The wicker basket overflowed with colorful produce — small, torpedo-shaped carrots, fresh leafy bundles of lettuce, handfuls of button mushrooms, and cascades of bright orange nasturtium.
Chef Calvin selected a carrot and with the flash of a knife, sliced it evenly into tiny orange disks. He arranged ribbons of fresh curly-leafed kale and spring-green romaine into a half moon. He diced button mushrooms, adorning the plate with a confetti of bright orange edible flowers. He poured the dressing — soft green, like new grass, and smelling of ginger and honey — into a tiny pitcher.
The result is a work of art; when I eat it five minutes later in the spacious and well-lit dining room, I feel transported. A couple of days later, I actually am.
This moment of quiet is a rarity for Hong Kong at all, though the InterContinental, located in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, is a respite from the warmth and bustle of the city’s busy streets. When I’m given the opportunity to glimpse life beyond the chaotic borders of Hong Kong’s central island, I jump at the chance.
The next morning, I am whisked 40 minutes outside of the city, to a special place that lies in a removed, residential area. Clusters of high-rises slowly melt into open areas dotted with residences, schools, and rolling green hills. I’m certainly not in the heart of the city anymore. Then, the van stops and I know I’ve arrived.
I’m excited about this place because the site is the origin of my magnificent salad. But, more importantly, it represents the genesis of an important Hong Kong-based initiative that drives mental health issues to the forefront of society — a topic that’s just now gaining traction in the often overworked city.
This place is called New Life Farm.
As soon as I step out of the van, I get the sense that the place is no less industrious than the heart of Hong Kong, but paced differently. Volunteers meticulously fill bags of mushroom spores, mix coffee grounds from the hotel into fertile compost, water Chinese cabbages the size of my head, and pluck bowling-ball sized eggplants from hearty green vines.
I am greeted by smiles and encouraged to participate by volunteers who only months ago were having trouble articulating even simple hellos and goodbyes.
New Life Farm is more than an urban farm, it’s a rehabilitation center for those coping with mental illness — an issue that afflicts many who live in a city, but an issue that not many are discussing, a stigma that InterContinental Hong Kong is trying to reverse.
The farm’s directors, too, are ever-willing to have these challenging conversations. After all, they’ve seen the direct benefits first hand.
They concur that after a few months of work, their volunteers are more willing to engage, and are more confident, skilled, and self assured. They are better prepared for future employment (which they may even find with their partners at InterContinental Hong Kong) and the routine challenges of daily life.
The government is gradually taking note, stepping up to support mental health initiatives in an attempt to wrestle with a problem that has plagued the local population for years. They’ve started to fund education platforms, outreach services, and rehabilitation centers.
But for the InterContinental in HK, mental health and wellness is — and has been — an issue of considerable concern and priority. After all, the farm and the hotel chain fostered their fruitful partnership nearly 10 years ago to complement the company’s core principles of true hospitality, which include a culture of care for employee’s personal and emotional health, the health of their families, communities, the environment, and the guests who spend so much time at their properties.
While mental health initiatives are springing up around Hong Kong, nowhere is this work more hands-on, fulfilling, and ultimately fruitful than at New Life.
The farm’s partnership with IHG has proved positive for both organizations. Like any well tuned symbiosis, the two work in tandem to produce something useful and beautiful — and while the end product may look like a beautiful salad, there’s so much more community, care, and conservation that goes into the dish and the initiative.
My time at the farm came to an end, and I returned to the hotel in time for lunch, but I didn’t even need the menu — I knew exactly what I was ordering.