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Chicago’s Liquid Gold

Sweet Bells of Summer
B O O KS TO DE VO UR

SUMMER 2015

ISSUE 27

UNCHAINED

30

edible CHICAGO

| SUMMER 2015

The Lake Effect

T. J. CALLAHAN THINKS BIG – AND THINKS LOCAL
by Anthony Todd
T. J. Callahan has turned the original
Farmhouse restaurant into an expanding
force in Chicago’s local food scene. One
successful farm-to-table restaurant in
River North led to another, larger outpost
in Evanston. A third spot, Farmbar, is
opening this fall. All of them share a fierce
commitment to local food, sourced from
within the four states that Farmhouse
considers its local “zone”: Illinois, Indiana,
Wisconsin and Michigan. Callahan also
owns a farm that supplies the restaurant
and Farmhouse grows its own greens and
herbs in a rooftop garden.
But Callahan didn’t grow up a farmer,
a wide-eyed idealist or an activist against
industrial agriculture. He grew up in the
restaurant industry and his conversion
to local food came late in life. But he’s
definitely made up for lost time.
“I wasn’t a farm kid, but I grew up
around farms in New England,” Callahan
remembers. “I once found a cow in my
garage!” While he might not have been a
young farmer working the fields, he did start
in the restaurant industry at age 14, working
at a country club as a dishwasher. That was
the beginning of a career that would last a
lifetime.
“I’ve really never had a job that wasn’t in
the restaurant business. I’ve been everything
you can in this business.” Dishwasher, line
cook, host, waiter, manager — Callahan
moved from job to job before moving to
Chicago, where he got into restaurant
consulting. He eventually got an MBA from
the University of Chicago and spent years
working on large restaurant chains that are
the exact opposite of Farmhouse. He would
be brought in to manage a failing group of
90 fast-casual steakhouses, or turn around
a group of 17 Irish pubs.
“All of the food came in frozen and was
microwaved or fried—nothing like what we

do now.”
But deep down, he always wanted to
open his own place. Along with his partner,
Ferdia Doherty, whom he met during that
stint managing Irish pubs, Callahan decided
to open a craft beer spot. Farmhouse was
never supposed to be a haven for local
food—it was originally supposed to be all
about the beer.
“We thought we’d basically be the
Maproom with good food, with beer geeks
three deep at the bar,” Callahan remembers.
Farmhouse opened in River North in 2011.
“About three months in, we looked at
ourselves, and our guests had explained
to us what Farmhouse really was: It was
a farm-to-table restaurant with a great
beer program, not a beer bar with food,”
says Callahan. “So, we decided to go with
that! We doubled down on the food and we
continue to.”
Farmhouse has developed into a
modern gastropub, a place where diners can
get a great burger, a plate of delicious fried
cheese curds (an ever-popular staple) and
a perfect salad made with greens picked
about 40 feet away. They have amassed
a huge beer list, a comprehensive local
spirits collection and antique Beerador
refrigerators that dominate the bar at both
the Chicago and Evanston locations.
Callahan arrived at the conclusion that
local food was the choice for him because
the more he learned, the more he realized
that the way food was sourced in the
restaurant world didn’t make sense to him.
“When you start doing research about
these things, you start realizing how bizarre
the supply chain that gets the food to us
actually is.” He recalls a recent moment on
his farm, which is in the heart of Michigan
apple country, seeing a wooden apple crate
being used for scrap wood. The apple crate
formerly contained Fuji apples shipped from
ediblechicago.com

31

“Food with
integrity
always had
a compelling
hold on my
imagination.”
— T. J. Callahan

32

edible CHICAGO

| SUMMER 2015

New Zealand. “How bizarre is that? There’s
something viscerally wrong with that.” Out
with the faraway fruit, the frozen and the
microwaved; in with the fresh and local.
“Food with integrity always had a
compelling hold on my imagination.” That’s
one of the reasons Farmhouse has such a
deep commitment to local sourcing. While
they aren’t 100% local (at one point last
winter, they had bought out the entire local
supply of Brussels sprouts and rather than
taking them off the menu when those ran
out, they sourced them from elsewhere),
the meat and fish are just about always local
and 100% hormone- and antibiotic-free.
As it is for many farmers, the “organic”
label is less important to Callahan. “I
want it to be sustainable, but we’ve been
to these farms, we’ve seen the cows and
chickens and how they’re raised,” explains
Callahan. “I can get ‘organic’ product that
was grown three weeks ago in the Central
Valley of California, or I can get something
raised locally and sustainably, but picked
three days ago.” The fresher, local option is
usually what’s on the table at Farmhouse.
Callahan has fully embraced the local
food lifestyle. He owns Brown Dog Farm in
southwestern Wisconsin and is working on
turning it into a source for the restaurant.
He’s not a full-time farmer and he isn’t
interested in labor-intensive endeavors like
cattle or pigs. “We’ve got great farmers in
Chicago who are much better at growing
arugula than I will ever be,” laughs
Callahan. “But I want to do things that have
an emotional tie to Farmhouse.”
For him, that’s mostly heirloom

fruits—he has more than 100 apple trees
and hundreds of berry bushes and vines.
He’s also developed a love for traditionally
crafted cider, working with local farmers
growing cider apples to make his own
varieties just for Farmhouse.
Farmbar, the latest addition to the
group, will be more like that original
concept of a craft beer bar that happens to
serve good food. “The food is important, but
will be simple, made from scratch, bar food,
burgers and sandwiches. No $37 ribeyes.”
But the ethos will be the same. Callahan
also hopes to expand the concept to other
areas—and the “local” integrity will move
with them.
“We hope to be opening more
Farmhouses and Farmbars, all with a
local focus that becomes part of the
neighborhood where they operate, part
of the cultural fabric of the community,”
explains Callahan. “If I put a Farmhouse in
Indianapolis, it’s just a different set of states
and brewers and farmers. But that’s OK,
we’ll figure it out.”
One by one he’s adding to his roster
of restaurants. Rather than rebuilding
businesses for clients, this time he’s growing
his own business with a steady supply of
local and sustainable food. ec
Anthony Todd is a Chicago-based food
and drink writer and editor–Chicago SunTimes, Time Out Chicago, Plate Magazine
and Serious Eats, to name a few. In his
spare time, when he’s not eating, gardening,
writing or mixing drinks, he moonlights as
an attorney.