When Sam Beall’s parents, Kreis and Sandy Beall, founder of the Ruby Tuesday  casual-dining chain, bought Blackberry Farm  in 1976, they were simply looking for a family home. But the nine-room house in Walland, Tenn., proved to be a great spot for hosting friends and business associates.
So with the family’s penchant for entertaining and the picturesque location at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, the home gradually morphed into a simple little bed and breakfast—“more to pay the utility bills than anything,” Beall says.
When the B&B caught the eye of Relais & Châteaux in 1994, Beall says, “we started to invest a little time and energy into it, and that’s when it started to grow towards what it is today.”
The “simple little bed and breakfast” has expanded over the years, and Sam Beall has become proprietor of a multifaceted Relais & Châteaux resort, complete with a Relais Gourmand restaurant. The complex has a staff of 260 and offers resort activities, such as spa pampering, horseback riding and fly-fishing. Some 60 guest rooms—slated to become 65 by July—are scattered among numerous cottages and houses. Guests also can choose to spend time learning about the farm with the master gardener, the cheesemaker, the baker and others.
PHONE: (865) 984-8166
CUISINE: Foothills cuisine
PER-PERSON DINNER CHECK AVERAGE WITH BEVERAGES: $180
BEST-SELLING DISH: porcini-rubbed roulade of Wagyu beef cap with wilted Singing Brook greens, sweet garlic and carrot jus
SEATS: 130 in 4 dining rooms
AVERAGE WEEKLY COVERS: 650
CHEF: executive sous chef John Feathers
OWNER: Sam Beall
Go west, young man…but come back
Always knowing that he would return to Blackberry Farm, Beall set out for California in 1999 after college to broaden his background in the hospitality industry. His experiences on the West Coast included attending California Culinary Academy, working at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and doing a stage with chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.
“He was at The French Laundry for three months learning about the kitchen here to help him learn how to better operate his own kitchen,” Keller says. “I remember his dedication to the hospitality industry and his curiosity.”
Besides this formal training in culinary arts and hotel management, Beall is also a certified sommelier, having been bitten by what he calls the “wine bug” during his time in California. He often helps introduce guests to “some of the great wines of the world” during the three nights a week he typically spends in the dining room. Andy Chabot manages the Blackberry Farm wine program, and the staff includes five other sommeliers.
The farm expands
About four years ago, Beall had the opportunity to purchase an additional 640 acres adjoining his land, bringing the property to 4,200 acres and allowing expansion of the actual “farm” components of Blackberry Farm.
“This is without a doubt the most exciting chapter in Blackberry Farm’s history,” Beall says. “Seeing the farm come into full fruition is how Blackberry is going to be understood in the future. I’m confident there just aren’t many people doing what we are doing. It’s been part of our history forever. We’ve had one chicken house that sits down there by the farmhouse since 1976, and it had just enough for my kids to go steal some eggs, just enough. Well, now we have five chicken houses on the new part of the farm, where we can supply our guests with farm-fresh eggs—not just any farm-fresh eggs, but our farm-fresh eggs every day.”
As the farm has expanded, the property’s garden has grown from a quarter-acre patch to several acres supplying produce as well as flowers. Master gardener John Coykendall—“one of the most amazing human beings on earth,” Beall says—oversees the three-season, on-site garden, which at the height of the season supplies 100 percent of the resort’s produce.
Farm operations extend to producing cheese
“The way it’s evolved, our guests for years have always seen sheep on our hillsides, but we never did anything with them,” Beall says.
