Travel

A widow takes the helm at Blackberry Farm

Josephine Beall, one of Mary Celeste's and Sam's five children, returns home with some pickings from the garden.
Josephine Beall, one of Mary Celeste's and Sam's five children, returns home with some pickings from the garden. NYT

For someone who could ski as well as Sam Beall, his first run down a Colorado slope that February afternoon was supposed to be easy.

He had flown in earlier that day, from his beloved Blackberry Farm, the 68-room east Tennessee lodge that some consider the best place (and certainly one of the more expensive) to stay in America.

No one saw the accident, but the coroner concluded that Beall, 39, had skied into a wooden post at the edge of a run, a hit to the chest so hard it tore his heart. An investigation followed, with the same conclusion: A freakish accident killed Beall, a superb athlete who thought nothing of racing 100 miles on his bicycle or wrestling a 400-pound marlin out of the Gulf of Mexico.

“A lot of times, he was doing crazy things,” said Mary Celeste Beall, 39, the woman with whom he fell in love in high school and who for 18 years was his wife. “If he had been hot-dogging or jumping off cliffs, I would have been mad. But there’s no explanation.”

The Bealls, who divided their time between a house they built on the farm and one in Knoxville, had five children. The oldest is about to enter the University of Georgia. The youngest is 3. It has fallen to Mary Celeste Beall to raise her family and step into her husband’s role as the proprietor and president of Blackberry Farm.

For the better part of a decade, Blackberry Farm has been a significant player in the elevation of both hyperlocal Southern cooking and the idea of a luxury vacation built around agriculture. Its collection of cottages and farmhouses sits on 4,200 hilly acres in a part of rural Tennessee that needs the 500 jobs the resort provides.

Critics love its cheeses, jam and beer. Chefs around the country long for an invitation to cook in the Barn, its showcase restaurant built in a 200-year-old barn that the Bealls had dismantled and moved from Pennsylvania.

His death plunged Mary Celeste Beall into a role she had never imagined. She’s a private person, and the first to tell you she is not as good at prioritizing as her husband was.

But now she is the one hosting winemakers and explaining the Blackberry philosophy at events like the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen. The future of the multimillion-dollar family business is in her hands, and so far, she can barely keep up with the meetings.

Beall’s father, Samuel E. Beall III, who founded the Ruby Tuesday chain, and his first wife bought the little inn tucked up against the Great Smoky Mountains in 1976, the year Sam was born. They kept adding land and rooms, and serving food that punched above its weight. In 1998, they turned what had become a Relais & Châteaux resort over to Sam and his younger brother, David. But it was Sam who made the place his life’s work.

Sam Beall coaxed Blackberry Farm into a culinary powerhouse, with a wine cellar that held the kind of Gaja nebbiolos and rare Rhône varieties most sommeliers could only dream of.

It was all built on a foundation of simple Tennessee country life as reinterpreted for guests willing to pay a premium to taste its pleasures without any of its hardships. Blackberry Farm became a place where the powerful could lose themselves on a rope swing and where rich Manhattanites could put on hiking boots and wander down to the trout stream. What most people call a walk in the woods was rebranded as forest bathing.

Mary Celeste Beall said her husband didn’t invent anything new at Blackberry. “He always just wanted to bring light to what was already here,” she said.

In the six months since her husband died, Beall has been learning the business, but her primary focus has been on her children. She wants to keep the family rituals and rhythms the same, especially when it comes to meals.

Sam Beall, who studied at the California Culinary Academy and at Northern California culinary temples like Cowgirl Creamery and the French Laundry, was so dedicated to cooking his family dinner that it was not uncommon to see him standing in the kitchen in sweaty bike clothes, digging though his collection of olive oils and vinegars and a pile of produce from the Blackberry garden. At his funeral, his oldest daughter, Cameron, joked that she would miss being late for school because he had decided the family needed waffles for breakfast.

Mary Celeste Beall was often the one left cleaning their huge kitchen and admonishing Sam Beall to put on a clean shirt when the family sat down to dinner. She’s thinking about adding another cookbook to the Blackberry Farm collection, one in which the children cook their dad’s favorite hits.

“I really want it to feel like he’s in the kitchen with them,” she said. Already, her 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, has taken to making soft scrambled eggs just as her father taught her, and her only son, Sam V, 13, can saber a Champagne bottle and coax perfect, thin slices from a ham that had been curing in his father’s personal wine cellar for three years.

“I really don’t think there’s one thing their dad hasn’t taught them,” she said.

Mary Celeste Beall, who has a graduate degree in accounting from the University of Tennessee and loves design and architecture, is relying on the tight-knit team of loyal, longtime employees her husband built. Many described her leadership style as inspirational, but she said she is still feeling her way. Managing time seems to be the most vexing part of her new job.

“Now I know why Sam was so hard to get ahold of,” she said. “He was in all these meetings all day.”

The farm isn’t struggling, as it did after the nation’s financial crisis in 2008, she said. The biggest decisions for the foreseeable future have been made. This month, they opened Bramble Hall, a building designed for weddings and concerts. Rooms have been renovated. Plans are underway to open a new inn and build private houses in the foothills across from the farm.

“There’s never a good time to lose the love of your life, but the timing was amazing,” she said.

At his memorial service, she addressed the staff assembled at the Knoxville church directly. “Sam was preparing us,” she told them. “He was preparing us to be independent, to do this.”

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