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March 17, 2009

Dining for a Cause at Tennessee's Blackberry Farm

Blackberry Farm
The grounds at Blackberry Farm.

by Dorinda Elliott

I am thinking this may be the most delicious dish I have ever eaten: smoked new potatoes, the first of the season at Tennessee's Blackberry Farm, smothered with sour cream and a generous sprinkling of shaved black Tennessee truffles. It is just the first course of yet another amazing meal prepared for a weekend of "wine, women and song" at The Inn at Blackberry Farm (which has to be the most elegant working farm in the world), devoted to raising funds for the Condé Nast Traveler Five & Alive Fund. The fund supports health programs for children in 65 countries.

Sitting next to me, star chef Michelle Bernstein, who opened Michy's in Miami in 2005 and is steadily expanding her culinary empire, is telling me a shocking story about how she made her way in the man's world of restaurant kitchens, how she was knocked around by male chefs (literally), groped (literally), and sabotaged by jealous male competitors who would throw out her prep work or intentionally ruin a dish.

Several very famous restaurants' names come up, including a top-notch New York fish restaurant where she still eats occasionally ("because the food is delicious," she says. "I don't care"), though the owner and she don't acknowledge each other's presence. Michelle says she was saved by a chef she originally thought was out to get her, but who one day took her aside and told her to "go to the gym and get bulked up." "I was a JAP who had done ballet, and he said I'd never make it in the kitchen," Michelle says. "He told me to stop wearing makeup, gain some weight, or get out."

PSI Panel
PUR water-purifying sachets
that Ashley demonstrated how
to use during the panel.

A bluegrass band is playing, the fire is roaring, and we all have blankets on our laps in the open-air cupola that has been set up for this VIP dinner. Activist/actress Ashley Judd, who is on the board of Population Services International, founder of the Five & Alive program, is here with her dark and handsome husband, international racing star Dario Franchitti. Halfway through our meal, Chris Thile, the Grammy Award-winning mandolin player who is a dead ringer for Jude Law, stands up and bursts into song. The thrang thrang of the mandolin and Chris's sweet, plaintive voice fill the space. The air on this March Tennessee night has a bite to it, and I notice that Ashley and her famous husband are seated a lot closer to the fireplace than I am. The major donors to the Five & Alive fund are closer, too. Fair enough. My toes are frozen, but this is close to heaven nonetheless.

This afternoon I participated in a panel discussion here with Ashley, Kate Roberts, who created the Five & Alive program, and Marshall Stowell, who handles communications for PSI. Ashley was in pigtails and a down jacket, after a hike in the nearby hills. I talked about Condé Nast Traveler's commitment to giving back, through the World Savers Partnership--which works with the travel industry to encourage companies to expand their social responsibility programs--and the magazine's work with the Five & Alive Fund. Ashley recounted the trip she took to Rwanda last year with my boss, Traveler editor in chief Klara Glowczewska, to visit PSI programs there. Thanks to an extraordinary bed-net program implemented by PSI and the Rwandan government, the incidence of malaria has dropped by more than 65 percent--"that's the gold standard in the global health community," Kate said. The audience seemed moved by the presentation--for good reason. Not only does PSI save many thousands of lives; what really sets its programs apart is that they are run on market principles and, therefore, sustainable. And that is the gold standard in the non-profit world.

Further reading:
* Make a Difference: Join us in supporting the global effort to bring simple life-saving solutions to children in need. Donate to the Five & Alive Fund and read about how various travel industry organizations have joined in the cause
* The Inn at Blackberry Farm has been on Condé Nast Traveler's Gold List for the past four years
* Notes from Traveler's 2008 World Savers Congress

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