An escape to the Great Smoky Mountains offers captivating vistas, endless trails and more than a little bit of moonshine mystery. It’s also a becoming known as a culinary destination. While The Barn at Blackberry Farm has already been named a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurant, executive chef Joseph Lenn recently won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. Lenn is the first from Tennessee to win this coveted honor, but he’s not new to the state or the restaurant. He started his career as an intern at Blackberry Farm, and has served as executive chef there for the last five years, honing his kitchen craft and forging even deeper Tennessee roots.
What brought you to Blackberry Farm?
I grew up in Knoxville and, after high school, I was working at Butler and Bailey Market, a locally owned grocery store. I decided to go to culinary school. While in school, I found it challenging to find a job without kitchen experience. I was fortunate enough to get an interview and internship with Blackberry Farm over the summer between my first and second years of culinary school. Over the three-month internship, I saw a property that strived for excellence in the restaurant as well as the other departments. After leaving Blackberry Farm, I went to work for Peninsula Grill in Charleston and after that The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. Blackberry Farm was always in the back of my head, and I wanted to return one day. After working at The Hermitage, I wanted to return to East Tennessee, and there was an opportunity at Blackberry Farm.
What is your favorite thing about living and working in Tennessee as opposed to a culinary mecca like San Francisco or New York?
For me, cooking close to my roots is a dream. I grew up in the area, and the cuisine we serve reflects many of the stories from my granny and my mother. We also have amazing producers in this area. Chefs across the country seek Tennessee products like Allan Benton’s ham and bacon, buttermilk from Cruze Farm — it’s the real deal — Muddy Pond sorghum, Olive and Sinclair Chocolate and Tom Michaels’ Tennessee Truffles. Those truffles will give black truffles from France a good run for their money.
What are your favorite restaurants in Tennessee?
In Knoxville and the surrounding area: Public House for drinks and Becky’s for the Ross burger [with housemade pimento cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise on pumpernickel]. If you’re looking for a tasty Cuban sandwich, Aroma Café. In Nashville: The Catbird Seat, City House, The Hermitage Hotel, Martin’s BBQ Joint, Robert’s Western World, Rolf and Daughters, Patterson House, Mas Tacos. And there are many I want to try in Memphis: Iris, Hog and Hominy, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, to name a few.
What can guests and restaurant goers expect from your kitchen this coming season?
When it comes to the kitchen, there is going to be a lot more vegetables. Our garden this year is one of the most beautiful thus far. [Blackberry Farm master gardener] John Coykendall is growing a “100-year garden,” which is a garden of plants with seeds that have been passed down year after year and originally came from a catalog from 100 years ago. I am really excited about showcasing what he creates.