Chef Cassidee Dabney has worked in luxury hotels and resorts around the United States for most of her career, but she says her decision to join Blackberry Farm ten years ago was “love at first walk-in.”
“The walk-in looked like an old bunker,” shared Dabney. Of course, who wouldn’t fall for this award-winning Relais & Chateaux, a 4,200-acre mountain haven that is also a working farm, surrounded by bucolic East Tennessee countryside at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains? It’s country tranquility wrapped in luxury.
I like to call it “a place to lose yourself or find yourself in a Blackberry® state of mind.”
For Chef Dabney, it’s a place to settle in after a life moving around since she was a young girl. “My father worked as a wildlife biologist for the National Forest Service. The family moved every two and a half years for his work, so I grew up in many places. Dad liked to hunt squirrels and would grade them himself as either broilers or fryers. Don’t laugh, but I like eating squirrel and dumplings! My mother was a gardener, so I learned to appreciate what grows from the earth. ”
After graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, Dabney honed her cooking skills at an Indian restaurant in Hanover, Germany, during the World Expo 2000. She also worked her way through a progression of kitchen roles at Four Seasons Hotels in Atlanta, Boston, Hawaii, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and at the Capitol Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Dabney had worked at Blackberry Farm for two years starting in 2004 before heading to Wyoming. Her mother encouraged her to return to Blackberry Farm to apply for a job after reading an article about the inn and restaurant in Southern Living magazine.
“At the time I was working in Wyoming. My mother offered to pay for my flight to Tennessee to apply for a job at Blackberry Farm. It meant I would be closer to her in Arkansas where she was living and to my sister who lived in Knoxville. I came back to Blackberry Farm in 2010, and the staff and the Beall family [Blackberry Farm’s proprietors] have been a part of my life ever since,” said Dabney.
Defining Foothills Cuisine®
Blackberry Farm defined and trademarked the reference Foothills Cuisine®. Dabney explained, “It’s a cuisine based on what grows locally by the people who have settled here. It’s really a hodge-podge of interesting food. We cook with what is grown here. Many locals, including Blackberry Farm, also have a tradition of preserving and canning foods for the winter.”
There are plenty of local Tennessee farmers and producers ready to supply Blackberry Farm, including Benton’s Country Ham, and the property itself is also a working farm in addition to a luxury inn. On a golf cart guided tour or a relaxing hike, one can find sheep, cows, chickens, fruit orchards, and vegetable gardens.
“John Coykendall is our master gardener and seed saver. He sources seeds from all over the world, so we get a lot of interesting things. I dive into where they are from and how they are prepared from where they are from. You develop a connection to how other worlds use these ingredients,” said Dabney.
“Often, we collect what’s in season from the garden and I just place it in front of me and start playing, digging into my Rolodex of techniques. Hopefully, I come up with something people like.”
The Inn serves three meals a day. The Barn, a large, dark red freestanding facility on the property, is open for dinner only with a rotating menu. Cooking classes are also held there, offering guests the opportunity to prepare the food they forage after touring the garden. The Barn also houses a wine cellar containing 166,000 selections, making it one of the largest restaurant collections in the United States.
“Blackberry Farm’s average guest stays three nights, and they never see the same menu. Keeping the menu fresh is one of the many fun challenges that have kept me here. Most nights we have about 15 dietary restrictions or requests. You try to make everyone feel at home and special,” said Dabney.
“We try to vary the menu based on what’s in season. However, regular customers will request some dishes even when I take them off the menu. One example is our slow-cooked egg with smoked trout, crispy potatoes, and chives. It has been on the menu 10 years, and was one of my first dishes,” she added.
Fresh off summer tomato and corn season, Dabney is enthusiastically planning her fall menu. “Each season brings something else to the table. Winter lets me dig into comfort food. Spring is where I get hardcore into preserving. During Summer the menu writes itself with all the tomatoes, squash, okra in bloom. Fall is a great time to visit. The leaves are changing in color and there’s an abundance of squashes and pumpkins to play with in the kitchen,” said Dabney.
Many celebrated people have stayed at Blackberry Farm as private guests, not that anyone would dare share names. Guest comfort and privacy are respected. However, many award-winning performing artists have been a part of the music programs offered at Blackberry Farm, from Little Big Town to Kacey Musgraves. And there are many other special events and activities throughout the year, from food and wine to wellness and sports.
I asked Chef Dabney who is the one person she still hasn’t cooked for.
“I’d like to cook for Dolly Parton. She’s actually a neighbor,” said Dabney.
Hello, Dolly! Are you reading this?
Blackberry Farm is located in Walland, Tennessee, an easy drive from Knoxville or Chattanooga.