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Recently we were featured in an AL.com / Birmingham Magazine article.
Hunting Down a Dream | AL.com
BY Laura McAlister
PHOTOS BY Heather Durham
John Cassimus knows his way around a kitchen.
The Mountain Brook native worked in his mother’s restaurant, Zoës Kitchen, and helped grow it into a national brand with nearly 100 locations in 15 states. He also created the sushi restaurants Jinsei Sushi and Maki Fresh, a brand its owners expect to grow to 10 locations in the next few years.
When it came to building his own home, it’s no surprise Cassimus was particular when it came to his kitchen — and, well, the whole 1,200 acres that make up Sawtooth Plantation. “I always dreamed of living on a farm,” he says. “When I was a child I wanted to be a cowboy with a gun at my hip hunting my food.”
Cassimus is close to making that dream come true with Sawtooth Plantation. However, it’s not a farm. Sawtooth Plantation is a hunting resort east of Auburn, and instead of a gun, his weapon of choice these days is a bow and arrow.
When he’s not traveling to help out at his restaurants or open new ones, Cassimus can be found unwinding at Sawtooth Plantation. There, he spends his time doing what he loves: hunting for trophy whitetail deer, relaxing with his dogs and sharing meals and good times with family and friends.
In addition to the main house, the property includes a cookhouse, five cabins, a man-made four-acre lake and a game-processing shed. The high-fenced property is also home to numerous deer, quail, wild turkey, bass and more.
While the former University of Alabama football player never saw himself living anywhere near his alma mater’s biggest rival, Cassimus says the location, in the rolling plains south of Auburn and Tuskegee, proved to be perfect.
“I’m six miles from a paved road,” he says.
When he purchased the land in 2007, it was nothing but forest, he recalls. The name of the resort was inspired by the many sawtooth oaks on the property. After years of working a hectic restaurant schedule, the tranquility of Sawtooth was just what Cassimus wanted.
“It’s in the middle of nothing. At nighttime there’s no light.”
Just as he does with his restaurants, Cassimus began his project with a vision of what he wanted the resort to be. He enlisted Tom Adams and Adam Gerndt of Birmingham’s Adams Gerndt Design Group to implement it. While they began the planning process, Cassimus took up residence in a small trailer, the only existing structure on the land at the time.
“John was very specific on how he wanted everything to function,” Gerndt says. “We made it a reality. We came in with a master plan. We had to plan the infrastructure. This really is like a
Though several different structures make up the resort, the design is unified. Cassimus wanted it rustic but with all the modern amenities.
They started with the cabins. “He showed me a picture of the shack in the beginning of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ ” Gerndt says. “That’s what he wanted.” Cassimus did get something similar in design, only more polished and sophisticated. The cabins sit on a stone foundation and the exteriors are covered in a cypress board-and-batten siding. Inside, cypress and cedar paneling cover the walls. All the wood was left unpainted to establish the rustic look Cassimus was hoping to achieve. The only paint on the outside is the burgundy window frames. The roofs are a simple galvanized metal.
Cassimus says he went with cabins instead of a lodge to give his guests privacy, but if it’s camaraderie they seek, the cookhouse is the place to be.
A large porch with rocking chairs wraps around the facility, and inside, Cassimus’ deer and other trophies decorate the walls. The open space has a full kitchen and dining area, as well as a fully-stocked bar where a sign welcomes guests to “help yourself.” Large, worn leather chairs and a sofa provide a comfortable place to lounge after a long day’s hunt.
The final structure to be built was the main house, which is just a short stroll from the cookhouse. Like all the structures, this one has a view of the lake. Gerndt says they took great care in the placement of the structures to ensure the best views of the property. Cassimus notes that the fire pit overlooking the lake is a favorite late-night gathering place.
As with the other structures, Cassimus had a specific vision for the one where he would be living full time. “Every detail has a purpose,” he says. “It’s just like when you build a restaurant. I started with how my day flows.” The outside matches the design of the cabins and cookhouse. Gerndt says two cabins actually flank the main living space of the house, unifying the look even more. “We wanted to pick up the architecture through all the structures,” he says.
As for the inside of the main house, Cassimus started in the back. He wanted a space he could get out of his truck and go inside to drop his hunting gear then go directly to the shower. A gear room at the front of the house provides just that and connects to the master bath and bedroom.
Cassimus also loves to cook and entertain, so an open living space was a must. “All the food and entertaining is all in one room,” he says. The living and dining space is flanked by stone fireplaces, each with a metal gate adorned with the Sawtooth logo designed by Adams and Gerndt. The trusses in the vaulted ceiling are cedar and were handmade on site.
