Interview with Chef Joseph Lenn at Blackberry Farm-Walland, TN & Guinea Confit with Gnocchi & Poached Eggs
There are certain things I can always remember from my childhood. When I was asked to write a story about a dish for Blackberry Farm when I first took over at the Main House, it was really more about a day, Saturday, at my grandparent’s house. - Chef Joseph Lenn
If you start with great ingredients, why would you want to mask the flavors and change it from what it is? Take a gorgeous, ripe heirloom tomato at its summer peak, add just a little bit of salt. You don’t need much else to “make it shine”.
We often ask chefs how they create extraordinary dishes and the vast majority will say you first start with great ingredients, add to that imagination and creativity, and finish with culinary technique. Many chefs speak of the importance of family and food memories from their childhood in their playful reinventing of familiar dishes to create, say, the best fried chicken you ever ate.
We recently met with Joseph Lenn, Executive Chef of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee (the home of Foothills Cuisine) and asked what is behind his inventive cuisine. Besides great ingredients, his inspiration comes from two of the most important things in his life: his family (and in particular, preserving memories of his grandmother and grandfather), and his love of fishing.
Joseph Lenn was a finalist in the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef Southeast and was also in the running for Food & Wine’s The People’s Choice Best New Chef in the Southeast. He was honored in 2011 to receive the title of Grand Chef by Relais & Chateaux, as well as being included in Food & Wine as one of the top upcoming New Chefs. Chef Lenn travels extensively to food and wine festivals and special events around the country in addition to staying extremely busy at Blackberry Farm. It was a real pleasure to be able to sit down and chat with this very personable, sentimental, and thoughtful chef at this stunning resort in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
There are smiles, expressive movements, and laughter as Joseph speaks about his grandparents. You can feel the love he has for his “granny and grandpa.” While his grandfather passed away six years ago, his grandmother is doing well at age 87 and Joseph spends as much time with her as possible. He is chronicling her stories, many about food, to preserve for the next generation.
“Grandpa made the best breakfast ever. Granny was never an early riser and still isn’t today. She stays up all night listening to the radio and news and reading books, so Grandpa would make bacon and eggs in the morning. It is how I learned to make scrambled eggs. I wondered why my parent’s eggs weren’t that good and I realized at some point, no wonder Grandpa’s tasted so good, he cooked those eggs in bacon fat!
“There are certain things I can always remember from my childhood. When I first took over at the Main House, I was asked to write a story about a dish for Blackberry Farm, it was really more about a day, Saturday, at my grandparent’s house. What I remember is that my Granny always served the same meal every Saturday at lunch: greens, boiled potatoes, beans (like Great Northern or Pintos) seasoned with “streaked meat” (fatback), and a simple salad. No real meat was served at all.”
Joseph’s grandfather and grandmother grew up in difficult times and the Saturday lunch was very important to them as a family. “This (meal) was going back to what she was raised on during Depression times. It was an appreciation for what they have and a reminder of where they came from.”
Recently traveling to Northeast Tennessee for a family funeral, Joseph was able to see, for the first time, where his grandmother was born in the Clinch Mountain region of Hawkins County. “I had never been there. It was great to finally see where my family is from. It brought home my grandmother’s stories about food and where she was raised.”
Chef Lenn’s parents were both educators and also responsible for Joseph’s interest in food and cooking. While many chefs cooked with their mothers at an early age, Joseph was more fascinated with being the “Grillman,” just like his father. “Dad would cook steaks and burgers on the gas grill, but they were always burned. He watched the news, forgot about the meat, and then the flames flared up. I asked mom if I could cook the burgers one day and she said ‘sure.’ I asked how to prepare them and she said ‘Just don’t burn them.’ ”
Joseph was in middle school at that time and was fascinated with cooking over a fire or open flame, and has been ever since. Once a “pyro,” as he called himself, “I built fires as a kid with a friend. We popped popcorn in some metal can. Who knows what damage that caused,” he laughed. His opportunity to become an expert Grillman would come later when, as a teenager, he went to work in the butcher shop at Butler and Bailey in Knoxville, Tennessee.
More interested in fishing than college and uncertain whether engineering or accounting was the right path for him, Joseph decided to leave college and figure out what he really wanted to do in life. “I bought a fishing boat at nineteen or twenty. I loved fishing more than anything else in life.” So, he went to work five days a week in the butcher shop (where he had interned in high school) and fished whenever he was not working. Tom Butler, the owner, would send him home with cuts of meat like lamb chops and veal chops and he grilled them simply (without overcooking them). “They were awesome.”
