This Chef Quit His Restaurant Job to Start a Sustainable Trout Farm
All photos by the author.


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This Chef Quit His Restaurant Job to Start a Sustainable Trout Farm

After stints at high end London restaurants, chef Antonio Paladino threw it all in to start an aquaponics farm in Somerset. The sustainable agriculture system combines the raising of fish with the soil-less growing of plants.

Life in a professional kitchen is tough: the 18-hour days, the uncomfortable working conditions, the low pay. Sometimes, it all gets a bit too much for a chef.

Antonio Paladino knows this all too well. After long stints as head chef at London's Strada restaurant and in the kitchens at Hilton Park Lane, the Italian-born chef decided to escape the restaurant rat race once and for all.


Former chef and now founder of the Bioaqua Farm in Somerset. All photos by the author.

How? By leaving London for a plot of land in the Somerset countryside and pioneering the restoration of an ancient farming technique, of course.


The result is Bioaqua Farm, an aquaponics project that works towards sustainable food production.

Aquaponics is a style of farming that combines the raising of fish with the soil-less growing of plants to nurture both in one system. It was relied on by the Aztecs, who knew it as chinampas or "floating gardens," to grow maize, beans, and squash.


Tomatoes growing on the Bioaqua Farm, Somerset. Trout reared on Paladino's farm.

Moving to the sticks to revitalise practices that date back thousands of years isn't the obvious lifestyle change for a high-flying chef, but Paladino's time in the capital's hospitality industry opened his eyes to the amount of food restaurants can waste. He wanted to take matters into his own hands.

"I wanted to learn more about aquaponics," he explains. "I started learning the craft through studying and research. With books, YouTube, forums, academic articles, and online courses, slowly building up my knowledge bank to get where I am."

But as a re-emerging practice, sometimes it just comes down to trial and error. Paladino started to rear some trout in his back garden.

"It was about five years ago now," he remembers, gesturing over to the polytunnels that house the organic fruits (and vegetables) of his labour. "We decided we should do it, go commercial, and show the world that this can really be done. With the right business plan and the right set of skills, sustainability, local, and quality can be achieved."

But Paladino doesn't just want aquaponics to provide quality produce for customers, he hopes this system of farming will help us meet global food demand in future.


"Only by adopting a mentality that focuses on maximises conservation and ethical food production techniques, can we establish a future of production that works," he says. "We have to intensify production. But it needs intensifying the right way, not just relying on finite resources, because in the long run it won't work. It's a false economy, we'll run out."


The ratio between grain required for rearing and meat is hugely unsustainable, standing at 3:1 for chicken and 7:1 for pork. For the fish at Paladino's Bioaqua Farm, the food conversion rate is 1:1.

While the science behind aquaponics sounds pretty complicated, the process makes a lot of sense. By harnessing a living ecosystem, water can be continually recirculated, mirroring the cycles in our natural environment.

"The water recirculates around the system, moving the nutrients from the fish pools to our veg," explains Paladino.


Paladino lifting a tray of lettuce.

In this case, the nutrient is the fish manure, pumped around a series of tunnels to the plants on the other side.

"Our plants can be grown very intensively," he adds. "Having an abundance of water and nutrients mean the roots are much closer to their food source, growing longer and freely as they float on the surface of the stream."

Paladino lifts up a tray of lettuce as proof.

Having taken in all the goodness, the fresh water is then returned to the trout.

"It's been a massive change in lifestyle, but for the better," I hear Paladino shout, as he carries a tray of trout back to the fridge. "Living in London, your life is hectic as a chef. I was cycling to work, getting road rage early in the morning, a long and tiring day in the kitchen, before finishing late at night and getting road rage on the the way home."


Now, there are no traffic lights or early morning commutes for Paladino as he lives just a stone's throw away from the one-acre farm.


"It just reminds me how lucky I am," he says.

Running the smallholding hasn't just provided Paladino with a slower pace of life. Transitioning from chef to producer gives him access to whatever ingredients he wants to cook with, whenever he wants them.

"What's so wonderful is that I can work with my produce," he says. "Whether it's private catering or street food markets, to smoking our trout in the smokehouse on site."

His favourite dishes include trout ravioli, fish cakes, burgers, and soups as well as a take on classic fish and chips.


As we weave our way through the rows of cabbages and tomatoes, Paladino hands me various leaves to nibble on. They're bursting with flavour and come in varieties I've never seen before.

"Most people haven't managed to obtain the return on their investments they might have been expecting just by selling tilapia and lettuces," he explains. "We've been identifying where the industry needs sorting out."

As well as growing a huge variety of vegetables in the tunnels, this small site experiments with different ecological techniques.


"We use half an acre for the aquaponic system, whilst a quarter is used for the orchard—growing apples and pears for chutneys amongst other things," explains Paladino. "It's a perfect pollination ground for the bees that we keep."


The farm's duck pond also form part of this system. Once the water is murky—or as Paladino calls it, "nutrient rich"—they use it to irrigate the orchard.

"All those nutrients are collected by the plants," says Paladino, "and they're used like the aquaponics system to feed the fruit trees."


Even the bedding from the duck coops is mucked out and sculpted around the apple trees, providing nutrients and a protection from the countryside frost.

"All these techniques applied together lead us to the goal of zero waste farming methods," Paladino proudly tells me, as we head into the fish-rearing zone.

In here, four rainwater pools are home to around 2,000 rainbow trout. The only input in is pellets of organic fish food.

With the sounds of water pumping around the floating lettuces, I ask Paladino what the next steps are for his ever-developing enterprise.


"At the moment, this is working as a model, so establishing and developing new products is my primary concern," he tells me as we make our way back to the gates.

But Paladino has already started setting up systems for other farms, helping producers develop their techniques and teach students.

"The problem with the industry right now is that it needs to be made financially sustainable, the infrastructure costs have been a major constraint around the world," says Paladino. "It's why we eat the fish, unlike many other farms"

It's yet another way Paladino's farm sets itself apart from the others.