Since the Dancing Bear Lodge restaurant in Townsend first opened its doors six years ago, Jeff Carter has served up their signature down-home cooking as executive chef.
The menu changes frequently, but what Carter's most passionate about — local ingredients — are always featured prominently.
"Local ingredients, that's what I think cooking is about," Carter said. "For me, I kind of fly by the seat of my pants, maybe a little bit too much at some point. But that's where inspiration comes from. You see this great heirloom tomato or beans or crowder peas ... and all of the sudden you're inspired to do whatever's going to be on the menu that night."
Originally from Mobile, Ala., Carter first learned about his love for sourcing local ingredients when he would frequent the many farmers' markets in that area.
He was formally trained at Gulf Coast Culinary Institute at Faulkner State in Alabama, and landed his first executive chef position at Steelwood Country Club in Loxley, Ala.
Carter relocated to Tennessee to work as sous chef for Blackberry Farm in Walland, sister property of Dancing Bear Lodge. He spent nearly four years there, soaking up the nuances of this region.
"We try to stay true to the cooking style around here. It's a little bit different from where I'm from," he said. "(In Alabama), you've got a lot of fresh, local seafood a lot of things that came from the Gulf. You don't get that up here. Now we're using a lot of trout and pork from this area."
To find the best local produce, meat and more, Carter says it's essential to facilitate relationships with area farmers.
"It's all about footwork — going to the markets and meeting these people and asking them, 'What do you have? What's upcoming?' " he said. "We have guys that will ask us, 'What do you want to see next year? What do you want us to plant for you?' "
His face lights up when he talks about local ingredients, but he insists it goes deeper than simply wanting to use the best ingredients possible.
"We do like to support the local community," he said. "It's one of the main reasons."
Local or not, Carter's goal is always to serve the best Southern-style cuisine around. And his attention to detail doesn't go unnoticed.
"I carry spoons around with me and we check seasoning, we check consistency in grits or polenta, we check the acidity in the salads," Carter said. "Even though we do Southern comfort food that's not pretentious and very organized on the plate, it needs to look good. People eat with their eyes as well as their mouth."
To learn more about the Dancing Bear Lodge, visit www.dancingbearlodge.com.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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