Fresh herbs can take a dish from distinctly average to fragrantly mesmerising. Ping Ng knows this better than most. A self-taught gardener and herb enthusiast, he is revered in London restaurant circles as “the herb guy.”
I’m at the three-storey terraced home in Notting Hill where Ng has lived since 1996. He came to Britain with his family in 1983 to study architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, but didn’t end up completing his course. Nowadays, he spends most of his time tending to his rooftop garden and delivering homegrown herbs to some of London’s best restaurants.
“I’ve always been interested in having a kitchen garden but the irony is I don’t know how to cook very well,” Ng laughs. “I started giving my herbs away to the restaurants I frequented as a customer, then got introduced to more chefs through word of mouth and things kind of snowballed from there.”
Since creating his garden five years ago, Ng has provided herbs to St. John Bread & Wine, Noble Rot, P Franco, Bright, Black Axe Mangal, Spuntino, The Clove Club, and Two Lights. However he doesn’t charge a single penny for his goods.
“I don’t think I can start charging people. If you think about what kitchens can buy when they have a whole supply chain, people save a lot of money by doing things in bulk,” he explains. “Typically, I can only supply two restaurants regularly at a time, either weekly or fortnightly because it’s just me. Let’s say I’m delivering some rosemary. My tube fare is going to cost me £2.50 each way, then include the labour of growing and cutting everything. How do I charge for all of that, really?”
Ng might refuse payment but his gardening hobby has resulted in friendships with those in the food industry. Chefs often invite Ng back to their restaurants to try the dishes they create using his herbs, some of which take a starring role on the menu. He also finds fulfilment in perfecting his garden and learning more about plants.
“Everything I know I learned from online tutorials, forums, videos, and through a lot of trial and error,” Ng tells me. “I used to ask friends for advice but by the time you wait for a reply, you probably would’ve found the answer on the internet.”
We head outside into the back garden through the patio doors, but I don’t see much activity going on—that is, until I turn around and look up. There’s a whole wall of hanging herbs, each in its own bag in neatly organised in rows with leaves splaying out beautifully and branches crawling up the building.
“Everything has to be grown out of bags, as there’s not much space and only certain parts of the garden get enough sunlight,” Ng explains. “I prefer bags over pots because they always contain a lot of moisture and it’s like being in the open ground for these plants. All of these are flowers and roses mostly. I’m still struggling to get that last bit of wall covered on the left hand side, although it’s a big ask to get the plants to do all this work.”
Ng starts picking plants for me to try. I’m instructed to take two lemon verbena leaves and rub them together between my fingers, first bringing out the scent, then the flavour. They’re fragrant, fresh, and taste like a sweeter lemongrass. The packaged supermarket stuff seems impossibly bland in comparison.
“I have no idea how many herbs I have. I let them run loose and they seem to have a life of their own,” Ng says. “I’ve been experimenting and actually hired a designer to install artificial lighting in the basement part of the garden. However, it hasn’t worked out and the plants aren’t really surviving.”
Next is the piece-de-resistance: the rooftop garden. I follow Ng upstairs and through the bedroom, then up another flight of steep stairs to open a door that reveals a little green haven overlooking the London skyline. Bags are filled to the brim with bergamot, rose geraniums, spearmint, orange thyme, sweet cicely, sage, strawberry mint, marjoram, tarragon, and black peppermint. Cables run the length of the space holding up kiwi cocktail plants, loquat plants, and apple blossoms coming into bloom.
“I try not to grow things that people can get easily,” Ng explains. “I’ve widened the gutter on my rooftop to create a flatter surface than compared to most of my neighbours. I’ve also cheated and made these metal slats underneath the bags, which adds extra flat space for me to work with.”
He gets out his phone and shows me a message from chef Tristram Bowden at Black Axe Mangal. “‘Your rosemary plants were some of the best I’ve ever had. They smelled and tasted so strong that the entire kitchen stank of rosemary,’” Ng reads, smiling. “I’ve never been in any press or anything like that, the only endorsement I get are from chefs. For me, it’s all about the flavour. If a flower or herb adds another dimension to a dish, so be it, add more herbs.”
While Ng is not able to spend as much time on his garden as he used to, due to travelling back and forth to Malaysia to see family, his green space continues to grow and connect him with new people.
“After 36 years of being in this country, what I do now enriches and roots my life here,” Ng says. “I finally feel part of London—part of its community, like I've been accepted into a very cool gang.”