Nestled in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, the 4,200-acre Blackberry Farm marries the rambling wilds of the great outdoors with the refined splendor of modern luxuries. And the only thing that might rival Blackberry’s prominence as a resort is its celebrated and renowned culinary pedigree. Often described as Foothills Cuisine®, it burrows and forages from the tangled wilderness and Smoky Mountain traditions, while also elegantly dancing through the upper crusts of haute cuisine for a thoroughly one-of-a-kind epicurean experience. Two of the three chefs at the helm of this esteemed culinary destination are women and, we are delighted to announce, today’s FACES of the South: Cassidee Dabney, Executive Chef of The Barn, and Sarah Steffan, Executive Chef at The Dogwood.
When did you realize that this would be your career path?
Cassidee: I was attending the University of Arkansas studying physical anthropology, and I was working at an Applebee’s. One of the guys that worked with me was going to the Culinary Institute of America, and he said, “You should seriously think about culinary school. If you’re skipping class to come work the fry station at Applebee’s, maybe this is something that you’re more interested in.” He gave me the book Becoming a Chef, and I read that book front to back as fast as I could. I thought “I want to do this.” When I went to culinary school, it just felt so natural for me to be in the kitchen and the culture — which is often silly, creative, fun and high-stress — it was just something I was really drawn to.
Sarah: I would watch Julia Child, and I was obsessed with Jamie Oliver. I would watch these people on TV, but I don’t think I actually knew what being a chef was. I just really liked cooking. For Christmas and birthdays, I started getting knives and cookbooks, and I started thinking about doing it as an actual profession. Right around 15, I thought, “I want to do this for a living.” It was sort of a blessing not knowing what I was getting myself into and learning as I went. It’s been a lot of fun!
Tell us a bit about your professional journey.
Cassidee: I went to culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. I externed in Hawaii and Atlanta at the Four Seasons. I moved to Germany and worked at the World’s Fair at an Indian restaurant. They would put me in the back with the tandoori making naan, and it burned all the hair off of my arms. I went back to work for The Four Seasons in Boston, before opening a new Four Seasons hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After about two years, I moved closer to home and worked at Blackberry Farm for about a year and a half. Then I moved to Arkansas to open the Capital Hotel in Little Rock. After four years, I came back to East Tennessee to Blackberry Farm, and I’ve been here six years.
Sarah: I went to culinary school in upstate New York at Paul Smith’s College. There are two different Relais & Chateaux properties in that area — The Point and the Lake Placid Lodge. I did my internship at The Point when I was 18 or 19. They hired me on after that, so I got my introduction to this style of resort at a very young age. Later, I ended up also working for the Lake Placid Lodge and The Fearrington House Inn outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while keeping an eye on Blackberry Farm. And when they had an opening, I applied and moved here.
Describe your typical day.
Cassidee: If I haven’t had some coffee I go right to the espresso machine, make a coffee and say “hi” to everybody. I check the notes for the day to see who is coming in and their dietary needs, and then we adjust menus based on what’s coming in from the garden or different purveyors. The sous chefs and I will rewrite the menu and make sure we have everything, and then we hop on a golf cart and go around property looking for ingredients that we can put on the menu — be it a foraged item or maybe just items from the garden. The cooks come in, and we talk to them about our ideas for the day. We go to the back to prep, play around with food and work on new dishes until about 4 p.m., when everyone stops what they’re doing, cleans their station and scrubs the floors. At 4:30 p.m., we have family meal. We talk about where we’re at with prep, chat about our lives and then everybody gets back to work. At 5:30 p.m. everybody puts up one of every dish, and we eat through it. We normally have our first table at 6:30 p.m., and then we’re into dinner service.
Tell us about a few of your favorite or signature dishes.
Sarah: One of my favorite things that everybody loves is the brown butter and almond cake that we have on the menu. When I did an internship in France, I worked in a small little resort, and I did pastry. It was the first time I had really ever studied pastry, because in school I just covered the savory kitchen. The cake was one of the first things I learned how to make, and I screwed it up so many times. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s really so good. It’s basically a cake made with almond flour and brown butter. It’s like a cookie on the outside and a cake on the inside. It’s served warm, and it’s the best.
