Ted Katsigianis is a walking encyclopedia of all things Biltmore. His extensive knowledge of the Biltmore grounds is a result of 33 years of service on the 8000-acre estate. He currently serves as Vice President of Agricultural Sciences, working to keep up George Vanderbilt’s original vision for the estate to be a self-sustaining working farm. Ted maintains that emphasis on agriculture, a daunting task that includes oversight of Biltmore’s extensive bodies of livestock and farmland with assistance from a 50-person crew. “That includes the equestrian programs, the farm, and agritourism,” Ted explains. “We also do a lot of work with school groups to teach kids where their food comes from. We host about 60,000 kids a year. Most of them visit our farmyard where we teach about breed diversity. For example, we have fiber goats and meat goats and milk goats, so we educate kids about the different purposes of livestock. It’s all part of the North Carolina Science curriculum.” Ted calls conducting tours and managing the agriculture and equestrian programs his “night job,” yet he dispenses much of his knowledge during the day when the estate is inundated with patrons.
Although the services Biltmore offers its visitors are expansive, the growth is calculated. “We like to say, ‘start small, learn, and grow,’” Ted tells me from the lobby of The Inn on Biltmore Estate overlooking one of the estate’s many majestic backyards. Some of the vegetables and meats for Biltmore’s seven restaurants are sourced in-house. Ted speaks proudly of the estate’s investment in naturally growing its farm animal population and crops. “We started out with 29 purebred Angus brood cows [in 1983], and now we have almost 300. All of that is organic growth. We haven’t brought any other females in. The same with our sheep. We started with 24 Dorset sheep [in 1994], now we have almost 300 White Dorper sheep.”
Ted also spoke about the process of keeping all of the estate’s restaurants stocked with estate-grown products. “Looking at our meats, right after our busy Christmas season, I meet with our food and beverage buyer and all of our chefs. Sitting down together, I give them an idea of the products we’re anticipating. We then develop a cut sheet for each species that determines which of Biltmore’s several restaurants receives what product. For instance, with beef, the cut sheet might say ‘Cedric’s [Tavern] gets the tenderloin and Stable Cafe gets the hamburger and Chef Kirk [Biltmore Catering] gets the beef brisket.’ Our process is really a friendly negotiation that we’ve done for years. We do the same with our lamb, pork, hens, our free-range chicken and our eggs. Most of our eggs are currently going to Cedric’s where they make Scotch eggs.”
With Ted as our guide, we got a firsthand account of exactly how things are done at Biltmore. Each division of the estate works like a well-oiled machine that fuels the daily operations of the entire grounds. In September of last year, Vivian and her mom (Miss Scarlett) accompanied a shuttle of approximately 30 fans of A CHEF’S LIFE on a tour of Biltmore’s farmland that included stops along the ground’s most remote pastures and a visit to the property’s state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse where lettuce and a variety of microgreens flourish. “Most of the public areas of the estate, the east side of the property, are pretty well traveled, especially by our 100,000 pass holders,” Ted adds. The grounds boast 75 acres of breathtaking, manicured gardens. But, Vivian like many guests, was surprised by the way sustainable environmental practices are worked into the aesthetic of the property. “We grow canola and make our own canola oil. So that’s been a fun project,” Ted shares. “When canola is in bloom, it’s gorgeous and the bright yellow blooms of the crop fill the estate’s fields in a sea of yellow. It’s a show stopper. So not only do you produce a crop of edible oil that is used in our fryers and then is processed on the farm into biofuel, but our guests love the visual detail that the crop brings to a visit to the estate.”
Some guests take guided Segway tours that allow access to the estate’s west side where agriculture takes center stage. The west part of the estate leads to Long Valley Vineyard which silhouettes the French Broad River that bisects the property. “Imagine the vineyard in October when the air is crisp and the leaves have changed,” Ted encourages. “It’s spectacular.”
Biltmore has undergone major changes since Ted first arrived in Asheville as an animal scientist from the University of Maryland some thirty years ago. “It was a dairy farm in transition that needed a lot of work-- fencing, upgrading and all that. It was pretty overwhelming. There were something like 200, 000 visitors then, so tourism was viable but nothing like the 1.4 million annual visitors we see today.” He continues, “I was asked to come in 1982 and help make the transition from dairy farm to a grazing livestock operation. So I consulted for the estate before moving to Asheville in 1983 for 'a couple of years'– time flies when you're having a good time! There have been a lot of challenges to overcome, a lot of neat opportunities, but most of all it’s been a lot of fun.”