, David Goldstein, has taken to arranging them on trays for parties.

Mr. Laing, a British-Australian entrepreneur with a sharp sense of humor, can walk around the farm and tell you exactly what every variety is and to whom it is being delivered. “This is my favorite,” he said, pulling off a leaf of papalo. “Crush it up a little bit in your hand and smell it first — there is cilantro, citrus peel. It’s super fresh and quite grassy.” He paused. “I never want to sell software again.”

In a previous life, Mr. Laing worked in Japan, where he started a translation software company. After eight years he turned his attention to his true passion: food. He took culinary classes and visited farmers’ markets across the world, discovering many rare herbs he had never heard of along the way. “And I was someone I thought knew about food,” he said. So he started researching ways to bring these herbs to chefs.

Farm One grew out of this research. In April 2016 the new company started growing products at a small indoor farm at the Institute of Culinary Education, also in Lower Manhattan, on Liberty Street. By August, the farm had its first client: Daniel Boulud’s Daniel. By the end of the summer, the herbs had sold out, which led Farm One to open a second location this fall, at 77 Worth Street.

For $50, New Yorkers can take a tour of the farm, tasting dozens of rare flowers while sipping a glass of prosecco, and they are given a box of herbs to take home. Farm One also offers seminars on the basics of hydroponics, and any herbs and flowers not snapped up by chefs are available for purchase through its website. Mr. Laing is discussing bringing the farm to other cities.

Mr. Laing attributes the farm’s success to two factors: Rare products and low overhead. “Pluto basil can be sold for $40 a pound as opposed to $10 to $15 for regular basil,” he said. And since the farm is small, the cost of expensive LED lights is minimized. Larger hydronic farms like FarmedHere in Chicago have had to close.

Farm One is also poised to cash in on the Instagram-driven food world, where chefs are willing to pay extra money for novelty items like rare herbs and flowers. Mr. Hyland, for example, is besotted by pluto basil. “They are really beautiful looking on a pizza with the little leaves everywhere,” he said. “Customers know it’s a custom-made product.”

Atera, the restaurant upstairs at 77 Worth, brings certain customers down to the farm for tours. It also offers one course in which the chef, tableside, dresses a dish with the herbs sourced from the basement. “Everyone gets pretty excited,” said Matthew Abbick, the restaurant’s general manager.

Farm One is not the only place chefs can procure these herbs; chef farms or wholesalers in California or Ohio ship a variety of rare products across the country. However, New York chefs like that the greens at Farm One are grown locally and haven’t been sitting in a warehouse or delivery truck for days. “Farm One snips the herbs in the morning for an afternoon delivery,” said Victor Amarilla, the executive chef at Le Turtle. “I actually see my delivery guy walking up now. I see him twice a week.” Farm One boasts on its website that delivery is just a 30-minute bike ride away from 90 percent of the restaurants in the city.

There are also the environmental benefits. The farm recycles and reuses water, purging it every three weeks, which minimizes waste. But there are downsides. Studies show that in general, the environmental costs of lighting and heating indoor farms are significantly higher than shipping something across the country that’s been grown in the California sun. “We know it’s an issue and we are working on it with things like getting more efficient LED lights,” Mr. Mattson said.

Other insiders say that hydroponic farming is essential, especially as climate change makes growing seasons volatile and unreliable. “One of the most important things people will need to do over the next 100 years with climate change is bring food creation and cultivation back to cities where people are moving,” said Dan Nelson, an entrepreneur in Brooklyn who is researching the urban agriculture movement and who took a Farm One seminar on hydroponics. “That’s my humanity-level thesis,” he added.

The New York City Council is currently exploring Bill 1661, a piece of legislation to define urban agriculture and bring about industry standards that will help it advance.

The main concern of chefs, though, is having ingredients they can cook with today. And many are applauding Farm One’s contribution to their operations.

“New York has the greatest summer vegetables and fruits and leafy greens, and in the winter, we are in a real dead zone,” said Mr. Hyland. “Having a product year round that we can really be proud of, would be a great win for New York City food.”