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Cover Story: Tony Seichrist

The Farmhouse at Serenbe

Off a long winding road in Palmetto, Ga., about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta, lies the Serenbe Southern Country Inn, an almost impossibly idyllic bed and breakfast surrounded by rolling farmland. The 1905 farmhouse was converted in the early 1990s by Steve and Marie Nygren. They've been buying up the surrounding land ever since, in the hopes of creating a "community."

While the inn served as the flagship business, the Serenbe land and community now covers more than 900 acres and includes a small-town-like development and an organic farm. The most recent addition to this utopia is the Farmhouse Restaurant, which opened in June.

The idea of the restaurant is to provide dinner service at the inn, open to the public and using mainly ingredients grown on the Serenbe land at Serenbe Organic Farms. To achieve this, Serenbe has hired Tony Seichrist, a chef who has been cooking at Athens' Five and Ten restaurant under chef Hugh Acheson, who was one of the pioneers of cooking seasonally in Georgia.

Seichrist represents a new generation of young chefs, trained in kitchens where seasonal, ingredient-driven food is the cutting edge, rather than the fancy platings and French techniques that ruled 20 years ago.

At the tender age of 24, Seichrist is full of enthusiasm and idealism.

"We are going for simple, earthy presentations," he says. "We want it to be as pleasing to the eye as we can make it while maintaining the rustic appeal. If we start getting into molds and stuff, people lose the connection to the food."

The restaurant operates out of the farmhouse kitchen and connecting dining room. Upon entering, the first thing diners see is the large kitchen looking much the same as it would have when the house was built in 1905. Open Thursday through Sunday, the set menu offers diners three courses featuring whatever is freshest on the farm that day. The experience of dining there is much like eating dinner at someone's home, and it is this simplicity and intimacy that Seichrist hopes will give customers a feeling of connectivity to their food.

During the summer months, Seichrist can present menus that are made up entirely of food grown on the Serenbe land, excluding meats and seafood. For those, he buys from purveyors who are supplying from sources close to home.

"You won't really find anything on the menu from outside of the Southeast," he says.

And if the restaurant needs produce that he can't get from the Serenbe farm or the small garden that lies just beyond the back door of the farmhouse kitchen, Seichrist finds it at the local farmer's market. The restaurant is an exercise in maximizing the resources in its immediate community.

There is a lot to be said for the ingenuity of direct supply. In an era when food is subject to issues of safety, health and morality, it's comforting to know exactly where your dinner came from, who grew it, who cooked it and that the people involved cared for it every step of the way.

And in this age of micro-gastronomy, with chefs using their kitchens as laboratories and design factoring into our food more than ever, it's nice to have a dose of simplicity.

"We try and take what we have and work with that," Seichrist says. "We don't try and go look around for a lot of stuff that will impress a lot of people. We see what we have and we do what we can with it."

Summer

Tony Seichrist's Squash Blossom Salad with Green Garlic and Chive Buttermilk Dressing

Salad and dressing

6 to 8 fresh squash blossoms

Baby lettuces

Chives, sliced thin

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup champagne vin

1/4 lemon juice

1 cup sour cream

Zest of one lemon

Lightly chopped dill

1 tablespoon minced green garlic

Pinch of salt

Peanut oil, for deep-frying squash blossoms

To make dressing, combine all ingredients except lettuce and blossoms in mixing bowl and blend till smooth. Adjust acid and salt levels to taste.

Batter

3 cups white rice flour or all-purpose flour

Ice-cold club soda

2 tablespoons salt

2 pinches cayenne pepper

1 pinch chili powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

To make batter, combine dry ingredients in mixing bowl and slowly drizzle in the cold soda water until thin pancake batter consistency is reached.

To finish salad, add baby lettuces to mixing bowl along with a thinly sliced red onion. Dip blossoms completely in batter, holding the stem, and allow to drain before adding them to 375-degree peanut oil. Deep-fry the blossom until golden brown and crisp, remove and drain on paper towel, salt immediately after frying. Plate salad with blossoms on top and drizzle the dressing around plate and greens.

Serenbe Southern Country Inn. 10950 Hutcheson Ferry Road, Palmetto. 770-463-2610. www.serenbe.com.

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