Influenced by his time at a creamery during his formative California experience, however, he wanted more than just a pretty landscape.
|Wild salmon carpaccio with candy stripe beet-basil salad and horseradish-fava bean purée Lobster and spring onion panna cotta with snap pea and preserved lemon salad Laurel Creek rabbit and Anson Mills faro with morels and onions|
|Tasso-rubbed gulf shrimp with Anson Mills yellow grits and sorghum-glazed onions Crisp pork belly with spicy sweet potato purée and buttermilk hominy sauce|
|Ramp-crusted halibut with leeks, fava beans, snap peas, mussels and arugula Pan-roasted spring chicken with turnip greens, fava beans and cornbread Rhubarb-glazed guinea hen with peas, asparagus, potato-celery root purée and honey rhubarb broth Roasted flat iron steak with salsify, pearl onions, asparagus, chanterelle mushrooms and Cabernet jus|
|Chocolate ménage à trois with coffee, raspberries and cinnamon Velvet Elvis: custard with peanut butter and bananas|
|$125.00 per person, includes 5 courses|
“For the past three years, we’ve made cheese out of a little mobile milking parlor, a custom-outfitted little trailer,” he says. “That was nice but never would have allowed us to make cheese at the quality which we wanted. We have just finished construction of a dairy. The dairy on the outside is a simple barn building, but on the inside, it is state-of-the-art, and this is going to allow us to make cheese at the quality and quantity we need for our guests.”John Coykendall: Blackberry Farm’s Master Gardener
“Living history” is how master gardener John Coykendall describes the plants he cultivates at Blackberry Farm. Coykendall, a member of the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties of plants, raises such plants in the Blackberry Farm gardens, which at the height of the season supply all of the resort’s produce needs.
The on-site garden gives guests a chance to get as close to the land as they like. For some guests, that means enjoying produce at dinner that only earlier in the day was still in the ground. For others, it means participating in one of the summer’s weekly garden dinners, where they can sample foods directly from the garden.
Many guests enjoy spending a few hours in the garden with Coykendall, where they might learn about the Native Americans’ “three sisters” method of intercropping corn, beans and pumpkins. When corn reaches about waist high, beans are planted at the base. The corn stalks serve as trellising for the beans. Pumpkins are planted at intervals between the rows of corn. As their vines spread, they inhibit growth of weeds and help the soil retain moisture.
Coykendall loves to see how the chefs interpret his produce.
“I liken it to the garden being the artist’s palette, and the artist being the chef in the kitchen,” he says. “They have all this palette to work with.”
Beall describes Blackberry Farm cooking as “foothills cuisine,” explaining that the property sits at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, “right on the line” between rugged country fare and more refined haute cuisine. “We’re influenced by both,” he says.
Blackberry Farm is known for its white-tablecloth, fine-dining venue, but starting next spring, guests also will have the option of a more family-style dining experience in the original house, which is being converted to a restaurant. Beall stresses that the quality of the food will be the same in both locations, but “the concepts are just different. One is more relaxed; one is more refined.”
In the old homestead, the meals will be “more reflective of a style of cuisine that you would have if you came over to my house,” Beall says. “The other restaurant is the one that is more multicourse experience, more refined experience,” with silver, antique linens and custom china.
To explain how the two concepts will differ, Beall says to consider a menu with lamb, potatoes, morels and ramps.
“Those same words could be on the menu at both restaurants,” he says, “but at home, maybe it would be slow-roasted leg of lamb sliced tableside, served with a kind of casserole, almost family-style, like potato and ramp gratin, and then a beautiful mess of spring collard greens, perhaps accompanied by just a plate of sautéed morels.”
In the more refined setting, on the other hand, he says, maybe the lamb would be presented in three different ways, such as 10-hour braised lamb neck, smoked lamb chop and a preparation of lamb on collard greens; perhaps the morels would be stuffed with foie gras or farmstead cheese.
Breakfast is available in the dining room or by room service. Lunch locations and themes vary by season and run the gamut from a pig roast in the garden or a veranda buffet to panini sandwiches with a simple salad. Guests can request a picnic lunch, and departing guests receive a box lunch for the trip home.
Chef Michael Mina, a multiunit, fine-dining restaurant owner based in San Francisco, recently visited Blackberry Farm as a working guest. He says he was “very impressed” with Beall and the lengths to which he is going to create experiences for his guests.
“I love the philosophy that he’s starting there,” Mina says. “What he’s starting there is a culture. He’s trying to make the experience when you go there something that, from a culinary side, you will remember for the rest of your life.”