Over the past several weeks, as they have for centuries in middle Tennessee, skilled masons have been hand-shaping and stacking locally harvested limestone into low walls that designate areas of Southall’s Kitchen Gardens. By early spring, compost from the farm will be added and seedlings from the greenhouse will be…Read More
The smell of smoldering apple wood signals late winter in the air at Southall, as Chef Tyler Brown cracks the door of the smokehouse to check on the progress of sock sausage that is slowly working its magic. Nine days of smoke should be good, he says, but it could be ten. He’ll know when it’s right.
Brown tells the story of local culinary journalism legend John Egerton, and their tradition of going to select a hog in Kentucky in January so they could make John’s special sausage each year for a small batch of friends. Egerton passed on too early, but that tradition is worth preserving, and Brown will make sure of it.
Soon, the conversation drifts to country hams, and how the old timers would salt them on New Year’s Day and then put the smoke to them starting on Valentine’s Day. After a dust of borax and cayenne and a full summer of sweating out moisture in the top of the barn, the tough fibers would relax into succulent slices that fall. There’s something to be learned from listening, and even more by doing.
As a chef, Tyler Brown had created something new in Nashville: a world-class hotel kitchen fed by a full-scale garden and livestock operation, which he built from the ground up by leaning on the experience of others. James Beard nominations and heaps of acclaim followed, but Brown wanted to dig deeper to find the true soul of it all. He found that opportunity in Southall.
But in order to do it, he had to walk away from everything and start over. Since 2016, he’s been quietly casting a vision and putting the pieces in place to create a sustainable luxury resort focused on landscape-scale, symbiotic food cultivation and an immersive epicurean experience.
Region and history drive a lot of Brown’s mission at Southall, married with science, technology, and the ethics of sustainability that guide a full-circle lifecycle. It’s about a never-ending learning process, driven by experience and experimentation, while paying homage to the value of the approach.
“It’s the interaction of the farmers and the guests, the feeling of walking the rows of the gardens and being inspired by something they can apply on their own property,” Brown explains. “This isn’t a guided tour, but meaningful exposure to what we’re doing and why it matters – then they can touch and taste an apple in the garden and maybe find it as a tart on the menu that night.”
The scale of production required to serve a full-service resort isn’t fully practical on-site, and the chef is up front about that. But every acre here is maximized for production and works collaboratively with the next acre to improve the quality of the land, rather than take away from it. Rain that sustains the vegetables in the valley on the west side of the farm is captured and directed to later irrigate the orchard on the hillside to the east. Everything is deliberate about what he’s doing, and the infrastructure is in place to help it function.
Brown points out that the production aspects of the Southall farm are driven by the culinary side of the house, and ultimately by what the guests enjoy. He’s focused on heirloom crops and the lore behind them – not necessarily because they have a great story, but because the legend derived from the discovery and careful cultivation of what became a great product.
“There’s a place for imperfection – we may use a certain beet because of the shape or the flavor, but the color is not as vibrant,” he says. “There are beautiful pumpkins and tasty pumpkins, and my experience is that the better looking a tomato is, the weaker it is taste-wise. That’s why I gravitate to heirlooms, and why other farmers came to that same conclusion long before me.”
A healthy farm yields happy produce, and that starts with observation, awareness and management. In the winter, cover crops like rye grass put down roots several feet, combatting soil compaction. In the growing season, as the cool-season grass dies out, rows are rolled into mats for the squashes and melons to rest upon, so they don’t get that yellow spot on the bottom or worse, blossom-end rot. It’s a simple trick, learned through experience.
Bugs don’t tend to attack healthy plants, Brown says, and if pests like aphids do show up, the ladybugs will take care of them. No synthetic fertilizer is used at Southall because there’s plenty of organic fertilizer to go around – from the chicken and livestock, and from seasonal crops tilled under to nourish the fields. Alternating strips are seeded in clover in late winter, and put down deep roots that create a watering zone for summer vegetables. Through the harvest, vegetable scraps are fed to the chickens, which then produce more fertilizer.
“Best practices are a constant evolution,” Brown says. “But we’re mindful of how everything works together to sustain the circle of life in a generational kind of way. It’s principle-driven: seasonality and sustainability, leveraging the best of what modern agricultural science has taught us.”
Seeds and stock have been sourced locally, but also from around the world – a halibut dish flown in that morning might be complemented by a native Tennessee lemon marmalade in the summer. A Bear Creek Farms pork loin from down the road could be stuffed with roasted hickory nuts harvested from century-old trees on the farm in the fall.
Whatever is on the menu, you’ll know that the chef has sourced it or nurtured it with a clear purpose in mind: to marry the best of what’s been proven through his experience with the promise of what’s possible through exploration.