Travel 2 minutes 18 September 2019

Where Chefs Go: Walland, Tennessee

One of Chicago’s celebrated chef duos visits the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for inspiration.

Smyth is a two-MICHELIN-starred restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop regarded by inspectors for the “intense craftsmanship” of executive chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields. Positioned in “a setting worthy of interior design magazine covers,” Smyth outshines rivals for its “strong and gutsy flavor combinations,” with dishes like a well-aged rib eye rubbed with yeasty Marmite or its milk chocolate dessert made with raspberry preserves and shiitake mushrooms.

The Shieldses are a creative duo that have brought risk and adventure (not to mention, a pretty incredible love story) to their body of work. A protégé of Chicago legend Charlie Trotter and Alinea alum, John gained national attention in 2009 for putting two restaurants in Southwest Virginia (Town House and Riverstead Inn, since shuttered) on the map. Karen trained with the famous pastry chef and Food Network host Gale Gand before meeting John at Trotter’s and proceeding to reimagine the two Virginia concepts together.

Today, the duo is inseparable, operating two restaurants in The Windy City—Smyth and the more casual “neighborhood bar” with à la carte options The Loyalist—and retreating when they can to recharge. Of all the places in the world, John and Karen agree that their go-to destination for time off is Walland, Tennessee.

Walland is a town of just 259 people as of the 2010 census, situated in the northwestern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The area offers the opportunity to immerse in American history and the bounty of nature in relative peace and quiet. With Knoxville as its nearest airport, the destination is a quick flight south from the chefs’ busy Chicago lives.

When John and Karen go to Walland, they love to stay at Blackberry Farm, a historic, family-owned and wildly celebrated luxury property nestled on a 4,200-acre estate. For Karen’s 30th birthday, John surprised the pastry chef with a trip to the charming resort. “The celebration of the milestone birthday created incredible memories we'll never forget,” the couple explains.

Blackberry Farm’s 4,200 acres have served as a mountain haven and peaceful escape for over 70 years, offering some of the country’s most breathtaking nature hikes, gourmet cuisine and well-kept pastimes in its trove. When at the resort, the pair likes canoeing, massages, hiking, relaxing by the pool, picnics and perusing the garden. “[It’s] a great mix of being active and relaxing,” the duo says. “You don’t even have to leave the grounds.”

The destination is great for families. Next year, the chefs are planning to enroll their daughters in Camp Blackberry, a curated adventure for kids involving scavenger hunts, arts and crafts, hunting for crawfish in the creek, “dinner and a movie,” cooking lessons, picking carrots and gathering eggs from the chicken houses.

Tennessee honey sorbet by pastry chef Laurence Faber.
Tennessee honey sorbet by pastry chef Laurence Faber.

Another highlight of Blackberry Farm for the chefs is the food. “All the meals at Blackberry Farm are delicious,” they say. “We recommend the homemade yogurt and granola for breakfast and the irresistible Southern fried chicken for lunch. For dinner, the tasting menu [at] The Barn is a must.”

Housed in a turn-of-the-century bank-style barn in the center of the resort’s farmstead (cue, urbanites: “a farm and its surrounding buildings”), The Barn uses Appalachian ingredients as well as farm products harvested just outside the restaurant’s front door to create an experience John and Karen adore. Guests can expect sterling silver, custom chairs and antique-style linens alongside an award-winning wine program and over 300 whiskies and brandies (many only available locally).

Insider tip: If you’re staying in Walland but not at Blackberry Farm, you can still make a reservation at The Barn, but you must be 10 years or older to be a guest.

Outdoor excursions in the area abound, and local guides are on hand to help. One popular trek, known as the Three Sisters, forms the eastern edge of the long Chilhowee Mountain ridge and is a prominent landmark in the area. The elevation is short of 3,000 feet, good for the queasy-hearted among us, and the hike is just about 30 minutes from McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville.

If thrill-seeking and outdoor excursions are a priority, the chefs recommend Blackberry Farms’ new sister property called Blackberry Mountain, just seven miles away from the original. Here, guests can rock climb, mountain bike, forage and fly fish with all the amenities and Southern hospitality of the main resort.

Open since February, Blackberry Mountain is a property of the global hospitality association Relais & Châteaux, which presides over New York restaurants including three-MICHELIN-starred Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, two-MICHELIN-starred Daniel, Jean-Georges and Gabriel Kreuther and one-MICHELIN-starred Del Posto, as well as other hotels like Twin Farms (“three hundred acres of wildflowers”) in Vermont and The Inn at Dos Brisas in Texas.

“There are days and days of activities to do on the property,” John and Karen share. “Whether you are a nature lover, thrill-seeker or prefer to be pampered in luxury, they really have something for everyone.”

Photos courtesy of Blackberry Farm/Facebook.


Keep Exploring - Stories we think you will enjoy reading