Snow was dusting the foothills of the Smoky Mountains the January night that a group of friends—gathered at Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm for the annual Taste of the South event and auction to benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA)—placed the winning bid for a South Georgia farm soiree. The prize: dinner prepared by renowned Atlanta chef Kevin Gillespie at Will Harris’s equally acclaimed White Oak Pastures family farm. On that freezing winter day, an outdoor dinner in the South Georgia heat sounded mighty glorious.
By now you’ve likely heard of White Oak Pastures and the good (read: hard) work they put in to provide organic, grass-fed beef to the public from their certified humane farm. Their cattle are raised and processed on land where Harris’s father and grandfathers began raising livestock in 1866. And for the past several years, the Harris family’s commitment to sustainable farming practices and their growing interest in multiple species farming has become the gold standard of agriculture. In addition to cows, they raise pastured sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, geese, guinea fowl, ducks, rabbits, eggs, organic flowers, fruits and vegetables; their most recent addition is pigs. They boast two on-farm abattoirs and a dining pavillion that includes a professional kitchen—a perfect lunch spot for the farm’s 85 employees and a fantastic venue for special events like this farm-to-table dinner.
Back when the party plan was first hatched, Harris promised to take care of the location and food if Gillespie would just prepare it all. A bit of research and planning and Gillespie was en route to Harris’s remote Southwest Georgia outpost with just one small box containing a few spices, some vinegar, oil and his knife roll. When he walked into the farm’s kitchen, Harris took one look at Gillespie’s sparse belongings and asked, “How many guys do you need to help unload the rest of your stuff?”
Not necessary, Gillespie said. No stranger to his craft, the chef has mastered heated kitchens, dazzled America on the award-winning television show Top Chef—reaching the top three during the show’s sixth season and taking home “fan favorite” honors—and manned his own restaurant, the critically acclaimed Gunshow. But on this sweltering Georgia afternoon—the hottest day ever recorded at the farm—he was simply excited to prepare an authentic farm-to-table dinner, one where everything he might need was available at White Oak Pastures. What transpired between noon and the evening meal was a lesson in confidence, stewardship and true appreciation for local ingredients.
The farmers offered Gillespie bundles of carrots, okra, eggs, tomatoes, eggplants, herbs and freshly cut sunflowers, zinnia, bachelor buttons, amaranth and yarrow from the garden that grows steps from the kitchen. Together, Harris and Gillespie walked through the processing plant, meeting the butchers and choosing meat and poultry from animals that were in the pasture that morning. Only the cheese, graciously donated by Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia, and the beverages were brought in from outside the farm. Ashley Hall, an enthusiastic SFA member and beverage maven for Quality Wine and Spirits in Atlanta, devised a thoughtful list of refreshing beers, sparkling wine and chilled white and rosé wines. A delightful cocktail dubbed “The Gentian Farmer” honored Harris’s work with Gentian liqueur.
At first, Harris, Gillespie and Hall considered they were maybe playing it too casual for these folks who donated a sizeable amount of money before flying in on a private jet, and there was a temptation to fall back on the standard fancy and formal dinner party protocol. But the pastoral scenes and raw bounty of White Oak Pastures is what initially drew the group in, so the trio delivered an authentic experience: Homegrown flowers mixed with poke weed stalks and berries sprouted from vintage jars, pitchers, and an old glass battery case that adorned the tables. A multicourse dinner, plated on mismatched farmhouse china with silver and layered linens, was served. Presented with the grace and hospitality that defines our region and styled with the beauty of nature in mind, the folks gathered around the table indulged as White Oak Pastures paid homage to local ingredients, while a generous donation benefitted the Southern Foodways Alliance.