Photo Friday: Gardener and chef at Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm


Chef and master gardener at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee


I took this photo one fine spring afternoon at Blackberry Farm, the multi-award-winning Relais et Chateaux property in the hills of Tennessee. Sous chef Adam Cooke has come to collect some herbs for the evening meal.  Garden manager Jeff Ross hands him some white flower buds and spiraling stems or scapes of Russian hard-neck red garlic suggesting the kitchen sautés them in butter as a tasty side dish. It is amusing to reflect on the color of their skin…Adam pale from working in the kitchen, Jeff dark from hours under the sun. Still they make a terrific team contributing equally to the superb meals prepared in the resort’s restaurants.

Everything old is new again.  As consumers seek alternatives to modern, homogenized hybrid vegetables that have been bred for shelf life and machine harvesting (everything except honest flavor),  places like Blackberry Farm in Tennessee are bringing the past back to life.

To this end, master gardener, John Coykendall, and garden manager, Jeff Ross, have created a 3 1/2 acre garden brimming with heirloom beans, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, garlic, onion, squash and beets, not to mention herbs and flowers that attract the insects away from the vegies. It is both a colorful guidebook to old-fashioned vegetables as well as an artist’s palette for the hotel’s award-winning restaurant.  According to John, “Artists don’t create masterpieces with mere house paint.”

“All the heirlooms have been bred first and foremost for flavor…We have over 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes alone, nothing like the plastic tasting ones at the supermarket,” John says proudly, sitting on his rocker in the neat-as-a-pin rustic farm shed, where piles of distinctively colored beans are laid neatly on the table alongside jam-jar bouquets of cottage garden flowers.

The late afternoon sunshine of early summer casts a golden glow over the carefully tended garden beds. Rows of ruffled heirloom lettuces, in every hue of green and red are each neatly marked: prize head, deer tongue, grandpa admires, chicken lettuce, oak leaf, rossimo, and Austrian Forellenschuss, whose green leaves and red speckles resembles a trout’s markings.  The restaurant serves this with local trout dishes.

The tomatoes offer perhaps the most diversity.  Hungarian Ox Heart can each weigh up to a kilo and have a very rich red wine flavor.  The persimmon-shaped pineapple tomato, deep yellow with a flush of pink on the bottom, is very juicy and flavorful.  The acidic Hellfrucht with tiny, light pink fruit, is a favorite for eating right off the vine.  But it is the fuzzy garden peach tomato with its small yellow fruit, with a flush of peach color on top, which consistently wins in the tomato tastings John and Jeff hold at the shed.


Blackberry Farm, Tennessee

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Blackberry Farm, Tennessee 35.687533, -83.862390

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

One comment to Photo Friday: Gardener and chef at Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm

  • Amy L  says:

    Great post! Tell me more about what a “master gardener” is? Love it!

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