“I was the happiest I ever had been. Everyone laughed and had a good time (at Butler and Bailey). Everything I was ever taught about going to school and getting a degree changed. Here are people making a fine living and they are happy. So why do you have to go to college? It changed the direction of my life and the way I thought about things.”
What started out as simple week night meals and grilling turned into dinner parties for friends. “I bought a Smoky Joe Grill (that he still uses today). It was more about the proteins then. Friends suggested I go to culinary school, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in a kitchen all day.” However, after reading a few articles in the Knoxville News Sentinel about local chefs and seeing similar stories on television, “I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
“I called my dad (who was a guidance counselor) and said ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ He said, ‘What is it now?’ and I told him, “I think I want to go to culinary school.’ Dad suggested Johnson and Wales, which was perfect since I loved Charleston (Johnson and Wales has since moved to Charlotte, NC) and we spent family vacations at Kiawah.” At age 22, “I knew for certain that this is what I wanted the minute we walked into the school.”
Things seemed to fall in place, like a stacked deck of cards, once the decision was made to go to Johnson and Wales and Joseph was accepted. Friends had connections and those connections had connections, best friends and neighbors knew people and one thing led to another. A supplier of the butcher shop helped Joseph get an interview at Peninsula Grill with Chef Robert Carter when Joseph first moved to Charleston. This led, in a round about way, to a summer position at Blackberry Farm working with Chef John Fleer. Several weeks after the interview, Chef Fleer called Joseph offering him a position. He said, “I’ll take it. John said ‘Don’t you want to hear what it is?’ I didn’t care. I told him I would do anything.”
That summer, Robert Carter came with Bob Waggoner as guest chefs to Blackberry Farm. “John Fleer was kind enough to pair me up with Bob Carter. Even more ironic is that he brought a young Sean Brock with him as a line cook. He (Bob) said to me that I looked familiar and I told him I interviewed with him at Peninsula Grill. ‘What happened with that?’ he asked. I told him, I was underqualified and he was overstaffed at the time. Bob told me, ‘Come back to Charleston and I’ll put your ass to work.’ ”
There was a lot of being in the right place at the right time and having the right connections for Joseph. His time at Peninsula Grill eventually led to working with Sean Brock at Hermitage Grill in Nashville, where he could return to work in Tennessee. However, Blackberry Farm and coming home was always in the back of his mind. Once again, he called John Fleer. He was hired as a line cook and quickly promoted.
So, just how do you turn Granny’s fried chicken into something elegant enough to be served as Foothills Cuisine (first made famous by John Fleer) at Blackberry Farm? “I was talking with my Executive Sous Chef (Cassidee) one day and we both remembered our grandmothers keeping a can of grease under the sink. I always wondered if she used that to fry her chicken and if that why it was so good. My rendition, based on hers (which she fried in an electric skillet) was a poisson which I boned, made a roulade, poached, chilled, rolled, and deep fried. I served it with fingerling potatoes, greens, and fava beans with bits of country ham, reminiscent of a meal with Granny. It was one of my proudest moments. I still need to ask her (his grandmother) about that grease.”
Another takeaway from his grandmother’s cooking is perfection. “We spent many holiday meals at my grandparent’s house. One year Granny made a pie three different times. She wasn’t going to serve it unless it was great. I grew up around a perfectionist. I was surprised she would waste food coming from Depression times, but she would not serve something unless it was perfect.” Every evening before service at The Barn, Chef Lenn will go to the garden to collect his thoughts and “maybe pick a few things.” He is just as intent as his grandmother to have the evening be perfect for the guests.
The fascination with fire continues as grilling foods over an open flame are still as much a part of Joseph’s creative dishes today as they were when he first made that hamburger. He still uses the Smokey Joe that he acquired while working at the butcher shop, but now also uses the latest kitchen equipment to smoke things like buttermilk consommé to serve with heirloom beans and dehydrated cornbread to impart those smoky flavors. “You taste bacon and smoky ham hocks, but it’s vegetarian. There is a level of refinement with the clear buttermilk. People love buttermilk in this area, but they aren’t used to having it served this way.” Once again, capturing a flavor memory with a surprising delivery.
“The experiences I have taken away from the life and culture of the Southeast relate directly to cooking over an open flame and smoke in the region. We have a wood burning grill and wood burning oven at The Barn. I also did an Outstanding in the Field Dinner where I prepared seven lambs sawdust style (cooking in the embers). It was a cool dinner. Everything was cooked over an open fire.”
There are times when there are large events with particular dishes and for the sake of consistency, Chef Lenn is not able to cook this way. “Suddenly someone wants to give a speech and the food was perfect ten minutes ago. We want to give guests a great experience, so we need to be flexible.” For these events they will use a CVap (similar to Sous Vide technology), however, “We have gotten away from it. You put it in a bag and cook it this long. Where is the food coming from? (He points to his heart.) It’s right here.”
