If you observe age and lineage, you’d never believe 29 year old Neil Kleinschmit, who lived all over the world as an”army brat” and who is of Chinese and German descent, could give you the very best of home style Southern food you could find anywhere! Neil,who prefers not to be entitled “chef,” is responsible for the kitchen, staff, menu selections, and preparing of the fabulous meals for which High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, NC, is so famous. Casually dressed in loose fitting tee shirt , printed flannel pants, and Berkenstock clods, Neil confidently led me on a tour of his spotless, perfectly managed kitchen during his mid-afternoon lull, an hour before customarily feeding about 350 people! “I’d die if anyone told me I had to prepare for even 35, and I’d be a frantic wreck an hour beforehand,” I remarked to Neil, who obviously enjoys his work and responsibilities. I had already stuffed myself with his incredibly wonderful Southern dishes for several meals before the interview.
“But I have a terrific staff I can trust,” Neil replied. He explained that he arrives three weeks before the resort season opens and plans the menus (which rotate weekly), orders the ingredients, and trains the new staff. Because the inn is in a very small rural, mountain community where there are not enough local people to staff the resort, High Hampton employs students from fifteen countries, most of whom are majoring in hotel management or hospitality in foreign universities. These students come to Cashiers during their school break, and if visas permit, some of these young people stay for 18 months. The ones who can stay the extended period work for two summer seasons at the resort, and during off season attend classes at Southwest Community College in nearby Sylva, NC. Although Neil has apprenticed under several excellent chefs and worked in various restaurants before High Hampton sought him for the job, I wondered how someone so young could possibly plan, order supplies, and train a staff in three weeks, but he has it down to a finely tuned skill.
The meals at High Hampton are one of the secrets of the success of the resort since 1933! If you wish to reserve a room or cabin during peak season, June to August, you must reserve it before Christmas, and only hope there is space because about seventy percent of the accommodations have been booked from one season to the next by the same families for generations! Now THAT is success!!!
However, if you have not been vacationing here in these beautiful mountains all your life, you may at first sight be put off by the low key, down home nature of the place. When I entered the rustic lodge with its warm welcoming environment and learned there are no phones or TV’s in the rooms, no air conditioning (none needed), no room service, and almost no cell phone service, I thought, “Why am I here?” And being one who loves constant activity, I thought I’d die of boredom. But there has to be some secret of why people come back again and again, and it didn’t take even a full day to discover why…
Baby Boomers and Generation X have been constantly bombarded with noise and activity and too much demanded of them. Even holidays are so action-packed that the idea of rest and RE-creation has been lost. But that is what the experience here is, and what a GIFT that is… to learn how to let go of stress of work, enjoy nature and sitting and talking or playing games with friends, family, or other guests you meet at the lodge in front of the huge stone, four-sided fireplace. This is what rest and renewal and holidays should be! This is also a taste of the best of the past, which provides respite and serenity, much needed in these modern times for sanity, well- being, and family togetherness.
But along with this peaceful rest, you can find plenty to do. Throughout the year there are various special programs such as the spring and fall Wild Flower Clinic during which noted authorities from the area lead hikes and give fascinating programs to flower enthusiasts. In most seasons guests can enjoy canoeing, fishing, swimming, tennis, golf, hiking, mountain climbing, and now a brand new state of the art fitness center and spa, and unique shopping in Cashiers and other nearby towns. High Hampton Fitness Center offers fabulous treatments of every kind to enhance your relaxation and pamper away your cares and aches. I decided to go for the works…massage, facials, neck and head relaxation, manicure, pedicure, steam room. What a delightful experience…I came away floating with peace and totally relaxed, months of stress lines erased from my now vibrant skin! The therapists, masseuses, masseurs, and estheticians are well trained professionals and kind, caring people, as well. The exercise classes are fun, and the trainers are eager to help you with even the most advanced fitness machines. But I stopped short of the new climbing tower, leaving that for younger energetic muscles!
