Tresind Studio, Nobu, Ossiano, Hakkasan. The chances are if you’ve eaten at any of these restaurants, you’ve eaten Mary Anne de Haan’s flowers.
A former high-flying account manager at a business marketing company, De Haan, 34, is now the region’s leading name in edible flowers, supplying the UAE’s Michelin-starred and 50 Best-lauded restaurants with colourful blooms from her farm in the Dubai desert.
Currently, De Haan provides more than 50 of the city’s restaurants with 4,000 brimming boxes of sustainably grown farm-to-fork produce each month, including vibrant orange nasturtiums, pink-hued amaranths and sunny marigolds.
Now, she is gearing up for the launch of Atlantis The Royal, where her flowers will appear on the plates of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Ariana’s Persian Kitchen and Jaleo by Jose Andreas, joining the likes of Bagatelle, Opa, Boca, Armani Ristorante, Avatara, Moonrise and Myrra, where her edible flora adds the finishing flourish to award-winning menus.
After moving to Dubai from the Netherlands in 2014, De Haan noticed that the majority of produce in the supermarkets was imported and set about sourcing fresher food.
But after finding limited options and availability, she decided to swap the boardroom for the farm, despite not having any agricultural experience.
“I learnt about aquaponic farming methods and I thought that it was something that made sense in this climate,” says De Hann, who is the mother of two-year-old Leo.
“I thought maybe there was a company I could work for but there was nothing that prioritised sustainability, so I thought why not start something myself?
“I started talking to chefs and doing my market research. I’d seen some farms in the US growing edible flowers but there was nothing like it in the region.
“I didn’t have any agricultural experience at all, but I believed in what we were doing and I just learnt on the job.
“There have been challenges along the way but arriving at the farm and being greeted by all these beautiful flowers and smells every day is just incredible.”
In 2018, De Haan was granted the licence for her farm, which she called Mary Anne’s Fresh Produce, just off the Dubai-Al Ain Road, and began educating herself on sustainable growing methods.
Within months, the once-derelict space was awash with colour as flowers bloomed and word began to spread.
“It was just me learning as I went, with my dad helping out whenever he could,” De Haan says.
“We built everything with our own hands and quickly started to get quite busy through recommendations in the industry. It’s been one big learning journey and we’re still learning today.”
Five years on, De Haan has nine staff at her farm where she uses sustainable hydroponic methods to grow 15 flower species, four types of edible leaves and nine types of microgreens.
The techniques involve growing plants without soil, using water-based mineral nutrient solutions that require up to 10 times less water than typical crop-growing techniques.
“Sustainability is really important to us, and we consider it with every business decision we make,” De Haan says. “All of our produce is also pesticide-free. The farm-to-fork movement is something that the UAE restaurant scene is really embracing.”
De Haan was overwhelmed by the response from the city’s top chefs and restaurateurs, particularly chief sustainability officer and founder of Boca, Omar Shibab, and chef Timothy Newton of Opa and Myrra.
“The UAE’s culinary scene is really making waves around the world at the moment and it’s exciting to be a part of that,” she says. “The journey from farm to plate is always fascinating and we can’t wait to see what they do with our crops at Atlantis The Royal.
“Working with chefs like Gregoire Berger of Ossiano and Himanshu Saini of Tresind Studio is an honour and these chefs are all really passionate about where their ingredients come from.”
As well as jazzing up the presentation of the city’s finest plates, edible flowers can also add flavour and change the entire feel of a dish.
“Some of the chefs are looking purely for a pop of colour, others use the flowers as an ingredient,” De Haan says.
“Some of them have strong flavours, while others — like violas — are more subtle, with a mild taste. The chefs love to experiment and use them to put their own stamp on their menus.”
A typical day at the farm begins at 5.30am with harvesting, planting, feeding and clean-up, followed by taking orders for the next day, usually finishing up in the early evening.
“Every single flower is harvested on the day of delivery and we usually take orders for the next day, so it can get busy, but I love the challenge,” De Haan says.
Currently, the two farm buildings cover 350 square metres, with three to four shelving layers of plants inside, plus a seasonal outdoor net house.
And, with demand for locally sourced produce continuing to rise, De Haan hopes that her dreams of expansion can be achieved in the not-too-distant future.
“We’re hoping to move to a bigger farm soon where we can grow more flowers and microgreens than ever before,” she says.
“If the next few years is anything like the last then who knows what the future holds.”