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.