There is a whole lot of heart, soul, and passion in everything Chef Lenn does. You can be sure that his next phase of life will involve more of what he loves in life: family, cooking over an open flame, and most assuredly fishing. Mr. B has more insight on that as you will see in a future article.
Thank you so much to Joseph for a truly inspiring meeting. It was our pleasure to meet with him and learn a little more about his real inspirations.
There are stories and a history behind many of Joseph’s dishes and here, in his own words, is the story for his Guinea Confit and Gnocchi recipe.
Chicken and dumplings was my favorite childhood dish and is still one of my favorites. I wanted to recreate a version that I could serve in the restaurant, so it led me to make gnocchi for the dumpling component. I had never made gnocchi anywhere I had ever worked in the past, so everything I learned about making them was by trial and error.
We make a potato gnocchi that I am very proud of… very light and melt in your mouth when you eat them, just as a proper dumpling in chicken and dumplings should be. When I thought about the chicken component of the dish I wanted it to be moist and delicious and not dried, like a stewed chicken can be. This led me to use chicken confit and eventually guinea hen confit. We toast off the gnocchi in chicken fat, add a few hen of the woods mushrooms, the picked guinea confit, chicken stock and finish it with a good amount of black pepper and butter.
He also shared with me that Barbara Lynch, one of Boston’s and the country’s most celebrated chefs, who traveled to Italy to learn Italian cuisine firsthand, has said after tasting his gnocchi, that they “taste like home.” He is honored that every time they are at an event together, she asks if he is making his dumplings. I think every time I see him in the future I will be asking the same thing. This dish was outstanding.
I used Bell & Evans chicken since guinea hen was not available locally. I ordered duck fat from a local meat purveyor. While this dish takes a day of preparation, all of the components can be done ahead of time and brought together to compose the dish.
We did prepare the poached eggs Sous Vide to keep them at the proper temperature for serving and to create the visual effect on the plate. I sautéed and added Hen of the Wood mushrooms since I did not have a Tennessee Truffle (although I wish I did!).
I cooked the gnocchi in my own chicken stock and used a little organic chicken broth in the pan with the confit, gnocchi, and mushrooms. This is definitely not your grandmother’s chicken and dumplings! We are hooked.
Guinea Confit with Gnocchi and Poached Eggs and Tennessee Truffles
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Prep Time: 24 hours
Cook Time: 3 hours
Total Time: 1 day, 3 hours
2 pounds Guinea Leg quarters (or substitute chicken)
1 Cup salt
1/4 Cup sugar
Leaves from 20 sprigs thyme
2 quarts chicken fat (can substitute duck fat)
For gnocchi and serving:
4 - 6 eggs in their shell
1 lb. Idaho Potatoes
2 eggs (beaten)
1 cup Flour (approximately)
2 teaspoons Salt
2 quarts + 1 Cup Chicken Stock
1 Tablespoon Chicken fat (can substitute duck fat)
Hen of the Woods mushrooms, optional
Salt and Black Pepper, to taste
Tennessee black truffle, to taste or butter, to finish
1. Combine salt, sugar and thyme sprigs. Coat guinea leg quarters in mixture and place on a wire rack and allow to cure overnight.
2. Next, rinse mixture off of guinea and pat dry. Place chicken into a half 4-inch hotel pan and cover with chicken fat. Place in a 250 degree F oven and cook until tender (approximately 2-3 hours).
3. Remove chicken from pan, and when cool enough to handle pick the meat from the bone and discard skin and bones. Reserve picked guinea.
1. Bring a pot of water to 146 degrees F and poach eggs in their shell for 55 minutes and reserve.
2. Bake potatoes in 350 degree oven until tender. Rice potatoes through a food mill. Fold in egg, 2 teaspoons of salt. Add flour gradually until mixture comes together and is not wet. Roll mixture into cylindrical shapes and cut desired length.
3. In a sauce pot over medium high heat bring 2 quarts of chicken stock to a simmer. Blanch gnocchi in until they float. After gnocchi float, let them cook for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Remove from stock and place on wire rack and reserve.
4. Working in batches, heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat, then heat chicken fat until shimmering. Place gnocchi in pan and toast until golden brown, add reserved guinea and 1 cup of chicken stock. Finish by adding chives and seasoning with salt and black pepper. Place guinea and dumplings in a bowl. Crack egg over the top. Finish by grating Tennessee black truffle over the top of the guinea and dumplings.
Executive Chef, The Barn
Blackberry Farm - Walland, TN