Traveling Back in Time at Biltmore

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Back in September, Vivian and the A Chef’s Life crew were invited up for a long weekend at Biltmore and a behind-the-scenes tour of the estate’s glorious grounds. The weekend was chock full of events for which the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains made the perfect backdrop. An intimate village stroll and a shuttle tour showcased Biltmore’s endless acres of farmland and introduced Vivian to a handful of the 2000+ employees who are responsible for its upkeep. The weekend capped with an incredible dinner prepared by Biltmore’s Executive Chef of Lodging Sean Eckman and his staff that included a scrumptious herb roasted chicken and succulent braised wagyu short rib sourced directly from the Estate. Vivian took a few moments on an exceptionally balmy January afternoon to reflect on a perfect getaway at “America’s largest home”  during the season of changing leaves.

I had only been to Biltmore with my 8th grade class before this visit. I don’t remember much about the experience though, because I’m sure I was focused on socializing and the fact that I would be staying in a hotel with all my friends and no parents that night. So, visiting Biltmore in September with my husband and our twins really felt like the first time. The experience really begins as you drive into the estate with all its winding paths and open pastures. Biltmore’s staff seemed to know me well, escorting me to the kitchen as one of the first stops on our tour.

I know it’s a completely different place, but being in the kitchen at Biltmore felt like being on the set of Downton Abbey! The way the light flooded in through the windows, the compact menu book that noted what the Vanderbilt’s ate, the giant stoves that must have made the downstairs kitchen the hottest room on earth--the sum of it cast a daydream where I was the head cook at the Biltmore house--searing calve’s liver with asparagus and using the dumbwaiter to hoist the meal straight up to Edith Vanderbilt’s room. The whole experience really ignited my imagination.

I expected the family to have Appalachian eating habits, but was also struck by how the recipes from 1904 seemed very Eurocentric. I expected to see ramps mentioned, lots of apples and dishes built on cornmeal, but I didn’t see any references to much or any of that. And although they grew a lot of what they ate, there were also references to a lot of fish, sometimes fish from the west coast. I have to think that was highly unusual. I assume importing food was made possible by the Vanderbilt family’s railroad empire. I later learned that the Vanderbilts kept waters at Biltmore stocked with fish in order to supply the family with fresh, local seafood.

Before visiting Biltmore, I thought it was just a big house. I was actually thrilled to learn that it’s a working farm. I especially enjoyed seeing the canola oil extraction process. It demonstrated the resourcefulness and sustainably-focused thinking of the Biltmore team. For instance, the canola plant is beautiful when it blooms with its bright yellow blossoms, so it adds to the appeal of walking or driving through the property. Once harvested, they extract the oil from the seed and use it in their restaurants. Then, they press the leftover bulk into pellets to feed the chickens that lay eggs for use in the restaurant. The opportunity to see all of that and understand the legacy of the property as a working farm was a real eye-opener for me.

I was also impressed by the knowledge of Biltmore winemakers. I always knew Biltmore made wine, but I didn’t know they grew grapes. I’ve understood North Carolina to be a difficult place to grow wine grapes, but I have never understood why. Bernard Delille [one of Biltmore’s two winemakers] is the only person I’ve questioned who was able to explain how the limitations of North Carolina’s climate impact grape growers – and that’s saying something...because he’s French and his accent is thicker than mine!

So much that I learned on my Biltmore weekend made me realize how fortunate North Carolina is to be home to such a national treasure.  Although much of Biltmore was a personal treat for me as a chef, my kids really enjoyed themselves as well. Theo and Flo loved going through the house and were especially intrigued by the pool and the bowling alley. They also loved the ice cream shop. We had to go there twice.

There’s a lot more to do as a guest at Biltmore than I knew. To fully take in everything the estate has to offer requires more than a day, so I’d suggest taking a long weekend if you can spare it. The experience is certainly worth it.


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