Mark Firth places equal importance on the origin of his produce as he does creating a hospitable dining experience. Most nights his rustic, foodie hangout, Prairie Whale, in Great Barrington, is packed with young locals, organic farmers, families, and those stopping by the restaurant for a warm destination on their way through town. Firth, a laid-back forty-something with humor and drive, grew up in Zambia and traveled to Europe before moving to New York. There he worked for restaurateur Keith McNally, and co-founded Brooklyn’s pre-eminent Diner and Marlow & Sons. In search of a change of pace, Firth relocated with his wife Bettina and two children to the Berkshires – a rural community bordering Massachusetts and New York State. He now lives and works on an 82-acre farm protected under agricultural conservancy, helping to produce some of what’s served at the restaurant table. While days are spent tending the land, at night he puts on a dress shirt and passes evenings at Prairie Whale.
Selectism and Berlin-based online magazine Freunde von Freunden, pay a visit to Firth's home, restaurant and farm to hear more about making the move, the great outdoors and leaving the supermarket behind.
What were your motivations for moving here? Why Massachusetts? We were looking in New York state for ages and it never really occurred to us to come to Massachusetts. The taxes are high in Connecticut and the restaurants were in New York so we thought this is where we should be. Then we came to visit friends here in the Berkshires and thought ‘Wow, it’s really nice.’ Shortly after we found the farm, but the owner had it priced kind of high. We had a budget and she said ‘I like you guys. Why don’t you talk to the land trust and see if they can help you out.’
So we talked to the land trust and got along. So now 78 of the 82 acres are protected under agricultural conservancy. We can farm, we can build barns, or whatever we want with it, but the land can never be developed.
Where is the farm located exactly? The farm is in Monterey, a town nine miles east of Great Barrington. The first time we drove from our farm to Great Barrington it felt like a long way. But now I’m doing the commute two or three times a day. I ride my bike because we’re going up and it’s a slow up. We’re at nearly 1,500 feet. I think Great Barrington is at seven hundred.
What was the first restaurant you opened and ran? It was Diner. I started it in 1998 followed by Bonita, and then by Marlow & Sons.
The concept of the Prairie Whale appears to be the same as Diner in some ways…Yup, absolutely. Sustainable, farm-to-table, super local. Everybody here is so close, we’re in the same town, and I buy from all these farms. We all get on very well. I enjoy the freedom of owning the building in Great Barrington because in Brooklyn everything was rented.
How did you get the word out about the restaurant? People started calling early on and were excited about a new place opening up. I know all the farmers in the area and received a lot of support. The word spread quickly.
Have you always been an outdoors type of person? I grew up in Zambia, which is a large country, but my town Chingola was small. It was like growing up in the Midwest here. I had a motorcycle when I was eleven. My dad and I would go for hours into the bush because Chingola was a little town with hundreds of miles of just bush and tracks and nothing. But I’ve moved all over. I lived in Florence for three years, then continued to London for a bit. I’ve spent time in South Africa; in Johannesburg and Cape Town. I worked in Barcelona for 10 months on the Olympic Hotel for the games in ’92. I lived in New York and now I’ve ended up here.
So you went from living in the bush, to cities, and then back to living in nature again. What was the catalyst for your change of direction? You meet all these people in the restaurant business. You meet the guy who makes the amazing prosciutto, the guy who raises the cows at Kinderhook Farm, the guy that grows the tomatoes. I got to a point where I wanted to be that person that did these things.
I built a restaurant and I sat there drinking wine and doing schedules. I felt like I was just shuffling paperwork and writing paychecks for people. It was demoralizing. I think it is what you call a midlife crisis. I was like ‘What do I produce? What is my value to the world?’ I wasn’t learning anymore. I wanted to do something new, something that I had a passion for. I was interested in everything. I wanted to hang my own prosciutto, to make my own saucisson, and raise my own pig and take it to the slaughterhouse. I do all of that now.
Would you say you are self-sufficient? I’m close to being self-sufficient. We have a well but what I need now is solar electricity. I run the truck 100% on vegetable oil. When I make dinner now 99% of our ingredients are our own. I’m not making my own bread and pasta, but I don’t really eat bread or pasta. The potatoes, rosemary, garlic, zucchini, the pork, duck….all that stuff is ours.
So you don’t go to the supermarket ever? I go for toilet paper, maybe. But what else is there?
How knowledgeable were you about farming before doing this? I mean I had Google and I had common sense but basically Google was everything. Like how do you raise pigs? Google. Why is your chicken molting? Google. And when you Google something then there is a YouTube video. The dog has fleas? Throw a handful of Diatomaceous Earth at it. There is all this stuff, you have no idea.
For more from the interview and additional images, head over to Freunde von Freunden.
Photography: Grace Villamil Interview: Oliver Kann Text: Fiona Breslin
Freunde von Freunden is an international interview magazine that portrays people of diverse creative and cultural backgrounds in their homes and within their daily working environments. By introducing real people from around the world with an honest and authentic approach, Freunde von Freunden attracts a global readership and remains borderless.