dining with his wife in florence, italy changed kevin willmann's life illustration by vidhya nagarajan

Meals That Changed My Life: Kevin Willmann of Farmhaus

It takes more than great food to make a great meal: Service, ambiance, company and cuisine all combine to create a dining experience. It is these experiences that have stuck with 2016 James Beard Award semifinalist and Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann. From Chicago to Florence, Italy to a picnic table in Greenville, Illinois, here are the meals that changed Willmann’s life.

Alla Vecchia Bettola Florence, Italy, 2014
[My wife and I] found this little, family run restaurant across the park from where we were staying. … They sat us down between two tables. They had Jessica sit down and they brought this board and put it in between the two tables and brought a chair out of the back. Here we are packed into this already packed little tiny restaurant. We’re best friends now with the four people right next to us. I learned in Florence that they embrace the fact that, “This guy makes the best prosciutto. This guy makes the best mortadella.” … It opened my eyes to [the idea that] it’s OK to bring in the very best.

Greenville, Illinois
The more formative meals are the meals of my childhood with everybody getting together for a harvest. All my aunts and my grandma would come over and pick all the beans from the garden in my dad’s backyard, and they’d sit there and can what seemed like 600 cans of beans. Then we’d go to Uncle Denny’s house and pick all of his corn. There were picnic tables full of shucked corn, and there were kids everywhere. I’m sure there were burned pork steaks and all of that. That’s the smell that goes along with the memory of being around the picnic table at the end of the summer and you have to get [all the produce] put away.

Chicago, Illinois, 2006
We went to Schwa at the time I was in Edwardsville, getting going. They were jamming Portishead full blast. The cooks were serving their own food. … The vibe was very much: This is who we are. You were watching them make everything and bring it out to you. I knew we were going to be walking into a really great meal, but my idea of fine dining was completely blown away. It was gritty, raw and real. There was no fluff. That was a huge influence on me: It didn’t have to be perfect, but we can still do what we want to do. We can get started now. We don’t have to wait forever and save hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are ways to make this work.