DITMAS PARK—These days everyone in Brooklyn harbors dreams of quitting their day job to open a diner, the kind of place that cures its own guanciale and lardo but also offers a great grassfed burger and unpretentious-yet-unctuous fries. Most of us, though, are held back by the small issue of not having the first clue about the restaurant business.
That didn’t stop Gary Jonas and Allison McDowell, who in 2005 knew nothing about running an eatery other than that their neighborhood needed one. Today the Farm on Adderley is the all-day canteen to a diverse set that includes artists, teachers and nonagenarians.
But back in 2004 the two University of Michigan grads were toiling, unfulfilled—he as a commercial real estate mortgage broker and she as a marketing director at Viacom. When Jonas’s sister and brother-in-law lured the young couple out of their East Village digs to Ditmas Park to live in an empty floor in the house they had recently purchased, they discovered a multicultural neighborhood of beautiful tree-lined streets and sprawling Victorian homes.
It was also a ZIP code in transition. Though this part of Flatbush had recently been a burg that banks redlined, young professionals were realizing that the neighborhood—even by city standards, a remarkably diverse melting pot of Pakistani, Caribbean, Tibetan and Mexican residents—was grossly undervalued. It also lacked the kind of Manhattan-expat-friendly goods and services that dot Park Slope and similar nabes. There was only one restaurant that skewed toward newer arrivals, Picket Fence. “We used to go there at least once a week,” Jonas recalls, “and it was absolutely packed.”
Jonas and McDowell saw a business opportunity—and an exit strategy from Midtown malaise. Goaded on by dislike for their jobs (when McDowell’s subway stop, 42nd Street, was announced on the couples’ daily ride into Manhattan, it fell on her ears like a doomsday knell), they conceived a dream of opening a restaurant. When they found the location on Cortelyou Road—a great deal at just $3,000 a month, complete with a sweet garden out back—they impulsively signed.
Quickly realizing they were out of their depth, Jonas and McDowell called on Alan Harding and Jim Mamary, the chef-restaurateur team that transformed Smith Street into Brooklyn’s first Restaurant Row back in the late ’90s and early ’00s with the likes of Patois, Gowanus Yacht Club and Pacifico. Those old pros hooked Jonas and McDowell up with chef Tom Kearney, who they thought would be a perfect fit for the job. A veteran of Alison on Dominick, March and Jean Georges, Kearney brought a level of sophistication Brooklyn diners were coming to expect. Stints at Blue Hill, opening the Williamsburg gastropub Sweetwater, and an immersion in the wine business at the Upper East Side shop Garnet Wines & Liquors rounded out his résumé and made him the complete locavore/casual-refined/vino-savvy package. The deal was on.
Then there was the matter of the name, which hints at the restaurant’s market-driven menu but also references its unlikely existence. Taken from a saying in Jonas’s native South Africa—where Adderley is Cape Town’s busiest boulevard, and decidedly farm-free—the expression means something like “When pigs fly.” Appropriate for an improbable event like two newbies finding restaurant success in untamed Flatbush.
Improbable but not impossible, it turns out. From the day the 100-seat (60 inside and 40 outside) restaurant opened in the summer of 2006, they’ve had a full house.
At the hostess stand, a bowl filled with plastic animals for children and adults to take home sets the laid-back, welcoming tone, and a fleet of high chairs and housemade organic beef hot dogs helped land the restaurant on TimeOut Kids’ “Best Kids’ Menus” list. Most of the staff (three of whom are schoolteachers) lives in the neighborhood, and regulars belly up to the mahogany bar to sit on stools made by a friend of Jonas and McDowell’s.
Making good on the promise of the restaurant’s name, Kearney makes much of his menu out of local harvests: vegetables from Satur Farm out on Long Island, pastured eggs from Pennsylvania, grassfed beef from the Hudson Valley and heirloom grains from the Finger Lakes. They’ve sourced that way from day one, but over the six years of the restaurant’s life the locavore explosion has made Kearney’s job a lot easier.
“At first it was co-ops of a few farmers getting together, like Lancaster Farm Fresh, to lease a truck and send produce to New York City once a week,” he recalls. Today, demand has built up supply such that he can get local produce, dairy, meat and poultry delivered every day of the week.
