By Sam Beall (Clarkson Potter, 2012)
Sam Beall is the proprietor of the Inn at Blackberry Farm, situated on a pastoral estate in the Great Smoky Mountains near Walland, Tennessee. He grew up on the land, where he fell in love with its woods and fields and where he continues to live and cook with his wife, Mary Celeste, and their four children. To Sam, Blackberry Farm is not simply a business, but his life, and he brings equal measures of passion, celebration, and knowledge to managing it. In his latest cookbook, The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm, he celebrates the seasons at Blackberry Farm, with its heirloom gardens, dairy, creamery, salumeria, honey house, and preservation kitchen, as his artisans practice traditional ways of gardening, foraging, making cheese and sausage, and preserving the bounty of the farm.
The way you describe Blackberry Farm in your new book, The Foothills Cuisine of Blackberry Farm, it sounds like it’s not just a resort. It’s a way of life.
It is a way of life. It is my life. It’s that simple. I was born here, and my family lives here today. The best of Blackberry Farm is a reflection of what we’re passionate about, what we love, and what we believe in. Thankfully, there are enough people in the world who get excited by the same things we do.
Tell me about Foothills cuisine.
Foothills cuisine is a description of this place—the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains where Blackberry Farm exists. This last little foothill is the only thing that separates the rural, the wild, the rustic of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south from the urban life, the haute cuisine of Knoxville to the north. Blackberry Farm straddles the line between fine dining and something that is traditional, historical, and a step back in time. We bridge the gap. You’ll see elements of both in the cuisine at Blackberry Farm.
How has Blackberry Farm changed since your childhood?
When my parents purchased the property in the 1970s, there was only one house, one physical building, sitting on 1,100 acres. Over the years, that six-room country inn has grown into a luxury hotel with 62 rooms and numerous outbuildings on 4,200 acres.
In the past eight years, the farm has blossomed. Early on, there was a small garden, about a quarter of an acre, and our master gardener, John Coykendall, would come up once a week to tend it. It didn’t really make an impact on every guest’s stay. We had one chicken house with maybe enough eggs for my kids to steal. Today, we have seven chicken houses. The gardens are now seven acres and more bountiful than we need.
That’s the part of your property that has always fascinated me—the working farm.
It’s become one of the greatest roles of our property. Five or 10 years ago, the most popular activity at Blackberry Farm was sitting in a rocking chair. Today our guests are looking for more. They want to be engaged in something and inspired by something. They want to be challenged. They want to learn while they’re here.
Almost every guest can relate to the farm. Either it’s something that has been lost in their life, and they want to reconnect with how their parents or grandparents once farmed sustainably in a way that provided for their existence. Or they’re concerned about food and what they put into their body. To take the produce they’ve found, foraged, or harvested with our gardeners to our chef and learn how to cook it, that’s a powerful experience. It brings them full circle. While spending a day in the spa or going horseback riding might have been popular activities in the past, today, spending a day with our master gardener in the garden or making cheese in our dairy are the activities our guests enjoy.
Preserving and canning, making your own cheese and sausage—you describe these activities as the old ways, the ways that have survived because they really are the best ways. What do you think your guests have learned from participating in them?
Our guests literally spend hours with our artisans. Over and over I hear from them, “Wow, what an incredible person! What a great experience!” This is true especially in the summer when we have kids here. [Most] Kids today don’t have a clue. They don’t know that chocolate milk doesn’t come from a chocolate cow. When you can take them to the chicken houses and let them harvest eggs, or let them press apples and make their own cider, that’s very gratifying.
Do the needs of the farm ever get in the way of what the resort needs?
No. If anything, it’s the other way around. The resort gets in the way of tasks that might need to be done on the farm. So many of our guests want to be engaged. They want to have the ear of John Coykendall or Jeff Ross, our master gardeners, or Dustin Busby, our farmstead manager. These guys are not just here for show. They are the ones who produce and provide everything we do. Sometimes the interests of the inn do challenge the available time that our artisans have to offer. But we also appreciate the fact that it is the guests’ interests that makes all of this work for us. Sustainability can come from a lot of places. Blackberry Farm is a business, as every farm should be.
You spent time in San Francisco, working at The French Laundry. What did you bring back to Blackberry Farm from the West coast?
The two years I spent in California were probably the most influential years of my life from a culinary standpoint. I went out to California for three reasons: to go to culinary school; to work at a hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, because that’s another part of our business; and to work at The French Laundry. It ended up being so much more. At least every other day, I would go to Cal-Mart, our neighborhood grocery store. That store was so far superior to anything I had ever walked through in the South. It was just enlightening. I would spend two and a half hours walking up and down every single aisle just picking up everything and learning.
Every Saturday, I’d wake up early and throw our daughter Cameron, who was a toddler then, in the bike stroller. We’d bike down to the Embarcadero to the San Francisco Farmers’ Market. I would always be the first one there. If you got there first, you got to see the best of everything. I had never been exposed to a farmers’ market like that; 10 or 15 years ago, very few places in the South were showcasing great local farmers’ markets. Exposure to these things gave me a broader perspective.
Did you always plan to come back to Tennessee?
Oh, yes. Before I even left, that was the plan. I knew exactly what I was doing. There’s a misconception out there about what Southern cuisine is. In my opinion, it’s not just fried items and classic casseroles with lots of butter. Southern cooking, first and foremost, is about the ingredients and how they are combined. I’m proud of what we do at Blackberry Farm, and I think it’s very reflective of where Southern food is today.
Do you have a favorite season at Blackberry Farm?
That is one of the questions I’m asked most often. Spring is the most gorgeous and perfect time to be at Blackberry Farm. The first buds, the first flowers, the baby chicks, the baby lambs. The green of the grass is unlike any other time of the year. It exists for about three weeks, and then it’s gone. That’s why I love the spring.
From a culinary perspective, I love the fall crop. I love the young fall greens—the collards, kale, and turnips that you cook in a totally different way than you will in December and January. Our garden is very much a 12-month garden. Don’t be fooled by our hills. It’s not a very harsh climate here.