Farmhaus: By The Bootstraps, But Not Alone
Written by Johnny Fugitt
Photography by Carmen Troesser
“It was a pretty self-sufficient mentality I was surrounded with when I was coming up,” says Kevin Willmann, owner and chef of Farmhaus in Lindenwood Park. Hard work, fiscal responsibility and doing the right thing were all imprinted on Willmann during formative years spent on Southern Illinois farms and fishing boats in the Gulf. These helped him succeed in business, but Farmhaus would be nothing without relationships.
Political divisiveness today includes a tug-of-war between individuality and community. Both play important roles in the American story, but often one is emphasized at the expense of the other. While his independence has afforded the flexibility to operate his restaurant on his own terms, Willmann constantly honors community with his practices and values. Farmhaus demonstrates how individuality and community can be complimentary instead of competitive. It does so, we should add, quite tastily.
“Watching my uncles, my grandfather and my dad farm, and how that’s a sense of community, I would compare it to how we continue to run the restaurant now,” says Willmann. Later working with local commercial fisherman in Pensacola, he grew to appreciate the relationships that led to the daily catch being served as an entrée that evening. It’s no coincidence Farmhaus is known for local sourcing and fish; it’s Willmann’s story.
Considered one of the best restaurants in St. Louis since opening seven years ago, Farmhaus was pigeonholed as the “farm-to-table” place. The term is now cliché, but this is only because the value of sourcing locally has been broadly accepted, even expected. Today, Willmann prefers to use the term “of the moment” in describing the Midwestern and Southern-inspired plates leaving his kitchen such as the duck fat-roasted Gulf red snapper. However defined, his value of working with local producers, and growing a few things himself, hasn’t changed.
“FedEx is awesome, I can get something from Japan tomorrow if I want,” says Willmann, but sourcing globally isn’t the vision for Farmhaus. In a world where travel and the internet can take us to any corner of the globe, Willmann still values sourcing relationships with neighbors. With this focus on local products, his kitchen staff is forced to think creatively and his team is better from working through the challenges this presents. Although it may seem counterintuitive, Willmann finds great latitude in this approach. “It’s almost like it’s freedom, in that you’re not so bound by endless possibilities,” he says. “To me, it’s liberating to only have a set group of things to work with at any given time.”
Farmhaus has established lasting relationships with local producers, but community is also an important part of the inner-workings of the restaurant. Willmann is an avid fisherman and jumps at every opportunity to cast his line in the salty ocean air of the Gulf of Mexico. Each year, he has a spring fishing trip with the staff. “We typically bring whoever wants to come down in April for a couple of days,” says Willmann. “We have a driving day, two or three fishing days and then they gotta get back to open up for the weekend.”
As a smaller restaurant tucked into a neighborhood, Farmhaus has a deep sense of community with its patrons. “Our favorite thing is when someone stops in [the kitchen] and gives us a thumbs up…it’s an honor that someone takes the time to say ‘That was really good guys, thanks a lot.’”
“We’re not the most profitable or fastest to grow,” says Willmann, but he’s built a successful, highly-acclaimed restaurant fulfilling his vision and done it on his own terms. For this, his work has been recognized nationally. For the second year in a row, Willmann is a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s award as Best Chef: Midwest. Forging his own way by valuing relationships and community, Farmhaus embodies a vision valuing each step of the process – from producer to preparer to patron.
Johnny Fugitt is author of The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America.
Kevin Willmann, owner and chef of Farmhaus
Newman Farms “Pork n’Beans” Ham Hock braised white beans with smoked pigs head, roasted pork belly and charred spring onions, Marcoot Jersey Creamery Tomme emulsion
Ponzu marinated Bigeye Tuna with grapefruit and guanciale
Duck fat roasted Gulf Red Snapper with apple, Brussels sprouts, endive and black walnut “slaw,” Honey/Dijon dressin’ and chili oil
Vanilla Sformati, olive oil cake, blood orange granite, Louisiana citrus supremes