Standing over a 19th-century millstone and in the shadows of a 21st-century hydroponic greenhouse, Chef Tyler Brown can’t believe the moment is this close. Seven years ago, Brown stepped away from the helm of one of Nashville’s premier kitchens. As executive chef at the Hermitage Hotel’s Capitol Grille for nearly a decade, he’d been a leader in developing the city as a culinary destination with seed-to-plate menus driven by his own heirloom garden at historic Glen Leven and a heritage cattle operation of 150 head of Red Polls at Double H Farms, the largest herd of the dual-purpose Scottish breed found anywhere in the South. Still, he wanted to dive deeper.
After achieving four-star, four-diamond status for the restaurant and earning several James Beard nominations, Chef Brown made the decision to invest years into creating Southall Farm & Inn, a 325-acre luxury resort and spa centered on the circle of life – landscape-scale, symbiotic food cultivation, and immersive epicurean experiences.
The son of a talented home chef, Brown understood early on how food and community intertwine. It was at the dinner table, he discovered, where meaningful personal exchange happened. After culinary school at Johnson & Wales in his native Charleston, S.C., and a fellowship at the Keystone Resort in Colorado, Brown returned home to become sous chef at Peninsula Grill, running aspects such as butchery and fermentation and expediting the line during service. That was where he first felt the power of the French brigade order, the line of command designed to yield precision and productivity in a high-volume kitchen.
An opportunity for his wife, Ashley, at Vanderbilt University brought the Browns to Nashville. He reconnected with Chef Sean Brock and became his chef de cuisine; in 2006, he was named executive chef, with a full platform to celebrate fresh, locally produced ingredients.
“In my journey as a chef, the brigade training and classic preparations and techniques eventually led me to push the envelope,” he says. “As I developed relationships with local farmers and markets, I was enamored with the seasonal aspects of what was unique to this area, what was fresh and abundant at different times of the year. The natural progression for me was to start a garden, leading me to explore the challenges and rewards of agriculture and what we can add to it.”
In 2015, he joined the team at Southall as senior vice president of culinary and agriculture, where he could continue to grow while creating a sustainable farm to feed the kitchen. When Southall opens later this summer, it will feature not only the 62-room inn, 16 treetop cottages, an innovative spa, and a signature restaurant but a canvas that spans the entire property. Guests will discover a mature working farm; beyond the production fields, Southall features 1,400 heirloom apple trees on a terraced hillside, advanced greenhouse hydroponics, a property-wide pollination program that includes millions of honeybees and native bees propagated to increase crop yields, an orangerie full of rare citrus, and an abundant edible landscape – all of which can be explored through inviting and well-conceived experiential programming.
“What it affords us is the opportunity to observe the whole process. As a plant begins to grow, a zephyr squash, for instance, we’re seeing we have a very small squash with a blossom on it, and we have the luxury of harvesting it at that time,” Brown explains. “Those are the kinds of things that farmers traditionally can’t prioritize, but we have a chance to celebrate those various stages of growth, from a flavor and texture standpoint…. to experiment with raw and cooked preparations.”
It’s tough to get that specific with outside partners, he says, and so much more valuable to do it themselves. Whether it’s a green strawberry or arugula allowed to bolt so the flowers can be harvested, Brown hopes that the terroir of Southall will be a basis for conversation, a deeper experience that people will enjoy and take home with them.
In fact, the entire farm is a living laboratory. The cultivation team at Southall has been experimenting for years, not only growing and taste-testing rare heirloom varieties, but pushing the margins on what is possible in Middle Tennessee: the once-extinct Carolina Gold rice, for example, or the bambara groundnut, native to West Africa but rarely grown in America. For Brown, it’s about marrying the principles of biodynamics and old ways with modern techniques to track data that informs a diverse crop plan. In the same meal, one might enjoy perfect hydroponic lettuces from the greenhouse, grains milled on that moonshiner’s stone, and a bowl of ice cream from a maker powered by a 1920s John Deere hit-and-miss engine.
“We’ve been able to taste test so many things and refine our plans as a result, both with the tools and in selecting certain varieties for size, flavor, season of harvest, thinking through the applications we’re looking for in terms of fresh, preserved and frozen,” Brown says. “We won’t always have a set menu, which gives us a lot of flexibility day to day. We can grow a crop just for blossoms or loofahs for the spa because our priorities are different.”
After seven years of planning, building, testing, and refining, Brown is looking forward to serving people again – an invigorating exchange of energy that he says is like seeing an old friend.
“What we hope you will see is a menu representative of a very seasonal Middle Tennessee offering that comprises our community – it’s a depiction of not only my objectives, but a number of people’s dreams and pursuits, presented on a plate that is very specifically conceptualized,” he says. “It’s been a mindful process, which is such a gift, but nothing excites me more than sharing it with others.”