Just like in the other structures, the wood-paneled walls were left unpainted, and Cassimus’ trophy deer and other exotic animals serve as artwork in the space. The kitchen adds a burst of color to the area with a hand-made tile backsplash from Italy in Cassimus’ signature bright green. “I have that color in all my restaurants,” he says. And of course he wanted this to be a cook’s kitchen. “You can’t prep without a sink, so there’s a sink in the center island,” he says as he maneuvers though the space. “Everything is at arm’s reach.”
The island countertop was handmade from 1,600 pieces of walnut glued together. A hole cut into the countertop next to the prep sink allows food to be easily swept into the trash can underneath. A bar area provides as extra dining space. The pendant lights above it are made from hand-blown glass from India. The bar stools are made with stretched horsehide. The opposite side of the kitchen has a large farm sink for washing dishes next to the stainless steel dishwasher. The refrigerator is covered in wood paneling, and the hood over the double-oven range was made by a local craftsman Ben Smith.
Now that Cassimus has been in the house about four years, the woodsiding outside has started to get a patina, adding to the rustic look Cassimus desired. In all, he might be able to think of a few things he would change to his Sawtooth Plantation, but really, it’s just as he envisioned, Cassimus says. “When they did it, they got it right,” he says of design team Adams and Gerndt. “This is very similar to what I had in my mind. Everything has a reason and a view. Nothing here blocks the views. You get the sunset and sunrise.”
From the Kitchen
Sawtooth Sweet Potato Wedges
Olive oil (1 Tbsp. per potato)
Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. fresh rosemary
Quarter Sweet Potatoes long ways; 6 or 8 per half if large. Put all in an ice bath for one hour. Drain into large bowl, and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle kosher salt and fresh ground pepper generously over wedges (about 1 tsp of each), and add thyme and rosemary. Coat all wedges with spices. Place on baking sheet and place in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Place under the broiler for 5 minutes to crisp the outside (Watch carefully to avoid burning).
Cooking times may vary.
Sawtooth Barbecue Chicken
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. Lowry’s Garlic Salt
1 stick butter
2 cups white vinegar
Cut chicken into desired cut pieces, quarters, halves. Place on a pan uncovered and refrigerate for two days. On the second day, sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, dried oregano and 1 tsp. Lowry’s Garlic Salt. The oregano should be very visible. Don’t be bashful; use more if needed.
For basting, melt one stick of butter with white vinegar, salt, pepper and 1 tsp. garlic salt. Heat on stove until butter is melted. Leave chicken out of refrigerator for 1 hour before placing on a 300 degree grill with back bone done. Baste every 15 minutes with the butter-vinegar mixture. After 30 minutes, flip the chicken with tongs not fork to avoid puncturing the meat. Keep basting and when the chicken reaches 150 degrees shut the grill down if possible and leave for 15 more minutes or until it reaches 162 degrees. Let sit 10 minutes and serve or cover with foil and hold until dinner is ready.
On the Hunt
A 6 ½-mile, 8-foot fence encloses the 1,200 acres that make up Sawtooth Plantation. That’s to keep the predators out, says John Cassimus, and there’s lot to protect at this hunting resort.
White-tail deer run rampant. Sawtooth actually breeds its own, and then there’s also wild turkey, quail, pheasants, bass and even wild boar to hunt on the property.
While the hunting resort is mainly used by Cassimus and friends, it also offers hunting and lodging packages for corporations, groups and families.
“This is an environment where there is a tremendous amount of animals,” he says. “We’ve got deer, turkey, quail … It’s like a mini Blackberry Farm for hunting.”
As with his restaurants, Cassimus says the emphasis is on good food (we recommend the fried chicken and collards) and accommodations, as well as good times and good hunting.
For more information on Sawtooth Plantation and packages and reservations, visit sawtoothplantation.com
Architecture and interior design: Adams Gerndt Design Group | adams-gerndt.com
General contractor: Alan Meadows
Plumbing and fixtures: V&W Supply | vwsupply.com
Cabinets, wine cellar, butcher block countertop: Mike Moss
Custom oven hood and iron work: Ben Smith
Living room chandeliers: Adams Gerndt Design Group
Natural stone tile and Stone Counter tops: Stone Concepts
Door and Cabinet Hardware: Brass Hardware
Reclaimed Timbers: Alan Meadows
Hardwood Floors: Alan Meadows