January 25, 2021

Written by Courtney Hampson. Photography courtesy of Tyler Brown.

As a young chef working at the Fearrington House outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the only thing Tyler Brown wanted to come through the kitchen door was perfect, clean vegetables, with no dirt. Fast forward a couple decades and playing in the dirt is exactly where Brown wants to be.

From Charleston to Chapel Hill to Nashville, Brown eventually realized – and accepted – that dirt was a part of the story. At the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, where Brown was executive chef for 13 years, his small garden evolved into a partnership with the Land Trust, a bio-dynamic farm, and 250 acres with 150 head of cattle milling about. So, how did a chef convince the owners of a hotel that heritage-bred beef was the way to go? “Good PR, I guess?” he says with a shrug and a smirk. Nah, I suspect it was more than that.

Brown was raised in a home where food was always at the center. It did not matter where you were at 5:57 p.m., you were at the dinner table at 6 p.m. on the dot. No matter what. Brown remembers his father telling him, “It is because of your mother’s food that we have a community.” So, Brown grew up knowing that food could be a connector, and with food as a cornerstone of his upbringing, it is no wonder where he ended up, but it was not a direct path.

Guests enjoy a seated dinner at The Rambling.

In high school, in Charleston, South Carolina, Brown admits, “Nothing was interesting to me.” His parents suggested Johnson & Wales University, which “seemed ok and certainly better than studying architecture,” he said. So, he gave it a whirl, and while his passion for food grew, it wasn’t a certainty.

Until he realized that food created the opportunity to travel. He spent an epic ski season in Vail as a pastry chef until spring came and “Vail was mud.” From there, he returned home and began a stint at Charleston Grill which eventually lead to Fearrington House and ultimately the Hermitage Hotel, where he started to embrace dirt and realized over the course of his time there that he was much happier outside with dirty hands than in the kitchen.

Five years ago, as Brown mulled the inevitable question “What’s next?” he struggled with the answer. “I didn’t have a restaurant concept that I loved … I knew I wanted a place to tell the farm story, but I also have a wife and two kids. I am passionate about food but didn’t want to be spread too thin.”

So, he found a partner, based in Chicago and Florida, who was looking to do something somewhere in the middle. And Southall Farms was born. Like anything good, it has taken time. Over 325 acres, in addition to the farm, they are building an inn and spa, cottages and luxury treehouses (sign me up!), and a restaurant focused on the experience around the farm. Brown has spent the last four plus years thinking about how every seed placed in the ground can be a part of the story – on the menus, yes, but even in the spa treatments that will center on the healing powers of nature.

As Southall Farms slowly grows – the inn is scheduled to open in 2021, wouldn’t you know it, ground broke right about the time stay at home orders emerged nationwide – Brown is anxious to share the process and give folks an opportunity to be a part of it. “We didn’t have all the answers on day one, but we knew who we wanted to be. So, we’re letting everyone share in the story – the failures and the successes. Everyone won’t love what we’re doing, but I love a strong opinion,” Brown said.

The Rambling

And from there, The Rambling was born. Content with the idea of growing slow, Brown did seek an interim opportunity to share his food with others. So, he gathered the necessary ingredients – a food truck, some shade, a huge grill, and a 110-year-old ice-cream maker – and started to break bread with strangers.

Coined “The Rambling,” this dinner concept allows Brown to share a meal and the forthcoming plans for Southall Farms with 60 people a night. The menu is different each week, but the flow remains the same. Music, corn hole, bocce, and badminton kick things off along with a look at what’s cooking. When guests sit down, Brown encourages them to meet someone new and talk to their neighbor. The meal begins with a few “one-bite” starters – think roasted oysters, pickled shrimp, or mushroom and bacon fritters – to whet their appetite, then the bread (made in house) and salad (grown within eyesight) hit the table before two proteins and three to four sides are passed family-style. Dinner is always capped off with homemade ice-cream churned in that vintage ice cream maker and time spent in Adirondack chairs around a fire.

As the pandemic hit, The Rambling had to pause. But Brown’s desire and passion only continue to grow. “When we made the decision to cancel The Rambling on the front end of Covid-19, our urge to connect with people and serve the community at Southall didn't wane. Our farm and culinary teams were deep into planning and planting, so we found a temporary way to do all the things we set out to do this spring ... just differently. What we found was that people were hungry for any connection to nature and the circle of life, and the whole experience created a lot of joy – not only for the community, but for us as well – amid really challenging circumstances.”

So, as stay at home orders became the norm, Southall Farms quickly pivoted to offer prepared meals and goodie boxes to folks on their mailing list. The boxes feature an assortment of produce from the farm and prepared products that can also be found in Southall’s online store, the Farm Stand, which features products from the farms and kitchens of their partners and friends – honey, pasta, cornbread mix, farm tools, and pottery made with clay from the farm.

Brown and his team have spent the summer in the dirt – planting and plotting and thinking about the what the next season will bring for the relationships and the soil they have been cultivating for years. Time spent that is sure to yield fantastic return.

Visit southallfarms.com to add your name to the mailing list for Southall’s farm and event updates.


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