From the Heart Mary Celeste Beall ’99 combines traditions of Southern hospitality with locally sourced foods.
“Hospitality is about showing genuine care for people, and it’s a privilege for me to continue sharing it.”
~ Mary Celeste Beall ’99
As a student at Washington and Lee University, Mary Celeste Beall ’99 had no idea that her life — and livelihood — would someday be so steeped in the principles of Southern hospitality.
Sure, she grew up in Mobile, Alabama, with a grandmother and mom who knew how to spin quality ingredients into delicious home-cooked meals, such as seafood gumbo with freshly baked bread. But it wasn’t until she met her husband, Sam Beall, and joined him in operating Blackberry Farm, an award-winning resort hotel in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, that she found herself so concerned with food sourcing, preparation and service.
When Sam Beall passed, suddenly and tragically, in a skiing accident in February 2016, his wife was left to carry on as sole parent to their five children, but also as proprietor of the much-celebrated business he had loved so much. Almost three years later, we chatted with Mary Celeste about her time at W&L, Blackberry Farm’s connection to the local food movement, and her careful and loving perpetuation of Sam’s legacy in hospitality.
Q: What made you decide to attend Washington and Lee?
My father graduated from Washington and Lee in 1961. I am the youngest of four, so Washington and Lee was top on my parents’ list of schools to tour as soon as they had a high schooler. My father, who has one son and three daughters, was excited that his girls could go to the school he loved.
I will never forget being about 10 years old riding around Lexington and stopping in front of the SAE house. My father was full of stories. My eldest sister was a junior at the time and was hesitant about being [in] one of the first classes to accept women. I am not sure what changed her mind, but a few years later I was the middle school little sister visiting charming Lexington and having a great time.
As I started looking at schools, no other school had the same feeling. Strong academics was, of course, important to me, and a great reputation, as well. I also knew that I wanted to stay in the South, would enjoy a small town, and looked forward to meeting people from all over. Then, there was the look and feel of the campus. I have always appreciated architecture, so being on a beautiful campus surrounded by historical buildings was a natural fit for me.
I remember my dad walking me down the Colonnade and into Lee Chapel for the first time, and then watching my sister graduate on the lawn. Washington and Lee and Lexington just felt like home to me despite being 12 hours from my hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
Q: What are some of your fondest memories from your time in Lexington?
What I love about Lexington is that it is quaint and full of history and tradition, yet such a source of learning and growth for all those involved in both W&L and VMI. I love the school spirit, despite being a small, Division III school. I played on the women’s tennis team, and seeing the athletes, spectators and parents walking over the footbridge to cheer on the football team, lacrosse team, or watch our tennis matches was always a highlight.
I’ve always been drawn to the different seasons. Especially coming from Alabama, I have really great memories of snowy days which turned into those glorious, sunny spring days on the lawn or out on the river.
For me, though, it truly is all about connections — and still is. When I think about my time in Lexington, I so fondly remember the friendships I forged, not only with my class and other underclassmen, but with my professors and coaches. Washington and Lee is a unique community that has been very influential in my life. It’s where I learned invaluable lessons and created lifetime friendships.
Q: What was your relationship to food back then? Did you have any inkling that you would someday work in the food and beverage industry?
I had no idea, but I have always loved good food. My mother was a great cook, as was my grandmother, so we grew up with delicious, homemade meals – great breads, seafood gumbo, and once I was a little older, vegetables from our small garden. But our family did not dine out a lot; Mobile did not have much of a food scene. I have great memories of our family dinners at home, though. Growing up, we didn’t have junk food and my mom was always on some health kick. I’ll never forget when she got really into blueberries in the early ‘90s. I think she put them in everything for weeks.
Q: Were you and your late husband, Sam, committed to sourcing high-quality, local ingredients before the local food movement really took hold in America?
Sam always had a passion for great food and quality ingredients, and that enthusiasm was contagious. Early in our marriage we spent some time in California, and when we moved back Sam was struck by the disconnect between fine dining and local farms in the South. Blackberry had a small garden then, but upon our return we made the commitment to focus more on our sourcing and expand our garden on the Farm. His eye for quality and love of regional, fresh food helped encourage the Blackberry Farm team to always cherish and respect the local ingredients we work with. We know where our food is from, and we get to share the story of bringing it from the seed to the plate for our guests. We have always loved creating and experiencing that special connection to the food. It’s wonderful to see sourcing local continue to grow as a trend within the food community.