Still, he’s not one to seek out convenience. Take meat. Because small farmers typically need to move whole carcasses rather than custom cuts, Kearney spent a summer learning butchery from the same sage who trained superstar Tom Mylan: Joshua Applestone of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats up in Kingston, New York. Once he’d mastered the art of the cleaver, he began ordering half a steer and half a pig each week—sometimes bumping up his pork order to a whole hog. And for breads and pastas, he doesn’t just make them in-house but works closely with Farmer Ground Flours upstate for the buckwheat and cornmeal that bring a bigger price tag and shorter shelf life than their commodity cousins—but also offer great flavor and the ecological benefits he regards as essential ingredients.
“I’m on board 100 percent with the mission of this restaurant,” says Kearney, “to support the local economy, to have good relationships with local farmers.” Beyond simply reducing food miles, the restaurant’s credo also involves adhering to the tenets of permaculture, a self-reliant way of working with nature. Kearney and his staff have even experimented with making their own soap and candles out of beef tallow.
While the flavors aren’t over-the-top, the New Yorker called Kearney’s food “precise and unpretentious” while the Times declared his fries, served with curry mayo, “almost problematically delicious.” Today the restaurant is a bastion of authentic Brooklyn charm—the bare-bones kind with mismatched wooden chairs, a blackboard filled with local craft beers, and the garden out back that overflows with regulars well into October.
“I think of it kind of like a reinvented diner,” says Kearney. “The menu always has chicken, a burger and vanilla ice cream. There are people who eat here four, five times a week.” Some come for more adventurous dishes, like crispy fried soft-shell crab slicked with hot and sweet mustard served with tarragon-pickled Kirby cukes, or pan-seared fluke accompanied by fresh corn kernels sautéed with garlic scapes, butter and dry vermouth. The restaurant’s popular brunch features a fisherman’s egg dish of poached eggs over smoked trout covered in hollandaise, greens and a potato latke; housemade sausage and eggs and the addictive side order of Royal Crown bakery chocolate toast slathered with butter and goosed with sea salt.
For his wine list, Kearney assembled a list of naturally vinified “low-touch” bottles, meaning the grapes are organically grown and the winemaker eschews chemical or other additions or manipulations. What they lose in consistency and predictability, Kearney believes, they gain in vibrancy and depth. In an effort to encourage customers to drink “more exciting wines,” the list’s markup is gentle.
Minimally decorated with chairs bought at restaurant auctions, the homey eatery has become something of a neighborhood anchor. Loyal customers Tom and Dave took over the entire restaurant back in November for their wedding ceremony and reception, and even toasted “the Farm” and counted the ways they loved it. Server Ann Vieira’s favorite regulars are a 93-year-old local and her daughter. Recently, the daughter came alone because the mother was not feeling well. She ordered arctic char to go, and the staff added a get-well serving of chocolate mousse for Mom.
Jonas and McDowell have strengthened such bonds beyond the borders of brunch and burgers, with extracurricular activities ranging from a tour of Sunset Park Chinatown to a foraging event in Prospect Park capped by a dinner of the day’s pickings. They don’t always turn a profit on these events, says Jonas, “but we do it for the community.”
Kearney and Jonas’s sustainable sourcing and solid Brooklyn sensibilities have helped them reach beyond Ditmas Park and landed their food in one of the highest-profile venues in the borough: Prospect Park. Their proposal beat out some stiff competition to land the contract to provide food for the Celebrate Brooklyn! music and performance series at the Prospect Park band shell.
Serving up to 8,000 people per show out of a handkerchief-size space with no built-in plumbing, electricity or gas “was a huge challenge,” says Jonas. The offerings “had to be eaten on the go, while holding a beer in one hand,” he explains. “At the same time, it had to represent what the restaurant is—creative food starring sustainable ingredients—and do that in an atmosphere of an outdoor concert series.”
Kearney’s solution: snack food on a stick (Mexican corn with lime, chili and queso fresco; salt and pepper shrimp with lemon thyme), on a bun (roast beef with pickled shiitake and harissa; smoked bluefish cakes with salsa verde) and in a cup (tomato bread salad with cucumber and basil). This summer he’ll be at it again, feeding fans at 33 performances from June 5 through mid-August.
Looking back on their intense six-year learning curve, Jonas is quick to credit Kearney, and notes that his and McDowell’s lack of experience was an added secret weapon. Instead of chops, they brought energy and enthusiasm, and a vision to create a place where guests would “smile and feel good when they walk in.”
Adds Kearney, “We want to have relationships with people we feel good about, and be a touchstone for the neighborhood. I think we’ve done that.”
The Farm on Adderly: 1108 Cortelyou Rd. near Stratford Rd., Ditmas Park; 718.287.3101; thefarmonadderley.com
Photo credit: Vicky Wasik