This year we partnered with Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm to create a Thanksgiving menu inspired by new recipes and old rituals. The farm’s chefs and artisans brought inventive dishes to the table, each with a personal twist. We talked to each of them about their favorite Thanksgiving traditions, as well as the inspiration behind their dishes — read on to hear their stories.
As the Executive Chef of Blackberry Farm’s main dining venue, The Barn, Joseph Lenn works with his team to bring unique guests unique dishes that combine country cooking with haute cuisine. Recently, he was awarded a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast. For our Thanksgiving menu, he created these Collard Greens with Lardons and Smoked Onion Jam, a side dish that expertly balances sweet and salty.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started cooking?
I got started in this business about 14 years ago. I was working in a grocery store in Knoxville, and I started cooking at home and entertaining friends as a hobby. I was cooking things I’d never had before, like veal chops, which got me excited about that world. I saw something on the news about chefs, and that opened my eyes — I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I called my dad that day (he’s a guidance counselor), and we visited Johnson & Wales in Charleston.
How did you end up at Blackberry Farm?
While I was visiting Johnson & Wales, I asked them what was the best restaurant in town, and they said the Peninsula Grill. When I was leaving the grocery store one of the store’s purveyor’s asked if there was anything he could do to help. I asked if he knew any chefs in Charleston, and he did — Robert Carter of the Peninsula Grill. I interviewed there but didn’t get hired. Then the owner of the grocery store put me in touch with the chef at Blackberry Farm, and I got an internship there over the summer doing breakfast and lunch. After that I went back to Charleston and worked with Sean Brock, who then asked me to work with him at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. I did that for two years, helping out at Blackberry Farm with the guest chef program periodically. Eventually there was an opportunity here, and I interviewed and got the job. I’ve been here ever since; I started off as an intern and made my way back.
How would you describe the food you serve at Blackberry Farm?
It’s in the moment of the season. We do things backwards than many other chefs; we wait for products to come in and write dishes around them. It’s all based on what’s growing in the area at the time.
A lot of the dishes we serve are based on traditions — like a homemade dish such as beans and cornbread — and we change it up. People cook beans with bacon and salt pork around here to season the beans. People take beans, crumble up cornbread, and put buttermilk in it. It’s about the ritual and process of putting buttermilk into beans. So we make a buttermilk consomme, clarify it and make it smoky so it tastes like bacon and smoked ham hocks, and pour it tableside. The whole dish is vegetarian but since people smell smoke, they think of bacon. It’s a really homey dish important to the region, but it’s done on an elevated level.
One of my favorite dishes is chicken and dumplings. Here, we do it with guinea hen or duck confit and potato gnocchi and Hen of the Woods mushrooms. We add crispy chicken skin and a poached egg — it’s evolved over time. Those are two dishes that are reflective of the region but more refined to suit the place we’re in.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
Every day we go to the garden and see what’s growing. Then we look at the menu and re-evaluate, seeing what we can change up in the current moment. Right now, tomatoes and eggplant are still growing, but the fall crops are coming in, too, so we’re in between seasons until the first frost. The menu is written every day, and we have a staff meal for lunch. By 4:30 the final edits are made on the menu, and by 5 or 5:30 we’re checking everyone’s mise en place. At 6, dinner service starts, and it’s over by 11. We wrap up the day and do it all over again.
How do you work with the other chefs and artisans to create finished dishes?
Usually it’s something I have an idea about, and it starts by me asking them about it. For example, I wanted to do a more localized version of charcuterie with sorghum, blackberries and sumac in it, so I talked to Michael [Sullivan, Blackberry Farm's butcher] about it. We have different versions of salamis with different flavor profiles, so this was a more regional style than the classics, which made it unique for the restaurant.
We got some figs for the restaurant and the preservation kitchen wanted them to make a product, so we found a ways to use that in our kitchen. Like their smoked onion jam — we use that all year round in different dishes. It’s awesome in corn.
Ryan, the cheese maker, has incorporated some fun things like a beer washed-rind cheese. We did a beer dinner last month and included the cheese.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Just getting to cook for people and seeing the instant gratification for my hard work. People are happy here; they’re coming in to celebrate and have a good time. We see people in the happiest times. Also, we have an awesome kitchen team that works with us every day. And we meet people along the way who are producing great products.
Tell us about your Thanksgiving traditions. What’s on the menu?
Years ago we used to celebrate at my grandmother’s house in Maryville, Tennessee, which is where I live now. I was pretty plain. Everyone would make different casseroles, and I never wanted that — I wanted Granny to make me green beans. We had turkey with stuffing, a pretty traditional menu, but our traditions were more about sitting around and enjoying the family on that day.
Now, my family is the restaurant. We all get together the night after Thanksgiving or of Thanksgiving, and we do a potluck at someone’s house. People bring all sorts of things — even enchiladas! We have two menus here at Blackberry Farm. In the Main House there’s a traditional menu, and in the Barn kitchen there’s a tasting menu.
What do you look forward to eating all year long?
Sweet potato casserole: that’s something I get excited about. It’s one of my favorites. And collards or turnip greens, which we use in the menu. I never get tired of eating those.
Tell us about the collard greens you created for the Williams-Sonoma/Blackberry Farm menu. What was the inspiration behind the dish?
Bacon-braised collards are hard to argue with. If I’m cooking traditional food, it’s got to have bacon or a ham hock in there. The smoked onion jam, combined with the bacon, adds a sweet-salty element, which I’m finding more and more that people like. With collards, it’s a match made in heaven.
Bacon is easy to work with at home, but you could also use smoked chicken or smoked turkey for tons of flavor without the fat.
Do you have any other tips for elevating Thanksgiving side dishes?
We use chopped-up pickles to give dishes a sweet acidity. Anytime you can add that to a dish, it elevates it. I once saw a guest chef make beans, and he added a ton of sherry vinegar, which completely changed it for the better. It was eye-opening for me; that drastically changed the way I cook.