SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Chef Niall Campbell looks at his restaurant in much the same way he looks at dairy farms like the one he was raised on.
“It’s about hard work because my day starts at 7 a.m. and lasts until 11 p.m.,” said Campbell, co-owner and executive chef at Firefly Grill in Effingham. “So, you either have to be insane to be in our business, or you have to love it.”
Campbell was about 8 years old when his mom married a dairy farmer.
“I look back on it now and the impact dairy farming had on my life gave me the drive and resiliency that’s necessary to make it in business,” he said during a presentation at the Let’s Talk Dairy Workshop, hosted by the St. Louis District Dairy Council.
“When I moved to that dairy farm, I had a role, and it was lugging two five-gallon buckets of feed to the calves,” he said. “When I got home from school, I would clean up and leave the barn at about 8 at night.”
As a result of his experiences on the farm, Campbell said, he has a lot of respect for dairy farmers.
“When I use their product, I believe the same amount of hard work that goes into getting that milk to me also needs to go into caring for the milk and cooking with the milk,” he said.
In The Beginning
Campbell, who met his wife in Puerto Rico, has worked in many parts of the world, including Europe, California and the Caribbean. The couple was living in San Francisco and traveled to St. Louis to attend a wedding.
“My wife’s dad lives in Effingham, and we showed up in town,” he said.
The chef offered to cook dinner for his father-in-law and a few friends. On the way home to California, they received an email that said “if those kids want to open a restaurant here, we will back it.”
“So, we moved to Effingham, and I was super excited about the prospect to own and operate my own restaurant,” Campbell said.
“One of the investors said, ‘I hear that the restaurant business is the second hardest business to own and operate, and the first is dairy farming,’” he said. “I said that works out perfectly — I’m your guy, and now it’s 14 years later.”
Campbell’s goal included developing a farm and table restaurant.
“In Puerto Rico, transport of food was very difficult, so we had to grow a lot of our own stuff,” he said. “For my restaurant, I wanted to be able to walk out my backdoor and grab whatever herbs were necessary.”
The garden started with five raised beds, where Campbell grew mostly herbs.
“We’ve expanded to about 22,000 square feet of gardens, and we put in about 280 tomato plants this year,” he said. “Although 25% to 50% of them are not super happy right now, the beautiful thing about farming and restaurant business is it generally works out the way it’s suppose to.”
In addition to expanding the gardens, Campbell also is considering the addition of a greenhouse.
“We want to offer a salad that has all our herbs all year around,” he said.
Other products for his restaurant are purchased from local producers, including Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury and Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville.
“There is so much happening in the world of dairy, and it starts with premium dairy,” Campbell said.
During his presentation, the chef prepared Cauliflower Foam for the dietitians at the meeting.
“This is a dairy-based recipe that has 50% cream and 50% milk,” Campbell said. “Then I inject it with nitrogen, which is similar to making whipped cream.”
This recipe is a base, he said.
“You can dress it up anyway you want, so the goal is to get the earthy cauliflower flavor and then work around it,” he said. “If you don’t inject it, it also makes an incredible soup or you can use it as a finishing sauce.”
Campbell also does consulting for restaurants and often learns they have difficultly with attracting employees.
“We’re not doing something right if we can’t attract the people we need,” said the chef, whose restaurant is staffed at about 75 people. “If we can’t build them into the best people they can possibly be, then we haven’t done our job.”
The goal, Campbell said, is to make people better.
“It’s not about trying to make money all the time,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing and doing what you love and I love what I do.”