Cassidee: There’s always that one dish that you’re tired of but everybody loves it. Mine is a slow poached egg with a super-acidic, super-lemony ver blanc, crispy potatoes, cold smoked trout and chives. It’s simple, but all elements of the dish have to be perfect or it doesn’t work. So it’s hard to prep because there is no cover-up, each thing has to be perfect. It’s one of those dishes that you get into, and it’s like you’re eating a hug. It’s salty, sour, fatty, crunchy and unctuous, and everybody just gets excited about it.
Why do you love to cook?
Cassidee: I love food! I love sharing that experience with people. I like making people happy, and food makes almost everyone happy. I like to make something that tastes good and is meaningful and soulful, and I love to watch people enjoy my food. You get to bring people together, and I love witnessing that experience.
Sarah: There’s a lot of creativity and thought that goes into it. It’s definitely an art. It’s also pretty physical. Then the actual cooking, like during dinner service, gets you out of your head and into your body. It’s muscle memory, and it sort of joins the artistic side with the physical and the mental aspects.
If you could squeeze your cooking philosophy into five words, what would they be?
Cassidee: Simple, elegant, seasonal, creative, delicious
Sarah: Seasonal, butter, healthy, unassuming, complex
Just as with fashion and design, there are trends in the culinary world. What are your predictions for the food industry in the next 10 to 15 years?
Cassidee: I think there’s going to be a lot more people caring about where their food comes from. I think people will start being really concerned about food as more of a medicinal thing — like learning that you can’t just put garbage into your body and expect your body to process it without any side effects.
What is your favorite thing about Blackberry Farm?
Cassidee: I love being able to hop on a golf cart and go to the garden, the woods, the creek and find ingredients that we can eat. I love just being able to go out and be creative. I love being inspired by what’s here.
Sarah: The people, the Blackberry philosophy and the dedication that they have to their staff and wanting us to all have a great experience with work and to always continue learning. They really invest in their employees. Also it’s really gorgeous! It’s the opportunities, the people you meet — there’s no place like Blackberry.
What do you do when not in your chef’s whites?
Cassidee: I spend time every day doing physical activity because you can’t just graze all day and not balance it with working out.
Sarah: I love doing home improvement projects. I also do a lot of wood work. My dad was a carpenter and woodworker, so I learned a lot from him. I also run with my dog every day, take her swimming and do barre classes.
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Cassidee: I would probably tell myself that I’m a lot more talented than I ever thought I was. I was always the only girl in the kitchen, and I was always doubting myself. Sometimes you think that you’re not good, when really you are. But I think that having that humility probably helped me get where I am. So, stay the course.
Sarah: I am very thankful that I went to school as long as I did, but I do think that, looking back, I would have taken myself out of school sooner and done more traveling. Cooking is essentially a trade, and it’s one that you improve on the more experience you have. Don’t sweat the small stuff and just focus on the art, the craft and working hard.
What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
Sarah: I grew up in a very rural part of Pennsylvania. Our closest neighbor was a mile away, and that was my grandmother. I spent my summers camping in a tipi in Canada, and I had an adoptive Ojibwe family.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Cassidee: I am proud when my team moves on to continue their careers and they have really great successes. I really like that.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Cassidee: Don’t compare yourself to other people. Keep doing what you’re doing, and if it’s not working, then look at yourself and say, “Hey, why is this not working for me?” Look internally first.
Sarah: Surround yourself with the type of people that you want to be like. Choose your friends wisely. Work really hard, and don’t think other people’s success is your failure. Learn from everything, and see the positive in everything.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Cassidee: I’m fully addicted to my cell phone. I have to have a fan blowing on me when I’m in bed, and I love my dry shampoo.
Sarah: My dog is not frivolous, but I couldn’t live without her, but, shoes, really great French perfume and baths.
Thank you to Blackberry Farm for the images of Cassidee and Sarah.
To learn more about Cassidee and Sarah and their work at Blackberry Farm, visit blackberryfarm.com.
Read about more inspiring Southern women in our FACES archives!