In the 1940’s High Hampton was the first resort to have planned kids’ activities to give parents some freedom and respite. Noah’s Ark is the children’s center of activities with excellent care and fun things to do, so parents can kick back and enjoy alone time. High Hampton property was once the summer home of General Wade Hampton. Opened in 1922 as a resort and rebuilt in 1933 after a fire, this upscale resort retreat which has been owned and managed by the same family for three generations, has maintained its eloquence and its impeccable reputation as one of the finest resorts in the Southeast. .And for many years High Hampton has continued to be listed in The 100 Best Family Resorts in North America, in Child Magazine’s 60 Best Family-Friendly Resorts, and in the National Register of Historic Places. There is something for every age child and teen and lots for families to do together, even as simple and simply wonderful as BINGO in the lodge many evenings after dinner.
But back to the fabulous meals, because whether they admit it or not (out of fear of appearing to be gluttons,) everyone who comes here LOVES the delicious food and Southern hospitality. You must select a two or three meal plan. Breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea are casual so that guests can come in from activities and eat comfortably. The staff will even prepare hearty box lunches for hikes or picnics if you ask the night before. Evening meals are more formal in traditional Southern style, and coat and tie are required for gentlemen and appropriate attire for ladies. (If you forgot to bring a coat and tie, there is a thoughtfully supplied loaner closet.) All meals are buffet style with numerous scrumptious selections. The joke becomes “I’m not even hungry…do I really have to eat again?” before each guest fills his or her plate to brimming with the irresistible array of fabulous, down home cooking! When I asked Neil how he plans the incredible menus he replied that some of the foods were already favorites here among guests when he took the job several years ago. Neil has added some of his personal favorite dishes from his best cook books and favorite chefs, and some of his mom’s culinary secrets. Neil’s philosophy is “You can’t beat simplicity, that’s for sure. Whether a recipe is simple or complicated doesn’t matter. If you use the freshest and best ingredients you can get, the results will be fantastic every time.” I asked how he plans menus to prevent waste, and he replied that he dovetails meal plans that use some of the same key ingredients. For example, on one day we had exquisite roast of lamb, and two days later tasty shepherd’s pie was on the buffet. The staff eats most of the buffet after the guests leave the dining room, so there are not many left-overs. Of course, extra meats and vegetables can become delicious soups. At the end of the season any staples or frozen items are donated to shelters. As any good cook knows, careful planning and wise management is always necessary.
When I asked about my personal favorite, fried chicken, Neil quickly said,, “Soaking it in buttermilk is the secret, before dredging it with a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika. Then we deep fat fry it in peanut oil. That led me to ask about food allergies, and he replied that anyone with a special dietary need will be aware to ask, and he normally only uses peanut oil for frying. However, High Hampton staff will happily accommodate any special needs, including the most demanding of diets, if he knows 24 hours ahead of time. Neil has handled all kinds of special diets from diabetic, to wheat and milk allergies, to vegan, kosher, and almost any other. Just call ahead to discuss it with him before you arrive.
Not only does High Hampton kitchen feed about 350 guests three meals a day in peak season, but also the staff does catering for special events. This is one of Neil’s favorite duties, and he usually prepares the special event trays and foods himself. This allows him to show his flair for party or ethnic foods, which he does not routinely serve to guests who come for the Southern home style dishes. The day after I left, the staff was preparing for a wedding party which reserved the entire resort for four days. The kitchen staff and Neil were taking it so calmly I couldn’t imagine! This was a third generation wedding on the premises, guests who had spent holidays here all their lives, and whose three generations of brides have been married on the lawn overlooking the beautiful lake and mountains.
This is High Hampton…fun, relaxation, and family, whether or not you have any blood relatives there, you become family. Thanksgiving has always been the most special weekend of all…like one giant family traditional holiday. Instead of closing for several months afterwards this year, High Hampton is extending its hospitality to enjoy all year. This is a wonderful year to discover High Hampton for yourself. For the first time guests can enjoy the beautiful winter in the mountains here, with newly refurbished guest rooms and cabins and the new fitness center and spa, and even the golf course and tennis courts will be open all winter because snow is rare. According to Will McKee, the third generation owner of High Hampton, “The winter is a great time to come. You will feel like a king in his own palace because there will not be so many guests, and you’ll be treated royally.”
High Hampton also had guest houses to rent. The problem with High Hampton is most guests never want to leave! However, they have in recent years solved this also. You can now purchase a lot and build a home at this beautiful resort so you can become a High Hampton permanent resident. Wow..I’m really tempted!