“It’s nice to shed the shackles of a set menu,” says Mark Firth, owner of the Prairie Whale, a restaurant on the north end of Main Street in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The restaurant, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary in October, has a menu that changes daily. Chef Steve Browning explains that he orders according to what local farms have available, and from there “We just make it work.”
Browning, who started working in kitchens as a teenager, studied at the Culinary Institute of America before moving to New York City, where he became a part of the burgeoning “farm-to-table” movement. That’s where he started working for Firth, who had already opened locavore restaurants Diner and Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Working at Mark’s restaurants was the first time I had seen seasonal cooking taken to such an extreme, and it sparked something in me,” Browning says.
Firth remembers the genesis of their current partnership: “It was New Year’s Eve 2010, in Brooklyn, and the head chef told me ‘if you ever open a restaurant upstate, Steve’s your man’.” Browning had grown up in rural New Jersey, and when he came up to visit the farm that Firth had purchased in Monterey he thought, “I’d totally be down with this.”
Before long, Firth was renovating, room by room, a big old Greek Revival house on Main Street in Great Barrington. With handmade tables, lots of bead-board and local cherry wood, the result is cozy comfort, augmented by the woodstove that roars during cold weather. “I’m trying to recreate what an American tavern would have been like when it was built back in the old days,” explains Firth. “Obviously, the food is really important. But ambiance and care are also so essential. You’re building a set, really.”
With that comment, Firth demonstrates how deeply he understands the central role that a restaurant can play in a community: as a meeting place, a venue for relaxation, and — in the case of the Prairie Whale — a place where people can enjoy a delicious and satisfying connection to the products that come from local farms. Often, that connection is very immediate. Says Firth, “It comes in the door and it’s on the plate in an hour.”
Firth and Browning face a widely recognized battle: trying to buy locally but keep prices reasonable. Firth explains, “I don’t want to have an expensive restaurant. I want you to be able to eat there every day. At the same time, we want to keep the money local so that everybody can benefit.” Reflecting on his customers, his suppliers, and his adopted community, he adds, “There’s no point in sending your money 150 miles away.”
It is no surprise when Firth says, “I think BerkShares make perfect sense for the Berkshires.” In fact, the Whale accepted the local currency the first night it was open. Firth admits that at first he did not know what they were. “But then I went to Bizalion’s and they took them, so I thought, ‘these are great!’ ” He adds wryly, “Dollars are going to be obsolete soon, anyway.”
All right, so if you want to go eat at the Prairie Whale what does it look like from the outside? Well, with a Ping-pong table, corn hole, outdoor dining, and the all-important “fence to keep in the toddlers,” Browning and Firth answer that question simultaneously, and without hesitation: “It looks like a party!”