Sujet Saenkham: Thai Garden Paradise
As he ambles down the rugged driveway of his Barrengarry property at the foot of Kangaroo Valley, Sujet Saenkham, head chef and owner of iconic Sydney Thai restaurant, Spice I am, smiles widely. With his kind brown eyes sparkling, I can see why someone would gift him almost 40 acres of their farmland.
And that is exactly what happened. Around 13 years ago, a regular diner realised that Sujet and his partner, Padet Nagsalab, needed somewhere to grow ingredients for their busy restaurants. And so she donated her unused land in the NSW Southern Highlands.
“When I opened my restaurant 14 years ago, kaffir limes were $40 a kilo, sometimes up to $100,” Sujet recalls. “That’s part of the reason I wanted to grow my own produce. The lady who owned the farm brought me a kaffir lime back in 2004 and it was so amazing, so sweet and juicy, like nothing I had seen in Australia before. We came down and we began to farm the land for our produce.”
The plantation is flourishing, with an abundance of fruit hanging heavily from every tree, the herb plots overflowing and chillies bursting through the garden beds. Cucumbers, eggplants, lemongrass, curry bushes, cabbage and spring onion are also abundant. While the citrus orchards were mostly already in place, the Spice I Am team ploughed the paddocks for everything else themselves, planting every bush, tree and shrub, and they lovingly tend to it as though it is an extension of their family, which, in fact, it is.
Five years ago – almost a decade on from the generous gifting, Sujet and Padet purchased the land for themselves and now they’re even considering a tree change to the farm. “We have DA approval to build a house, but our boys are finishing high school, so we need to stay close to Sydney for them. Perhaps in the future, once they have finished school, we will move here.”
A Family Affair
Sujet is not only approachable and warm, but he has a sense of cheekiness, too. He’s also a family man and a damned hard worker. As such, he insists that everyone in the family pitch in.
He, Padet, their two teenage sons and any other available family members travel from Sydney each weekend to tend to the property, and harvest what’s needed for Spice I Am.
Now that they have closed two of the three restaurants and only the original remains, they frequently over-harvest, which means neighbouring restaurants get to share the fruits of their labours.
While the farm is not certified organic, no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used, so you can eat at their table assured you are enjoying the cleanest, freshest possible version of ingredients. “It’s important to me that our ingredients are as close to organic as possible,” Sujet stresses, as he cooks a Thai feast for our crew in the purpose-built oversized ‘shed’ on the property.
While the varieties of herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables on the land are seemingly countless, it is citrus that dominates, mainly limes of all kinds. Sujet and his team use the whole fruit – juice, skin and flesh, so there’s little wastage. “We use about one tonne of juice a year just for salad dressing,” he reveals. “The flesh is used for salads, and the leaves are used in a tea. We also make the orange flowers into gelato when we have enough. They only bloom for a week or so in July, so we need to harvest quickly – it is very time consuming and quite hard work.”
Reaping the Benefits
Not that hard work is new to Sujet. As the eldest of five children growing up in the village of Ratchaburi, south west of Bangkok, he was tasked with the 4am wake-up call to feed and water the chickens and harvest the home-grown vegetables his mother would later sell or use at a street stall that evening, where Sujet would also work after school.
Like his current farm, it was a family and community effort – everyone pitched in and everyone reaped the rewards. Today, it’s the Selector team reaping the rewards, with Sujet and Padet proving the perfect hosts, serving a feast of traditional Thai dishes, including steamed whole pumpkin, larb gai, green chicken curry with apple and pea eggplants, gaeng aorm gai (chicken light curry with pumpkin and dill), and steamed rice.
The pumpkin was the creamiest and sweetest I’ve ever tried, the green curry clean and fresh with the pea eggplant so crisp it practically popped in my mouth. It was served to us with love and a massive smile by their ‘sister’ Lek, a staff member who has become like family (as most of them do)…a true reflection of what you can expect from Spice I Am.