It never ceases to amaze Allan Benton. Like when he's siting in the doctor's office, leafing through an old Bon Appetit magazine, and sees a list of 12 Best Restaurants. "Four of them were our customers," recalls Benton. "We're just really blessed, really lucky."
Then there was the time a year or so back when he saw Table Fifty-Two Restaurant in Chicago on his television screen, and Michelle and Barack Obama coming out the front door. "I said, ‘Dang, I sell to Table Fifty-Two!' and didn't think any more about it. Then the chef was nice enough to call me the next day, ‘I want to tell you, they loved your bacon!' That was where the Obamas ate right before they got on the plane to go to the Inauguration."
From a concrete block building on 411, close enough to Knoxville for us to claim him and he us, Benton has overseen a curing operation since 1973, never butchering but always using pork "grown on pasture, never concrete, with no antibiotics added to the feed," he says. "Our goal is something that's as good as what's produced in Europe."
His country hams and bacon make their way to the French Laundry's Thomas Keller ("he doesn't use much product, only buys something every two months or so"), to Momofuku's David Chang in Manhattan, to Wolfgang Puck and Emeril—among others. Benton's a player in the super-charged atmosphere of vogue restaurants and chefs with star power, but he still works six to seven days a week and sees himself and his wife of 36 years as "plain country folks." He says not one day passes that he doesn't count his blessings, and chief among them is meeting Chef John Fleer at Blackberry Farm, the luxury chateau in Walland. "This was probably 1993, I'm just guessing, I don't know, but he started sharing my products with the chefs who visit Blackberry Farm, single-handedly started spreading my name." Blackberry owner Sam Beall is another "extraordinary person" Benton credits with publicizing his cured meats. "If they couldn't repair the lawnmower up there, I'd be up there to cut their grass," he says. "I cannot begin to repay my debt to them."
Benton marvels at the creative ways chefs use his products. "I've actually been served bacon cotton candy by Sean Brock [at McCrady's in Charleston, S.C.]. And a chef in New York City made scallops in a bacon consomme... I can still imagine it on my tastebuds."
His own is the only bacon Benton cares for. "I make the same kind of bacon I grew up eating—I never liked packing-house bacon," he says. "My favorite is a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich with a tomato from my garden."