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Southern Taste Tests

Many paths lead to soul-satisfying Southern cuisine, but chefs across the board agree: You can’t skip quality ingredients.

Groups looking to delve a little deeper into the stories and techniques behind the South’s best recipes have several kitchens willing to show them the way. Experiences range from preparing the dishes from start to finish to demonstration-style classes by popular chefs. The backdrops are as different as the states themselves, from the party beat of New Orleans to the quiet Smoky Mountain foothills of Tennessee. Prize ingredients vary from state to state as well, with bourbon the favorite in Kentucky and oysters and crab among the finest of Virginia. In each state, these are the top spots to end up with a delicious meal and the ability to re-create the experience back home.

Blackberry Farm

Walland, Tennessee

The artisans at Blackberry Farm, a celebrated luxury hotel in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains south of Knoxville, want people to know that Southern food goes way beyond fried food and casseroles with extra butter. Southern cooking is about combining the right ingredients — think green tomato pie and lamb meatballs with green garlic, roasted peaches and brook trout with grits.

Blackberry Farm cooking demonstrations are available only to groups who book a stay on the pastoral 4,200-acre estate, with its heirloom gardens, dairy, creamery, salumeria, honey house and preservation kitchen. Using ingredients that are grown or made on the farm, the artisans create a three-course lunch paired with a great wine.

“The artisan will guide the guests through food history, growing healthy plants and animals, knife skills and the preparation of the dishes,” said Mallorie Mendence of Blackberry Farm. “Recipes will be included for the group to take home.”

The presentation takes on the flavor of the artisan leading the class. The gardener focuses on seasonal produce from the garden and wild edible plants found on the property, and the butcher is meatcentric and features charcuterie and cheese from the larder. Groups are also encouraged to take part in the farm activities and learn about the land and the food it provides from a culinary aspect.

Casual Gourmet at the Culinary Institute of Virginia

Norfolk, Virginia

Popular demand inspired the chefs at the Culinary Institute of Virginia to open their kitchen to the public, and several culinary students sign on to assist each semester. The Casual Gourmet program allows groups to work alongside chef instructors and culinary students as they prepare local recipes with local ingredients.

“Our Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern classes are filled with recipes based on ingredients indigenous to our area,” said chef Troy Camacho, director of Casual Gourmet.

The list of attractive ingredients is extensive. Inland, Virginia is known for its apples, blackberries and other fresh produce, as well as peanuts, bacon and ham. Because of Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern shore, groups also get to work with fresh batches of flounder, crab and oysters.

“There’s something about being able to go right down to the pier to buy our fish,” Camacho said, adding that groups often learn to make she-crab soup or stuffed oysters, in addition to Southern favorites like chicken pot pie.

The chefs also couldn’t resist having a little fun with their state’s travel slogan and offer a “Virginia is for Dessert Lovers” class. Chocolate aside, most of their baking ingredients come from around the state as well.

Zero George Cooking School

Charleston, South Carolina

Attached to a boutique hotel and award-winning restaurant, Charleston’s Zero George Cooking School is in an 1805 kitchen carriage house off the courtyard. The space reveals the beauty and history of old Charleston as the hotel chefs chart a new course for the future of Southern food.

Chef Vinson Petrillo, a winner of Food Network’s cooking competition show “Chopped,” stands at the heart of the kitchen school. Groups watch and ask questions as he prepares the dishes they get to enjoy as a multicourse meal with wine pairings. Beyond learning to replicate the menu, the Zero George experience is about learning techniques that carry across several dishes.

“We’re a Southern restaurant using Southern ingredients, but Petrillo doesn’t view himself as a traditional Southern chef,” said Zero George manager Kendall Moore. “He sees each individual ingredient and balances them off each other to create new dishes.”

Kendall said Petrillo finds the best meats and produce in Charleston and turns them into something a little different. “The big benefit to these classes is that you are going to learn to interact with ingredients in a different way,” Kendall said. “You get to interact with someone who is creative and using modern techniques, and you’re no longer trapped inside one recipe.”