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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Back on the Farm

February 7, 2018

BLACKBERRY FARM, WALLAND, TN— My wife and I first came here in the 1990s. We returned for our 10th wedding anniversary, and then started coming in the summer months after dropping our two children off at summer camp. Today we are here for our 25th wedding anniversary. After all of these years, and millions of miles travelled, all over the world, Blackberry Farm still feels like the most civilized 4,200 acres on the planet.

There are five-star hotels in major metropolitan capitals that certainly “wow” people. Europe’s Michelin-starred restaurants are very impressive. The service at most of those places is notable. Though I have yet to encounter a place— in America or Europe— that “feels” as good as Blackberry Farm. This place combines all of those elements in a serene, pastoral setting with world-class views. It’s 100% of what I love in a two to three-day getaway.

Nestled in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains about 40 miles south of Knoxville lies the most refined country inn I’ve ever known. The property is just over the mountain range from Pigeon Forge, yet it’s a world away. There is no golf course on the property, nor any of the typical things one would find at an archetypical American resort. At its core, Blackberry Farm is about food. That is why I connected to this place so many years ago.

In the 1970s, Sandy Beall and his wife Kreis, began the process of turning an old country inn into a small retreat. Refined and tastefully designed cottages were added around the time we discovered this place. In those days, the Beall’s son, Sam— who had just returned from a stint in California that included stops at culinary school, Cowgirl Creamery, The Ritz Carlton, and The French Laundry— was the sommelier in the main dining room. His mother, Kreiss Beall, seemed to be running the show. Over the next decade, Sam Beall took the culinary lessons, wine experience, and service training he gained in California and combined it with his childhood experience growing up at Blackberry Farm and turned this place into a first-class destination with impeccable service standards.

Sadly, Sam Beall passed away in a tragic skiing accident two years ago. His wife, Mary Celeste Beal, has taken over as proprietor, and hasn’t missed a beat. Under her husband’s vision, this place grew from a small country inn to a world-class food, wine, and music destination that has hosted some of the greatest artisans, chefs, winemakers, and artists from across the globe. There is no reason to think that the Beall vision won’t be realized for generations to come.

The property runs on the American plan and all meals and lodging are included in the price of the stay. Breakfast is served in the main house (the original inn). Lunch is served there, too, but can also be packed as a picnic and delivered at any place on the property. Dinner is also served in the main house, but several years ago, Sam Beall realized a lifelong vision and built a culinary cathedral that celebrates Southern dining in a unique and refined way in an impressive building they call The Barn.

Beall’s barn is unlike any barn on the planet, with a cellar that houses one of the largest private wine collections in the country. Blackberry’s culinary reputation was birthed by Chef John Fleer, though it was Sam Beall who took it to world-class heights at The Barn.

When the barn was built, Beall brought on a master gardener, John Coykendall, to grow vegetables. Coykedall’s knowledge of heirloom seeds and vegetables is extensive. The first time I met him, he asked me where I lived. After I told him, he walked to the back of his gardening shed and started digging around in a few small seed-bin drawers and pulled out some heirloom purple-hull pea seeds from a long-forgotten variety that were grown in Lawrence County, Mississippi, 45-miles west of my hometown. I recently read an article about Coykendall’s discovery of a Pearl River County, Mississippi peanut that had been grown down there by a family since the 1850s. I plan to stop by the gardeners shed to see if I can talk him out of a few of those, too.

People seem to fall into two getaway categories— beach or mountain. I have never really thought about it before now, but if someone were to ask my three favorite getaway locations in all of the world, I would have to say the hills of Tuscany, the Rocky Mountains, and the foothills of the Smokies at Blackberry Farm.

File us under “mountain.” It’s good to be back.



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