ADAIRSVILLE, Ga. — Jason Starnes, executive chef at Barnsley Resort, and Evan Babb, chef de cuisine at the resort's popular Rice House, followed different paths in reaching their culinary dreams.
Starnes owned a small cafe in his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina, before moving to Atlanta, where he started a catering business, worked as executive chef at the Sundial and at South City Kitchen in Buckhead. In February 2018, he accepted his current position at Barnsley. But it's back on the family farm that a passion for farm-to-table cooking took root.
"Our farm was small," he recalls. "We grew our own produce, and we got one cow every year and we got one pig every year, and that was basically how we functioned."
Babb grew up in Cookeville, Tennessee, and developed a passion for cooking early on. "I grew up cooking with my grandmother and beside my mother," he says. "Everyone in my family is an artist, and they were very good in the culinary arts. I just fell in love with cooking. There are so many different things that you can do with what we do. You have all your senses involved. It's like painting. You can see textures and stuff. I get to play with people's senses and really spark emotions."
It's with this dedication to using foods that intersect with the area's culture and history that makes the menu at the Rice House a study in the local food ways of Georgia and Tennessee. The Rice House uses foods from the resort's large vegetable garden as well as other purveyors of meats and produce, most of whom farm no more than 150 miles away, such as Benton Bacon from Madisonville, Tennessee, and cheese and other dairy products from Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Sequatchie, Tennessee.
I recently sat down with Starnes and Babb to find out more about what drives their passion.
Q: Do you plan to expand the garden at Barnsley so that it can feed not only guests at Rice House, but for all of the restaurants and catering jobs at the resort?
Starnes: We put in a new garden last spring and had University of Georgia come out and test the soil to make sure that we could function in a way that we want to function. It's not a certified organic farm, but we do use organic practices, just because it's important to be able to do things the right way. We've got plans to enlarge it and put in a lot of raised beds. And we're going to put a table in the middle of it where people can eat. There's something spectacular about being able to sit there and be in nature and be able to see a chef walk over and clip something out of the garden and garnish your food with. It doesn't get any fresher than that. That's one of the philosophies that brought me here. It really does bring a new breadth into what we're doing, to see what we have sown into the ground come onto the plate.
Babb: That's why you see me wearing boots. I'm always down in the garden getting food for the night's menu. We're able to go down there and look and see what looks best. I can tell when Jason needs to look at the garden, and he can tell when I need to go and take a look.
Q: Is it a challenge finding good help in an area that's more rural than what you've been used to?
Starnes: We don't have the labor pool around here that Atlanta has — that's for sure. It's been a challenge. But I was excited to be able to take that on, to be able to go into a place that didn't have the depth of culinary labor, which told me I get to do one of my passions — teaching. And knowing that Barnsley was participating in an international intern program was just icing on the cake.
Q: An international intern program?
Starnes: Yes, for our food-and-beverage program. We have eight interns from all over the world — from the little island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa to the Philippines, Brazil, Thailand, China and Bulgaria. We're trying to expand their cultural knowledge of America — the South, specifically. I get them to make things from their cultures, too, so we can really get to see what got them into cooking in the first place.
Q: You say you teach them, but what have they taught you?
Starnes: Patience is the biggest thing. For instance, we had a young man come here from Brazil. I have the opportunity to interview them before we commit to it. I interviewed this kid, and his English was really good, but his culinary knowledge was very minimal. He literally had to graduate from culinary school before he could make the trip here. I was excited about that. I mean, hey, this guy didn't know anything and he didn't have bad [culinary] habits. We got to actually teach him from day one.
Q: What chefs have influenced you the most along the way?
Babb: Charles Vosburgh. He was the executive chef here for many years. When I was 16 and got my driver's license, the first place I drove was down here to Barnsley. I didn't have an appointment, but I went ahead and knocked on the door. Chef Vosburgh was up there, and I talked to him but didn't get the job. But he told me, "I want you to call me every Wednesday and every Saturday," and I did, for at least four years. Every Wednesday and Saturday. I felt lucky that he would talk to me about cooking and stuff like that. He was a culinary Olympian. He taught me the importance of doing things right the first time and not second-guessing myself.
