For decades, summer vacationers with names like Kennedy, Clinton, and, more recently, Obama, have flocked to Martha's Vineyard to enjoy maritime life on the mid-Atlantic island. Sailing, fishing, surfing, or just watching the waves roll in on Menemsha Beach are typical draws of the 100-square-mile summer colony, located six miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod.
But when New York City–based restaurateur Keith McNally sets up house for the summer on his four-acre farm in Chilmark, he works the land instead of plying the sea. In addition to his wife, Alina, and five children, McNally shares the property with several Berkshire, Tamworth, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs, as well as goats, sheep, lambs, and free-range chickens and ducks. Although they have all the fixings for some pretty great dinner parties (and the famous neighbors to round out the guest list), McNally and his wife like to lead a low-key life on their mini farm. "I have the need to produce my own food when I'm always around people consuming food," says McNally, who has even taken to making his own goat cheese. "I cook a lot too, sometimes for dinner parties but mostly for the family."
McNally discovered Martha's Vineyard quite by chance in the summer of 1976. He had just arrived in New York City from London, determined to pursue a career as a filmmaker. One weekend that summer he ventured to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. "I had purchased a ticket to go on the ferry to Nantucket to ride my bike. But the people coming off the Martha's Vineyard ferry seemed more diverse, less WASPy," he remembers with a laugh. "So I quickly changed my ticket and went to the Vineyard instead." On that trip, McNally explored the island by bicycle, sleeping on the beach in Menemsha or in youth hostels.
Fifteen years and four restaurants later, McNally, who had by that time traded in acting and directing for restaurant management, bought Windy Gates Farm with money he made from the sale of his first three restaurants—the , , and Nell's. By that time he had become well known in New York City circles for creating restaurants so authentic looking they were almost like stage sets—the zinc counters, the red-leather banquettes, the bistro glasses, the tobacco-stained walls. Naturally, McNally took the same kind of anthropological approach to renovating his Martha's Vineyard farm in 1991, enlisting the craftsmen and electricians with whom he'd collaborated on his restaurants as well as a handful of local talents to make the cedar-shingled farmhouse look as if it had been there forever, untouched.
"I had just been through a divorce, and the renovation was really quite therapeutic," McNally says. "I didn't want the place to look too designed or polished, but of course that always takes a lot more work." Doorframes were cut to fit doors he'd purchased at flea markets—as opposed to the other way around. Most of the floors and some of the furniture were made out of age-old reclaimed pine. A berthlike wood bed in one of the children's rooms nods to the maritime traditions of the island, with a wheel from a ship's helm marking its head. Furniture, including farm tables, French bistro chairs, rattan sofas, and rope beds, was found at local flea markets as well as flea markets throughout France.
The attention to detail McNally is known for in his restaurants is prevalent here, too. In keeping with the simple spirit of the place, the interiors of the Windy Gates farmhouse are spare. Decoration is limited to the essentials. There's not much art on the walls, either, save for a few paintings by his late father-in-law, Albert Johnson, vintage sconces from the Brimfield market, and an Audubon Society poster. There are also McNally signatures everywhere: wainscoting, wide-plank floors, tea-stained walls, and a family-friendly, L-shaped banquette circling the long farm table in the kitchen.
That table gets a lot of use around Thanksgiving and Christmas and during most of the summer, when the McNallys spend time on the farm. The idea is to get as far away as possible from the demands of city life, and the windswept farmland of Chilmark provides the ideal escape. In fact, with their chickens, pigs, lambs, and sheep, the McNallys don't have to do a lot of shopping for food. "We use our own bacon and ham from the pigs for breakfast," McNally says proudly. Apples, peaches, plums, and cherries come from the orchards, and there's a berry garden with strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. The vegetable garden is also vast, with plenty of fresh asparagus, Sun Gold tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, peppers, fennel, and haricots verts. And, yes, there's compost too.
"It's completely self-contained," McNally says. "We don't need to ever go out at all."