Interview with Chef Joseph Lenn at Blackberry Farm-Walland, TN & Guinea Confit with Gnocchi & Poached Eggs
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
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.
Executive Chef, The Barn
Blackberry Farm – Walland, TN