Starnes: Chip Ulbrich was the culinary director for all the locations of South City Kitchen, and how this man functioned absolutely blew my mind. It seemed like he was never frazzled. He was always ahead of the game.
Q: What regional fare do you enjoy cooking the most?
Babb: I love all types of cuisine. Creole and Cajun are my two top favorites, for sure. One of the jobs I had was with a chef who was born and raised in the French Quarter in New Orleans. He took me in and taught me about Creole and Cajun cuisine and how those cuisines are so heavily influenced by African cuisine, definitely by French cuisine. I fell in love with that because that to me is the melting pot of cuisines.
Starnes: I don't really find myself influenced by any particular cuisine. I'm really ingredient-focused and to be able to pick up something that's, say, as simple as a cucumber and how fresh and how beautiful and how flavorful it is — that's what really drives me from a food perspective.
Q: What other cities have you cooked in, and how do they influence your cooking style at Barnsley?
Starnes: I don't really think that the other cities that I've cooked in have influenced me for here. I think that every property that a cook gets the opportunity to work at speaks to itself. There's got to be discipline, there's got to be structure, there's got to be focus, and there's got to be respect. For me, Barnsley gives me the opportunity to teach. It gives me the opportunity to be able to grow a vegetable and to be able to put it in front of somebody and let them taste it and they go, "Oh, my goodness." It's about creating emotion.
Babb: For me, it's the lack of a city. It's all about being in the woods. I have two other brothers, and where we're from up in Jackson County (Tennessee), we're a long way from a grocery store. So we hunt and we fish, and that type of bringing everything from the woods into the family house and making all kinds of stuff with, basically, free ingredients is work, but it's fun at the same time. But, yeah, nature, that's what's influenced me.
Q: What's your favorite thing on the menu at The Rice House?
Starnes: One of the things that I'm really stoked about that Evan's doing is making fresh handmade pasta every single day. And it's not a "We're going to open on Thursday, so we're going to make pasta on Wednesday and run it through the week." It's "We're making pasta on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday." I have so much respect for that, the fact that he's going to take the time to make it every single day, and it's got to be perfect.
Babb: We change the menu every week, so what I like is when certain ingredients first come in season, whether it's the first fall ingredients or the first spring ingredients. It's not necessarily a dish. It's more of, like, I get to do this type of art with this type of food again.
Q: What's something most people don't know about you?
Starnes: Most people don't realize how fascinated with aquariums I am. I like to build aquariums that are land and water for amphibians, like frogs and things like that.
Babb: I was in a band for a while. Music's been a huge influence in my life. My sister, she's playing in Nashville every night. My brothers and I, when we get together, we pick on the porch. I play the drums. I play the bass, and I also play a little fiddle.
Q: What's your guilty food pleasure?
Babb: Oatmeal cream pies. I love them.
Starnes: Once a year, I'll allow myself to go to Golden Corral.
Q: And what do you eat there?
Starnes: Everything. Just everything.
Chef Evan Babb's Caponata
2 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 pounds zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 medium red onions, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup chopped garlic
1 red pepper, roasted and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 cup roasted tomatoes, chopped finely
1 1/2 cup red wine vinegar (see note)
1/2 cup honey
1 cup raisins or currants
1/2 cup capers, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
1 cup roasted pine nuts
1 cup chopped fresh basil
Heat a large rondeaux or similar wide pan — somewhat like a Dutch oven, but not as deep — over high heat. Add olive oil, and saute vegetables in batches — first, the eggplant, then the zucchini and onion. Cook vegetables until they are lightly caramelized. Remove vegetables from pan, and season as needed. Using same pan, saute the garlic, roasted red pepper and tomatoes together. Combine in a large bowl with the cooked vegetables, adjusting seasonings as needed.
In a medium bowl, combine red wine vinegar and honey; stir in raisins, and let soak for a couple of minutes; add to vegetable mixture. Add capers, cocoa powder, pine nuts and basil, mixing to combine. Makes 10-12 servings.
Note: This is one of Babb's favorite summertime recipes served over grilled fish or beef. He says it's also good as a spread for grilled sourdough bread. And if you're questioning the addition of cocoa powder, don't. It's a classic way to make this dish, Babb says.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.