Of course you heard about the International Biscuit Festival earlier this month, but did you know that scores of journalists and other writers were in town a few days before that for the fifth annual Southern Food Writing Conference?
Yep. Folks were here from The Today Show, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time, Inc., Garden & Gun, Food & Wine, Huffington Post, National Public Radio, USA Today, The Splendid Table, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Scripps Networks Interactive, along with dozens of assorted bloggers, cookbook authors and public relations folks.The two-day event was jam-packed with speakers, food, a tour of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams and dinner at Blackberry Farm.
At one point, nearly 100 attendees also were treated to a lunch by Chef Tim Love, who intends to open The Lonesome Dove in the Old City this summer.
Here are some of the conference highlights:
- Matt Gallaher, chef owner of two of Knoxville’s best restaurants — Knox Mason and Emilia — told the visitors that it’s “terribly exciting to see that we are on the cusp of so many great chefs opening restaurants. The culture of Knoxville is changing — and Blackberry Farm’s fingerprints are all over it.” He was referring to the fact that many talented people in the hospitality industry, attracted to work at the legendary Blackberry Farm in Walland, end up staying in East Tennessee, many opening their own eateries.
- Gallaher also said social media is affecting the restaurant business. “Everyone who comes wants to take pictures of your food — and some of y’all are really bad at that!” he joked. But what that means to restaurateurs is that “every plate lives forever.” It’s more important than ever that messy plates not be delivered to the dining room, he said.
- Chef Joseph Lenn, who is opening J.C. Holdway soon on Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville, said it’s important for chefs to be flexible with their menus. “I’m not going to be married to a dish just because I like it,” he said. He and Gallaher both said they will modify their menus based on customer responses.
- Jack Neely, historian and reporter for the Knoxville Mercury, explained that the food industry has been a key driver of Knoxville’s business development. “White Lily was a big concern in Knoxville,” he said. “It even shipped to Cuba.” In addition, Knoxville was home to JFG coffee and many meat packing plants such as Armour and Lay’s. And wholesale businesses thrived here, as well as bread bakeries. “Jackson Avenue had a different aroma every few steps,” he noted. Today, Bush Brothers, headquartered here, is an important employer.
- At Blackberry Farm, proprietor Mary Celeste Beall, who stepped into the role earlier this year after her husband, Sam Beall, was killed in a ski accident, hosted a hard-hat cocktail party in the huge, unfinished building that will be Blackberry’s new events center. Set to open in the fall, the new building also will contain an underground wine cellar that will be connected via tunnel to the wine cellar in The Barn, located across a parking lot. The tunnel will contain tasting rooms, she said. “This is a major dream come true for my husband,” she noted. Also in the works: an outdoor amphitheater for musical entertainment.
- After an over-the-top dinner in The Barn, John Craig, the founder of both the International Biscuit Festival and the Southern Food Writing Conference, paid a tribute to the late Blackberry Farm proprietor. “The time and energy that Sam put into this place is still here,” he said. “It’s here in the food. It’s here in the wine. It’s here in the people.”
You think that’s because Tennessee is the “Volunteer State,” right? Actually, Chabot said, it’s because each year several plants spring up unplanned between the rows of vegetables that are planted in Blackberry’s garden. Chef Cassidee Dabney, executive chef at The Barn, and her team go harvest these so-called “volunteer” plants and create a salad.
In addition to the “volunteers,” the salad contained cornbread croutons and a dressing made with Cruze Farm buttermilk and Georgia olive oil. All the wines served were from the state of Virginia, Chabot said. This course was paired with a 2014 Vermentino reserve from Barboursville Vineyards.
Some of the mushrooms were roasted with thyme and then pureed. It was their woodsy taste that made them a perfect pairing with a 2013 Linden Hardscrabble chard.
“The grits in this dish were milled earlier today,” Chabot noted. Wine pairing was a 2013 Ankida Ridge pinot noir. “These are the only folks in Virginia doing pinot noir well,” said Chabot, himself a sommelier. (According to the winery’s website, “ankida” is an ancient Sumerian word that means “where heaven and earth join.” I love that.)
This was paired with a 2014 red wine called Topiary from Boxwood Estate in Middleburg, Virginia.
To drink? Blanc de Blancs Xtra Brut from Thibaut-Janisson. “Champagne with dessert because — why not?” Chabot laughed.
On the next Blue Streak: The rest of the fantastic food and fun for the visiting writers.