Unchained: T. J. Callahan Thinks Big—and Thinks Local
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 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 Michigan 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.