Q: Why do you feel it is important that the ingredients used at Blackberry Farm are as local as possible?
We are creating a full experience for our guests. We want to share the history and culture of East Tennessee, as well as the beautiful scenery. We are fortunate to live in an area that produces a beautiful variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs, and sharing that with our guests is a fun and delicious part of being on the Farm. I also believe that the benefits of local ingredients go beyond supporting the local farmers, to tasting the region — the minerals from our soil and the eating from your local ecosystem is good for us all. Whenever we were traveling, Sam always tried to eat the local honey to get an extra dose of that environment.
Q: What percentage of those ingredients come from the property or the surrounding area?
We create as much of our food as possible using our own garden produce and foraged ingredients. Beyond that, we work with a great community of local farmers, gardeners and foragers to supplement any other ingredients we might need.
Q: What are the most enduring lessons Sam taught you about hospitality?
Sam taught me that every moment, from the largest ideas to the smallest details, matters in sharing impactful Southern hospitality. He was a great example of dreaming big — like envisioning an underground wine tunnel — and turning those dreams into reality. He also knew how big of an impact a very small gesture can make, whether it’s remembering a certain wine a guest enjoyed last time and having a glass brought to them at dinner, or placing a few heirloom tomato seeds on the nightstand because a guest enjoyed an experience in the garden. Hospitality is about showing genuine care for people, and it’s a privilege for me to continue sharing it.
Q: What details do you feel are important when hosting guests, whether at Blackberry Farm or in a private home, besides the food itself?
Southern hospitality is about making your guest feel welcome. It’s important to greet with a smile and always be genuine. I want guests at Blackberry Farm and guests in my home to feel comfortable and relaxed. I like paying attention to details and finding those small moments to make an extra effort for the guest.
Q: Do you enjoy cooking yourself? What is your favorite thing to prepare for your family?
Yes! I love being in the kitchen with my kids. Although my approach to cooking is different than Sam’s – he was such a natural and could whip up something amazing out of nothing. I have to be more thoughtful and focused than he was. Being in the kitchen has always been a big part of their lives, and time spent around the stove together has created some of my most precious memories with my children. We even stage our own little family cooking competitions! I love making breakfast – with our family of five children, making a big batch of waffles or pancakes is fun and works well for a big crew. We always have seasonal fruit which adds a nice touch. While we have lots of blackberries, we also have blueberries in our yard which remind me of my childhood and are the perfect addition! Fresh farm eggs simply scrambled are really hard to beat, as well.
Q: What advice would you give a W&L graduate who wants to open a food- or beverage-related establishment and make a real living at it?
Follow your dreams! The food and beverage world is exciting and full of incredible people. There is a wealth of knowledge to soak up from peers in this industry. Take advantage of every opportunity to further your knowledge and skills. It’s a commitment, but if you are passionate about the industry, you will love it, because there is something truly magical about creating memorable experiences for others through service.
Q: Why did you create the Blackberry Farm foundation, and what has it accomplished?
Supporting our community has always been a priority for the Beall family and the Blackberry Farm team. The Blackberry Farm Foundation is dedicated to supporting children and foodways charitable causes, and I am so proud to be part of team that takes these causes to heart and works to make a positive impact. Some highlights of our donations include the Girls and Boys Club of Blount County building a garden; Café le Reve, an initiative of Maryville City Schools to teach kitchen and life skills to high schoolers, including helping fund a new facility with state-of-the-art kitchen equipment; and soon, the inaugural class of our Sam Beall Fellows Program (see below).
Q: What do you look forward to in the future at Blackberry Farm?
One of the greatest things about Blackberry Farm is that something is always happening! We are a 40-year-old family business that continues to evolve. Right now, my heart is so full thinking about the start of the Sam Beall Fellows Program. Sam was fortunate to spend time at some of the world’s best restaurants, hotels and wineries as he shaped his career. In his honor, we have created the Sam Beall Fellows Program to offer similar once-in-a-lifetime hospitality experiences to professionals early in their career. We will announce our first fellows in August, and I can’t wait to follow their journeys!
I am also extremely excited to launch our new property, Blackberry Mountain. This is a huge undertaking, and it has been incredible to watch the team work together and create this incredible place where we will have an opportunity to share not only our love of hospitality, but our love of adventure and connecting with the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s a dream come true, and I cannot wait to share the Mountain with our guests.