Sarah Steffan didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a chef until she was one. Harmoniously combining flavors was one part. But the other was spending time with gardeners of all kinds, local farmers, butchers, and preservationists. It involved learning and planning, and having a hands-on approach to food, from ground to table. Luckily, Sarah unknowingly began training for this role years ago on a small rural farm in Pennsylvania.
“Just growing and being raised around fresh food made me realize that I didn’t have to do a lot for it to taste good,” says the now executive chef at Blackberry Farm’s The Dogwood.
Growing up just down the road from their grandmother, Sarah and her siblings spent long summer days outdoors freely exploring the spacious land, playing with horses, and riding bicycles. But come suppertime, the family gathered for a joyous feast. “Our meals were huge family affairs—really festive and happy,” she remembers. “There were cousins, my grandmother, my parents, and pretty much everyone cooked.”
At these meals, homegrown produce was the highlight, and it was almost always cooked in cast iron. “Besides a few aluminum pots, all we cooked in was cast iron,” Sarah remembers. With six children at home, her parents turned to their garden and home-cooked meals to feed the family. Farming the land not only provided food, but it became a hobby and passion of her parents, one that would soon be passed down.
“JUST GROWING AND BEING RAISED AROUND FRESH FOOD MADE ME REALIZE THAT I DIDN’T HAVE TO DO A LOT FOR IT TO TASTE GOOD.”
“My dad grows some of the most impressive zucchini you’ll ever see, along with string beans, peas, sunchokes [a knobbly root vegetable], and he’s very proud of his lettuces,” she says. “My mom has a really nice flower and herb garden, and there were a lot of farms around us where you could pick your own blueberries or strawberries too. Food was always a huge part of our lives.”
Inspired by everything from her father’s famous breakfasts of bread and eggs cooked in excessive amounts of butter on a cast-iron griddle to the three-legged cast-iron pot that simmered with beans and lentils over her grandmother’s fireplace, cooking with fresh food became Sarah’s passion. Thanks to a happenstance encounter with a flyer for Paul Smith’s College while on vacation in Saratoga Springs, New York, she found her calling to attend culinary school. “I had no idea what I was doing, but everything just fell into line,” she recalls. After honing her craft in prestigious kitchens around the world, Sarah found her place at the beautiful Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee.
Located on 4,200 acres of east Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, Blackberry Farm has become a serene getaway and culinary destination since its founding 80 years ago, employing everyone from cheesemakers to expert gardeners who work together to showcase Southern food in its freshest and truest form. The Dogwood, Sarah’s post, is one of four exquisite restaurants on the pastoral property.
With richly colored wood-paneled walls and earthy tones, The Dogwood’s cozy atmosphere perfectly matches Sarah’s rustic style of cooking. Because the restaurant is on a three-day rotating menu, every ingredient served is seasonal and precisely at peak freshness. When it comes time to cook them, Sarah keeps preparation simple to accentuate the vegetables’ natural flavors. Dishes like herb-roasted chicken and fish, delightfully dressed salads, and Southern-grown grains dot the ever-changing menu, but come summertime (Sarah’s favorite time of year) ingredients like ruby-red heirloom tomatoes and juicy sweet corn light up the menu.
“If we get a small quantity of something, we really let it shine for a few days, and then it’s gone,” she says. “During the summer, I love to do a version of succotash with corn butter. We get really sweet corn and make corn butter out of it, and we’ll do the succotash with pickled peppers. We’ll also do tomato salads with the beautiful tomatoes grown here on the property combined with herbs and capers and Georgia olive oil.”
And even today, Sarah pulls her inspiration from the garden, just as she did years ago on that Pennsylvania farm.
“Our gardeners are such a wealth of knowledge,” she says. “Spending a couple of days with them, hearing their plans for the year, learning the history of all of these really obscure and almost extinct garden vegetables that our team has been able to bring back and cultivate and make taste really good gets me excited.”
- 8 cups warm water
- 1 cup wildflower honey
- ½ cup kosher salt
- 1 sprig fresh lavender
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 6 bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 to 1½ cups reserved potlikker from Marinated Lima Beans (recipe follows)
- Chanterelle Succotash (recipe follows)
- Garnish: chopped fresh basil
- ½ cup salted butter, softened
- 2 cloves garlic, grated
- 3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, trimmed
- 1 pound small fresh okra, sliced ¼ inch thick
- 3 medium ears yellow corn, shucked and kernels cut off
- 1 small red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
- Marinated Lima Beans (recipe follows)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons canola oil
- 1 small yellow onion, halved
- 1 small carrot, peeled and halved lengthwise
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups fresh lima beans
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- ½ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup chopped fresh oregano
- ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon minced capers
- In a large bowl, whisk together 8 cups warm water, honey, salt, lavender, and rosemary. Cover and refrigerate until cooled completely, about 30 minutes.
- Add chicken to bowl; cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
- Remove chicken from bowl, discarding brine; pat chicken dry with paper towels. In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add chicken, skin side down; cook until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn chicken; add enough reserved potlikker to cover bottom of pan without covering chicken skin; cook until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest portion registers 165°, about 20 minutes. Serve with Chanterelle Succotash. Garnish with basil, if desired.
- In a small bowl, stir together butter and garlic. Cover and refrigerate.
- In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms; cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove from skillet.
- Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in skillet. Add okra; cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add corn and bell pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and Marinated Lima Beans; cook until heated through, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in garlic butter, parsley, vinegar, salt, and pepper before serving.
- In a medium Dutch oven, heat canola oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and carrot; cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add 4 cups water, lima beans, thyme, and rosemary; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and cook until tender, about 30 minutes.
- Remove from heat; discard onion, carrot, and herbs. Stir in salt. Let stand until cooled to room temperature. Drain beans, reserving potlikker for Herb and Honey Chicken with Chanterelle Succotash (recipe precedes).
- In a large bowl, stir together beans, parsley, olive oil, oregano, mint, vinegar, and capers. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, up to 1 day.