In August of 2009, I paid a long-awaited visit to the historic Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, to profile then-cheesemaker Adam Spannaus, proprietor Sam Beall, and the culinary team for a Winter feature in culture. The James Beard Award-winning Relais & Chateaux retreat had become an international symbol of Southern hospitality, as well as the epitome of Foothills Cuisine, a little-known regional culinary style featuring indigenous ingredients from the Smoky Mountains. At Blackberry Farm, the term took on new meaning thanks to products grown, raised, and crafted on the property.
On February 25, 2016, Beall died in a tragic ski accident near my home in rural Colorado. He left behind his wife, Mary Celeste, and five children, as well as a legacy that Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, described as redefining “the meaning of hospitality . . . [He] understood the importance of and strongly advocated for a more sustainable, wholesome food system.”
Blackberry Farm was purchased by restaurateurs Kreis and Sandy Beall in 1976; their plan was to restore the property and turn it into a family homestead and small country inn. As I wrote in my 2009 article,
Their son Sam, 33, was born in the main house, which is now the restaurant of the same name. Since 2001, Beall has been the proprietor of Blackberry, as well as the innovator behind its wine and culinary education programs featuring world-renown chefs and winemakers. He knew he wanted to be involved with food for a living when, at 12, he filled in for a sick cook at one of his father’s restaurants. In 1999 . . . [he] moved to the Bay Area, where he attended the California Culinary Academy and interned at landmarks such as The French Laundry and Cowgirl Creamery, in order to get a better understanding of the fundamentals of cooking and artisanal food production. It was at Cowgirl Creamery that Beall was “bitten by the cheese bug.”
When I met with Beall for the above story, I was indelibly struck by his vision, passion, ethos, and dedication to his staff. He indeed helped transform Blackberry Farm into a world-class culinary center and the producer of some of the nation’s finest cheeses, charcuterie, and other farmstead products—something that wouldn’t have been possible without a team who shared his dedication. As Beall told me at the time, “It’s so much better to invest [your energy] in good, honest, passionate people. Give them the tools to do their jobs, and let them run with it.”
Beall’s death is about so much more than the loss of a father, husband, and son. He helped pave the way for certain sectors of the hospitality industry to operate with regard to sustainability, human and animal welfare, and other standards. He inspired guests and industry experts to try harder, be better, and think more progressively, while at the same time drawing attention to the need to preserve regional culinary heritage and methodology. Our condolences and thoughts are with the Beall family and Blackberry Farm team at this difficult time. Thank you for helping to make the cheese industry—and the world—a better, more delicious place.
If you’d like to make a donation in Sam Beall’s memory (all proceeds go to the Blackberry Farm Foundation), click here.
Feature Photo Credit: Blackberry Farm