As clandestine as it sounds, the Secret Garden is an open secret. In fact, it is located in a small public park off Bagdad Street in Salmiya, and has neither walls nor a gate.
“I have always been big on the concept of ‘keeping it local’,” says Maryam Al Nusif, an investment banker-turned-chef and the woman behind the Secret Garden project, which is an urban gardening concept with the objective of promoting organic way of life by engaging the community. Al Nusif’s ideology is not only restricted to buying, but also extends to lifestyle. The Secret Garden Project has given a facelift and new life to an unused and neglected public park in Salmiya. Out here, nothing goes to waste–quiet literally. An old door is turned into a signboard; an old toaster, discarded shoes, and tires turned into planters; used coffee grounds used for soil–are some common sightings at the garden. It is an example that Al Nusif has set, which can and hopefully, will be replicated at other neighborhood parks.
Al Nusif, who also goes by the moniker Chef Mimi, inherited her love for food from her father. “I always wanted to work in that field,” she says, which is why she found herself enrolled into the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School, while writing her MBA thesis is London. Post-culinary school, Al Nusif trained at various top-notch London restaurants, including one that was a Michelin star. Back home, she wanted to open her own restaurant, but instead dabbled with pop-up dinners and founded Kuwait’s first artisanal market, Shakshooka, which was an instantaneous hit.
Her latest project materialized last February, when a fellow shakshookian asked her for some of the lemongrass she grew in her home garden. Al Nusif suggested she take some and replant it in the garden across the street from her home, where she could pick it whenever she needed…and so the idea behind the project was sown.
TTK sat down in the colourful little garden for a quick chit-chat with the creative chef:
Why did you choose a public park for the purpose?
What was once an abandoned public space, is now slowly bringing the neighborhood together through taking care of the garden. That’s better than the state in which most public parks are currently. I teamed up with Kuwait Healthy Living, and got municipality clearance to use the park.
What kind of materials do you use for the project?
We try not to buy anything. The country is full of trash that can be up-cycled, and there is no shortage of creative ways to do it! From tires, PVC pipes, toilets and sinks (of course nothing edible in there!), to construction site discards. We don't want to start big either….like any grassroots movement, we want it to grow organically.
Do you plan on replicating the idea in other public parks?
It is humanly not possible for me to do so, but I would like to see others being inspired by our work and taking the initiative to parks in their neighborhood. Of course, I would be happy to give my guidance, if needed.
How can people be involved in your project?
Anyone with an interest in gardening is welcome to come and participate. Presently, we have a small, but growing group of regulars who voluntary to care for the herbs and vegetation already planted. We also have a compost site, where you can bring and dump your raw vegetable trimmings, egg shells, green and brown leaves, etc. We have a lot of kids who come regularly and are really enthusiastic to plant and tend the garden.
What kind of vegetation you have planted so far?
Radish, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, basil, cilantro, spring onions, fennel, kale, lettuce, black eyed beans….to name a few.
What’s next on your agenda?
I am trying to get permission to hold Shakshooka market at the Secret Garden, which would be just fantastic.
Besides being a growing community-garden, a weekend brunch is held every Saturday at the Secret Garden, which enables the project to be self-sustaining. You will find Chef Mimi cooking her delicious Turkish eggs along with other chefs preparing their specialties, and creative artisans selling fresh olive pies or sauces. As Kuwait’s weather turns lovely, Secret Garden is teaming with people enjoying fresh food cooked under the open sky, and peppy music playing in the backdrop.
The Secret Garden is located in the Bagdad Park, off Bagdad Street, Salmiya (besides Fawzia Sultan Rehabilitation Institute).
By Shabana H. Shaikh