American expats Ben and Blair Ripple have a mission: saving small Balinese farmers and their artisanal foods from extinction. The couple's amazing innovations have gotten celebs like Thomas Keller and Donna Karan to take notice.
It's Thursday, Sashimi Night, at Naughty Nuri's Warung, an expat hangout just outside the cosmopolitan Balinese village of Ubud. Nuri's is packed with regulars who are here early to order the prized ruby-red tuna before it sells out. I've just walked in with the American-born owners of Bali's Big Tree Farms, 29-year-old Ben and 30-year-old Blair Ripple, and their 11-month-old baby, Lila. As we make our way to our table, people keep stopping us to say hello. Cheong Yew Kuan, the architect behind the island's most luxurious resort, the Begawan Giri Estate, calls over to us. Then the designer Donna Karan heads over to meet Ben and soon afterward begins taking pictures of Blair and Lila with her digital camera. She'd heard about the Firefly Suppers—six-course, biweekly outdoor dinners that Ben prepares using ingredients from his farms—and is hoping to attend one of them during her stay in Bali. Who knew the life of an organic farmer could be so glamorous?
How the Ripples, a wholesome couple from Washington State, became local celebrities in Bali—running some of Indonesia's groundbreaking organic farms and supplying products like Balinese sea salt to star chefs Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alice Waters—is a strange story, full of serendipitous twists.
The tale begins in 1997, when the couple decided to take time off from their organic-farm jobs in Washington to explore Indonesia. "We found DDT on shelves and barefoot children throwing pesticides with their hands," Ben says. Within their first week, the Ripples met an English teacher, Nyoman Kari, from the village of Sideman, who offered them half an acre of his family's land to cultivate, for free. "We were determined to work with a nonprofit or set up a program of sustainable farming in Indonesia," Ben explains.
The Ripples settled in Bali in 1999 and became fluent in the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, a composite officially introduced in 1945 in an attempt to create linguistic common ground among Indonesia's more than 17,000 islands. The couple immediately started experimenting with some seeds they had brought back from the United States—50 or so heirloom varieties, from peppers to beets. Not long after, they met another benefactor: the renowned jewelry designer John Hardy, who has lived on Bali since 1975. Hardy hired Ben to create an organic garden at his jewelry factory, then gave the Ripples some land to cultivate near the mountain village of Jatiluwih. In exchange Hardy is a partner in their farms.
The mountain land was dense with jungles, but the Ripples turned it into fertile terraces for farming. By their second year, their business was growing almost too fast. The Ripples were overseeing three farms and an organic-farming training program, and delivering everything from mixed greens to French Chantenay carrots to almost every top restaurant on Bali, including the luxe Amankila resort, which had been their first customer.
Two years ago they realized that, as Ben puts it, "We would have had to greatly expand Big Tree and turn it into something like the Earthbound Farm of Southeast Asia—which would have gone against our small sustainable farming idea—or find something else to do."
As the Ripples pondered their next step, they had another one of their uncanny chance meetings. One of their employees invited them to a Hindu ceremony on the island's northeast coast, where they struck up a conversation with a boy named Gelgel, who was fishing. "We discovered that his father makes salt using traditional techniques," says Ben. The weeklong process involves pouring salt water over sand, harvesting the crispy layer that forms and putting the briny solution in troughs made from palm trees until salt crystals emerge.
"Since mass salt production was causing this tradition to die out, we thought, That's it! This is where we start," Ben says. The Ripples decided to try to rescue the method by creating more demand for the salt itself. Initially, U.S. distributors weren't interested, since the market for sea salt was crowded. So the Ripples built up a cooperative of local salt producers and started a saltworks dedicated to experimenting with the production process, stumbling upon a method that turned the salt crystals into tiny, hollow pyramids—unlike anything else at stores. Though the crystals don't have an explosive flavor, their delicately briny taste makes them ideal for many dishes, and their shape creates a novel tactile experience.
"Gelgel joked that it was taksu," Ben says. "It's a Balinese word that means a divine hand is helping you." That hand must have caused the Ripples to bump into Zeke Freeman, then a buyer for Dean & DeLuca, outside a specialty-food trade show in 2003. Freeman loved the Balinese sea salts and named a few celebrity chefs who might be interested in them. The Ripples met with chef Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, as well as staff from Jean Georges and Per Se in Manhattan and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago; soon after the restaurants placed orders for the salts.
The Ripples now have more products on the market, including Balinese long pepper and Javanese honey, sold at Dean & DeLuca and Whole Foods. Due in stores this fall are artisanal sugars made from tuak, the nectar of coconut palm flowers, and Island Crisps—fried organic chips made of flattened melinjo seeds, which are sourced from more than 2,000 producers on Java. "These chips are going to rock the world," Ben predicts.
A few evenings after the Donna Karan encounter, John Hardy and the Ripples invite me to a dinner party held at the jeweler's luxurious house overlooking an emerald-green river gorge. Ben stands at the head of the table to announce the evening's dishes as they come out of the kitchen: sweet corn gazpacho with almond cream; white corn polenta with curried root vegetables and grilled fennel; watermelon salad with arugula, feta, roasted pumpkin seeds, basil and chile; and a dessert of zabaglione with mango, honey and long pepperpoached snakefruit (sweet, white-fleshed fruits with a mottled brown skin).
The next day at dawn, Ben picks me up to show me one of Big Tree Farms' saltworks on a sleepy beach on Bali's less-traveled east coast. As the head salt maker, Pak Kaping, and his family look on and giggle, Ben attempts to catch a running chicken. I ask Ben where he'd like to be in five years and he says half-jokingly, "I'd like to see Pak Kaping here driving around in a BMW." Pak Kaping isn't sure what a BMW is, but he laughs along anyway.
Gisela Williams, Europe correspondent for F&W, is based in Düsseldorf, Germany.