Gray McNally was working as a chef in Chicago, trying to find quality farmers from which to source produce, when he had a crazy idea: Why not start a farm of his own? Not knowing a lick about farming, he and his wife, Jodi, bought 25 acres of land in Wisconsin about an hour from Chicago and christened it Vintage Prairie Farm.
“We basically started with a patch of dirt,” says McNally, who’s the first to admit that year one was “a total disaster.” Year two wasn’t much better, but by year three, things started looking up. Now in year five, it’s amazing to look back on how far the farm has come.
McNally estimates they now grow about 20,000 pounds of produce a year, which they sell to chefs in the Chicago area. The crops are extremely diverse, ranging from 20 kinds of heirloom tomatoes, six types of lettuce and three types of kale to carrots, beets, peas, fava beans, squash, zucchini, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and more.
Chris Gawronski, corporate executive chef for Gage Hospitality Group (which includes Acanto Restaurant + Wine Bar, Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe, The Dawson and The Gage), was one of McNally’s first customers. “Gray is eccentric in a great way,” says Gawronski. “[A former chef] connected us, and we said, ‘He’s funny; he’s cool; he’s got a farm in Wisconsin, so let’s try it.’”
Farm to Table
In the beginning, the ordering process wasn’t exactly seamless. Gawronski says he used to get a text message from McNally asking if he wanted anything that week. “I got in the habit of saying, ‘whatever you’ve got, just bring it in and we’ll buy it,’” says Gawronski. Though not the most cost-effective way of ordering food for a restaurant, diners quite literally ate up his produce.
Things have changed a lot in just a few years. “The funny thing now is [McNally] hounds me every week to get my order in on time, so the roles are reversed these days,” says Gawronski.
Indeed, McNally has not only learned a lot about farming but about the restaurant business as well. He runs a tight ship now, blasting out his product list to chefs on Tuesday morning and asking for orders by Tuesday evening. Wednesday is harvesting day, and early on Thursday, delivery trucks hit the road to bring orders to each restaurant. Every item they receive is at peak freshness, harvested less than 24 hours before.
Local Tastes Better
The locality of the produce makes a big impact on taste. For instance, the lettuce from Vintage Prairie Farm has a better quality and longer shelf life than a case of mixed greens shipped from California, already at least a week old by the time it gets in the chefs’ hands. Produce grown on a smaller scale, rather than through large commercial operations, is different, too.
“A lot of people who come to visit the farm see a carrot and think, it doesn’t look as good as the perfect ones in Whole Foods,” says McNally. “But then they taste the carrot, and people who haven’t been introduced to that quality before say, ‘I didn’t know a carrot was supposed to taste like that.’”
Vintage Prairie Farm is currently supplying a total of 12 restaurants in Chicago. McNally says there are a handful of other farms in the area, but “the demand for what we’re doing far outweighs our capacity to fill it,” he notes.
At Gage Hospitality Group restaurants, Gawronski works with seven farms in total but has certain items he’ll only order from McNally. “Any corn I have in house is Gray’s corn, on principle,” he says. Beets, carrots and potatoes also top his list from Vintage Prairie Farm whenever they’re in season. This month, he’s putting corn into stuffed pastas and corn soup, and preparing salt-roasted baby beets with pork. He’s already looking forward to pumpkin season in the fall.
In a saturated dining market like Chicago’s, food and service are the two ways restaurants can differentiate, says McNally. He’s just doing his part to help out with that on the vegetable side. But he’s also making a difference beyond the plate. With a vision of creating a sustainable business, McNally offers every crewmember on the farm (he currently has five) the opportunity to partake in profit sharing.
“If someone has the talent and the knowledge and drive to do what we’re doing, then eventually they’re going to want to do it for themselves,” says McNally. “What I’m trying to do is create a model where they’re actual partners with me, not just employees.”
Beyond the business side of farming, McNally and his team have a lot of fun in the fields, too. For instance, they invite a few chefs and their families to visit the farm, where they put them to work harvesting produce and show them around the property. Then, they all prepare a meal together in the farmhouse using the fruits of their labor, as well as products from neighboring businesses such as Wilson Farm Meats and River Valley Ranch.
It’s safe to say Vintage Prairie Farm has become a family affair for the McNallys, who have two young children. The eldest, who’s six, is an excellent weed puller and can pick a ripe tomato like a pro. “This is the first year that his ‘help’ has amounted to anything that can be called help,” jokes his dad.