Ever since Saifon Plewtong was a little girl growing up on a farm in Thailand in the 1970s, organic cooking has been her passion.
But the lover of fresh fruits and vegetables was not allowed on the actual farmland or in the kitchen because of class differences.
"It was a different time back then in Thailand," she said. "Only the workers and cooks were allowed there. But I was intrigued, so my parents let me have my own small garden. I then started cooking my produce in a small clay pot and fed it to my neighbors."
Later, as a stay-at-home mom caring for two sons in Orange County, Plewtong spearheaded The Free Pantry, a nonprofit soup kitchen that provides organic food for the underprivileged in Costa Mesa and Garden Grove.
When the recession hit, Plewtong found it difficult to get help and quality food donations. So she turned to what she knew — cooking — and launched a for-profit restaurant.
True Seasons Organic Kitchen, which opened last September, serves all-organic hot pots using food grown on local organic farms — without genetically modified organisms.
The restaurant helps support the The Free Pantry, which Plewtong still operates twice a month.
Plewtong said the hot-pot concept was perfect for her since she could run her business, at 5675 East La Palma Ave. in Anaheim, without having to be in the kitchen full-time. That meant she could care for her 17- and 10-year-old sons and also do her community service work.
Water-filled hot pots sit in front of customers, allowing them to cook their own food and see exactly what goes into their meals.
"I want customers to see that it doesn't take cream and butter and oil to make a dish tasty," said Plewtong, who lives in Orange. "They see they just start with water, garlic and onion to make a delicious soup."
Instead of traditional Chinese soy sauce, Plewtong uses the Japanese variant, organic tamari sauce. She also serves a fresh-pressed pomegranate sauce in place of sugar and vinegar.
One important factor is that Plewtong knows where her food comes from. She visits local farms such as Sea Wind Farms in Fountain Valley and South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano multiple times a week to buy fresh cucumbers, pomegranates, peppers and other fresh produce.
She also looks for meat and poultry that was raised humanely.
"I feel like animals are meant to nurture and provide us nutrients, but I also want them to live their lives," she said. "Before I buy it, I make sure I visit the farm, know where the eggs come from, know what the chickens eat and know they have space. Those things matter to me."
Daniel Berumen, whose family has operated Sea Wind Farms since 1979, said Plewtong's use of the farm's produce is a testament to the growing practices there.
"It means she believes in what we're doing," he said. "Chefs are pretty picky, so it's great she chooses our food. It shows that we're doing something right and our food is truly organic and non-GMO."
Plewtong believes in the farmers' organic mission.
"For me, I think the heart of the organic food is at the farmers," she said. "I know they have their integrity, and they eat what they grow on the farm."
She said she won't ask for discounts because "I know what it takes to grow these foods since I grew up on a farm."
"You see people trying to bargain with the farmers, but they don't understand their process and their cost," Plewtong said.
Plewtong tries to keep her restaurant prices reasonable so the healthier food is affordable to people on all sorts of budgets. The organic hot pots, for example, start at $14, similar to the price of many non-organic hot pots at other restaurants.
"People have told me I'm bleeding to give good-quality food, but I'm not willing to compromise," she said. "It's either organic or it's not. You can't just say all-natural instead of organic, and I like to support local organic farmers."