The Second Coming of John Fleer

William Hereford
by Adam Sachs - August/September 2014

After leaving his post at Blackberry Farm, the chef is back with two Blue Ridge restaurants and visions of a new kind of Foothills Cuisine

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>Video: In the Kitchen with John Fleer

John Fleer is having second thoughts about Merkel Pie.

Of the prized spongiform fungi better known outside the Smoky Mountain foothills as morels, Fleer observes: “One of the great cultural things I picked up in East Tennessee”—not a phrase one hears every day—“was a traditional recipe for a shepherd’s pie made with morels, which they call merkels, and bacon and mashed potatoes.”

The pie is “authentically hillbilly,” Fleer says, approvingly. And it had served him well at Blackberry Farm, where it was typical of the kind of overlooked, humble Southern fare he unearthed, elevated, and celebrated during his nearly fifteen-year run at the Relais & Châteaux resort in Walland, Tennessee.

But Fleer’s restaurant Rhubarb, which he opened in Asheville, North Carolina, last October, isn’t bucolic Blackberry. And he isn’t sure such an explicit throwback of a dish, even one as pleasing to eat and say as Merkel Pie, fits with the mission and spirit of the new place.

The restaurant occupies a series of linked Pack Square storefronts at the center of town that have lived a variety of lives. “This room was a porn bookstore,” Fleer says, grinning. Swan-neck steel lamps now protrude from peeling walls preserved in a state of sweet decay. Wood tables are quartersawn and rough-hewn, the exposed ducting above painted gray black in keeping with current vogue for the urban-woodsy-industrial style.

In the relative calm before service, cooks in the back stoke the fire in an open grill and feed split logs into a pair of hungry wood ovens. Near the entrance, some ukulele buskers are playing for change and tourists are taking a breather on benches. Across the street, the towering stone monument to nineteenth-century governor Zebulon Baird Vance stands alone in the empty plaza like a rocket on its launchpad. And there by the door, John Fleer, arguably the most influential yet wildly undercelebrated Southern chef of his generation, is fretting over the wording on tonight’s menu.

“I’m prone to giving credit to every single producer,” Fleer says. “But I’m on a kick now to simplify the language. Because I’ve watched people get freaked out by the menu and walk away.”

Mostly, though, they’ve been walking toward. Packing these stylishly repurposed rooms every night. Pulled in by the promise of those words on the menu: buttermilk fried soft-shell crabs with spring pea rémoulade; rabbit and leek rillettes with apple mostarda; sweetbreads and buckwheat waffles with porcini honey. And drawn, too, by the chance to learn what Fleer has up his sleeve seven years after he left Blackberry to spend more time with his wife and three boys, coach his son’s soccer team, and recharge his batteries. To see what the man who founded a movement rooted in the rural specifics of place and tradition might do with a very different kind of restaurant, one that’s off the farm, in town, and all his own.

Chief among those eager to check in are his esteemed colleagues from the fraternity of well-known Southern chefs.

“I’m telling you, man, he’s the most unsung hero in Southern food,” says Sean Brock in purred admiration. Brock credits Fleer with changing his life with a chilled soup of cornbread and buttermilk. “He started all this, he really did.”

Hugh Acheson calls him a “Jedi Master” and “the quiet godfather of a movement in the mountains who put Blackberry on the map.”

John Currence remembers hearing the first rumblings of a new kind of Foothills Cuisine and thinking, “Okay, really? Eastern Tennessee—how interesting can this be? Then I finally went and saw how hard he was digging into the local artisans and farmers. And I ate his food and was ashamed to call myself a chef. It was truly that astounding.”