When I began growing leaves, herbs, and edible flowers, and founded The Modern Salad Grower (an organic farm in Cornwall), it was more sensuous than just deciding I wanted to grow plants you could eat. I really loved the plants. I thought they were beautiful, smelled incredible, and looked elegant. They create such an amazing environment to be in. On one level, I was growing food for people and chefs but on another, I felt like I was working for nature to show people how beautiful it is.
But deciding to grow salad wasn't planned.
I'm from a musical background and was part of a group of people running a recording studio in France. I was from the city and had always been a city person but in France, I was living in a caravan and spent a year living simply and watching nature change. I completely fell in love with it by accident.
I then set up a recording studio in Bristol with my friends and I had a young family. I just couldn't settle and I wasn't very interested in people any more, I was more interested in plants. The plants were coming for me pretty quick. First of all, I grew things in the windowsill, then in the back garden, then up the walls, then on the roof. Then I got an allotment, then two allotments, then three allotments. Up to that point, I was just giving things away to my family and friends. When you've spent the last ten or 15 years in nightclubs and bands, having lots of plants around was a much softer and gentler environment to thrive in.
I hadn't had any experience of growing anything before. Well, I grew ganja when I was a schoolboy. I told my parents it was a Tasmanian tomato plant. I think they believed me. Apart from that, I hadn't previously had any interest in growing things at all.
What I perceived as the real beauty of plants, I'd never seen for sale. They may have already existed in finer restaurants but I'd never been anywhere where they were selling fennel pollen or radish flowers. So, I started to try and sell those things. I began by selling plants to the local restaurants and around that time, Jamie Oliver opened his Fifteen restaurant so we worked with them. Lots of chefs went into Fifteen and then wanted to buy the produce. It just spread organically by word of mouth.
When I started, I got books, looked on the Internet, and found plants from all over the world. Whenever I travelled anywhere, I met people and loads of seeds came my way, one way or another. There are lots of things we grew that I hadn't seen anyone else grow or weren't in the marketplace. A lot of things seem quite common now but they weren't around at the time. Although, there were probably ten people like me in Britain and 50 people like me in America. They're all just people coming to the same conclusions.
Fifteen years ago, I thought I'd invented growing microgreens and was selling them in punnets for salads. But a couple of years later, I found that there are a few people all over the world doing it. I feel like if you love nature and have a common consciousness, then lots of people around the place will be coming up with the same ideas.
Edible flowers have become more common because they're very pretty and a lot of them have very intense flavours. I think it was just very logical for chefs to use them to add the appropriate flavour and look to a dish. Now, we sell all sorts of random things because we think they're beautiful. They're not microgreens or baby leaves or flowers. They might be all sorts of stems and roots or others things that we think taste amazing and look amazing.
It's kind of like learning to look at things like an artist must learn to look at whatever they want to draw in a certain way to enable them to come out with something. It's a very artistic perspective to look at plants. We aren't like normal farmers.
"When you've spent the last ten or fifteen years in nightclubs and bands, having lots of plants around was a much softer and gentler environment to thrive in."
We find new things and look for new things all the time. Chefs also tell us they want and some will also bring seeds back from their holidays for us. We have to remain experimental, finding new ways of growing things and new plants to grow otherwise we just become a factory and we lose our enthusiasm. At the moment, we're working on stuff that grows in the dark.
We don't take any shortcuts when it comes to the health and wellbeing of the plants. It's not an option for us so it can be incredibly emotional when you see your produce on a plate. And we're also moving into social areas as well. We've done work with drug projects and homeless shelters. I want everyone to get the best food. We're aiming to get Michelin stars for homeless shelters as well as restaurants.
When you grow plants, you do have a relationship with them. You're not separate or severed from them and that relationship is not judgemental. It has some of the qualities that humans can only aspire to. One of the things I like about plants and operating in an entirely natural world, is that it levels people and society. The plants know that we're all the same.
As The Modern Salad Grower, Sean O'Neill and his team produce organic edible flowers, salad leaves, vegetables, and herbs from their farm in Cornwall for top restaurants across the UK. In 2014, O'Neill won the "Vegetable" award at The Young British Foodie Awards— an annual celebration of the chefs, bakers, food writers, bartenders, and others advancing the country's food and drink scene.
Entries for the 2017 YBFs are now open, with MUNCHIES' own Phoebe Hurst judging the new Food Sharing category. Head to The YBFs website to nominate someone you think deserves recognition for their contribution to British food—or go all out and enter yourself. Entries close on 30 July 2017.