Sip and savour: Tennessee’s growing culinary scene
From the pioneering Appalachian Cuisine of the Great Smoky Mountains to plates of slow-cooked barbecue and charcoal-infused drinks, Tennessee’s cuisine is as varied as its landscape. Here we take a dive into the southern state's mouth-watering dishes.
Growing up as the daughter of a nature-loving biologist meant that chef Cassidee Dabney walked on the wild side. Following an adventurous childhood spent cultivating mushrooms and roaming the US National Parks, she finally put down roots in Townsend, tucked into the foothills of the majestic Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. It’s at the acclaimed 68-room Blackberry Farm lodge, that executive chef Cassidee can still be found striding out into the wilderness, foraging hazelnuts and garlic for the evening dining service.
As a major player in the elevation of hyper-local Southern cooking, Blackberry Farm has put the concept of ‘foothills cuisine’ — which taps into the wisdom passed down through generations of mountain dwellers and the natural rhythms of the local Appalachian ingredients — on the gourmet map. At the helm of The Barn, the atmospheric candlelit timber-frame restaurant situated in the grounds at Blackberry Farm, Cassidee and her team serve up a menu constantly in flux, which is all about rustic refinement and homegrown produce.
Favourites include roasted duck breast with a distinctively Southern sweet tea sauce, and sorbet created with local honey and thyme scavenged from the rolling fields and woodland, just visible through the restaurant’s windows. The dishes are accompanied by an eye-wateringly extensive whisky list that runs to 600 entries, with Tennessee tipples placed front and centre. Chef Cassidee’s innate skill at blending Southern comfort food with fine dining has been rewarded with a James Beard Award nomination and a reputation as a shining star of the Southern food scene.
Continue onto RT Lodge, a 58-room woodland retreat set in the shadows of the lush Smoky Mountains, chef Trevor Stockton also taps into the local landscape for culinary inspiration. Having grown up on a Tennessee farm, chef Trevor learnt to cook, preserve and pickle ingredients at the apron strings of his father. This early childhood education, of working with what’s to hand, has helped shape the dazzling menu at the RT Lodge Restaurant, with show-stoppers including creamy made-from-scratch pimento cheese and rainbow trout crowned under a pecan crust. Post meal, pull up a chair at the roaring firepit to toast s'mores and gaze up at the stars, far brighter than you’ll see in any city.
Heading into Nashville — the rhythmic heart and capital of Tennessee — a NOMA-trained chef is pushing the music city’s culinary boundaries. From Locust, his cosy 44-seat dumpling den on a street corner, Irish-born chef Trevor Moran is dancing to his own beat, with an intentionally minimalist ethos that stretches from the opening hours of his restaurant (just Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so book early) to his pared-back menu, showcasing an unapologetic handful of dishes done exceptionally well.
In an industrial-chic dining room, overlooked by a hustling open kitchen where the playlist swings seamlessly from ABBA to heavy metal, the emphasis is on mixing locally sourced ingredients with innovative techniques — think smoked and pickled eggs freshly laid by Locust’s feathery flock of 30 chickens and Tennessee pork celebrated in steamy parcel dumplings, served on simple bamboo dim sum holders.
For your final course, make a beeline to Memphis in the southwest of the state, a soulful king of a city currently carving out a niche for its emerging artisanal spirits scene. The Old Dominick Distillery, a hip-swivel from the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, is the first distillery making whisky in downtown Memphis since Prohibition. At this high-tech homage to US spirits, visitors sip their way through an hour-long tour, showcasing Old Dominick's grain-to-glass craft process, before spilling out to nearby Beale Street for plates of smoky barbecue seeped in tangy sauce, accompanied by stadium-quality Blues musicians playing rootsy dive bars for tips.
Top three destinations to try whisky in Tennessee
Tennessee’s whisky trail blends together 25 distilleries dotted across the state, offering a tasty long pour of local history alongside a dram of the amber nectar. Here are three of the must-see destinations on your next visit:
1. Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg
This leafy, forest-fringed complex, the oldest registered distillery in the US, is where the magic happens to create the granddaddy of American spirits, Jack Daniel’s. You’ll peek behind the scenes at grains being mashed, see the spirit come off the stills, and catch a glimpse of the charcoal mellowing process. It’s easy to spend a leisurely day here, among the aromatic barrelhouses, tasting prized whisky. Schedule in a food stop at the nearby restaurant Miss Mary Bobo’s, for some classic Southern cuisine.
2. PostModern Spirits, Knoxville
Fancy getting experimental with your drinks cabinet? Then head to the quirky urban craft distillery, PostModern Spirits, in the Old City of Downtown Knoxville. From rye finished with sweet honey and apricot, to dry gin with twice the usual amount of juniper, a visit to this hip tasting room is a masterclass in boundary-pushing booze.
3. Chattanooga Whiskey Co, Chattanooga
As a hotspot for adventure sports enthusiasts, Chattanooga offers rock climbing swiftly followed by whisky on the rocks, all within a short stroll. At this downtown distillery, you’ll find group tours of this small-batch, artisan plant. What it may lack in space it makes up for with variety, so expect to sample a mashup of vodka, gin, rum, absinthe and whisky at this plucky Tennessee distillery.
Plan your trip
To discover more about Tennessee and how to book your trip, visit travelsouthusa.com and tnvacation.com
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