John Fleer would rather cook than talk.
A couple of days after signing the lease on the former Bistro 1896 space on Pack Square, the chef says his new restaurant will need to be experienced to be understood. “I have a real sense of the type of food and seeing it on a plate,” he says. “But part of it is: You find yourself in a place, and you express the place.”
The restaurant, which remains unnamed, will be somewhere between industrial and rustic, with food that focuses on the ingredients. The offerings will draw from New Southern and contemporary American cuisine, but they won't conform to either mode of cooking. “I distinctly do not want to be precious,” he says. “It's an evolution toward something more simple and elemental.”
He doesn't yet have a name for his concept yet, but that's not to say he doesn't know what he's doing. Fleer brings decades of experience in Appalachian cuisine and several James Beard Award nominations to Asheville. Food writers know him; chefs respect him. He's not a household name, but he's getting there.
Still, Fleer doesn't focus much on his resume. He's quiet about his accomplishments at The Barn at Blackberry Farm, an exclusive resort in Walland, Tenn. (Joseph Lenn, the current chef at The Barn, won the James Beard Award for the best chef in the Southeast last week.)
Even if Fleer won't admit to it, he’s the one who brought Appalachian cuisine to the national fore. His style of cooking at Blackberry Farm, “Foothills Cuisine,” is now widely emulated and appreciated (and trademarked by the inn). “I can't acknowledge that I helped move [Southern cuisine] along,” he says. “I can acknowledge that people inspired me to do something that at the time was perceived as different, but just felt like the right thing to do at the time. It wasn't at all about being edgy.”
But Foothills Cuisine and the James Beard nominations — those were years ago. Fleer left Blackberry Farm in 2007 to spend more time with his family. Since then, he's been the chef at Canyon Kitchen, which opens seasonally in Cashiers.
He's worked quietly there, tucked away in a tiny valley. Sally Eason of Sunburst Trout Farms owns the property, a planned community called Lonesome Valley. It's not exclusive like Blackberry Farm, where the tasting menu begins at $125, but it is remote.
Fleer's kitchen in Pack Square will be perhaps the hottest piece of real estate he's worked in. “It's great to be right here in the center of the hubbub,” he says. “It was clear that this was a fantastic space and represented everything that I love about Asheville and this community.”
He plans to overhaul the interior. He'll take out some of the walls, build a new bar and generally update the space. He'll paint over the cherubs and cows that adorn the walls and ceiling, although he's a little sad to see them go, he says.
That sensibility speaks volumes about Fleer. Over the years, he's remained effortlessly on point, setting standards for the industry. But at the same time, he appreciates the silliness of something like a cherub mural. He brings that attitude to food, too. “That's always been an important part for me, of cooking, whether it's a sense of humor or a little bit of irony,” he says. “You're both paying homage to and highlighting, and at the same time, you're amending it or twisting it to make it something fun.”
There's something very Southern about the meeting point between reverence and ridicule, Fleer explains. “That's what the Drive By Truckers call 'the duality of the Southern thing,'” he says. “That rings so true to me. We still walk it, in food and in our daily lives. It's that line between pride and provincialism.”
In that meeting point, Fleer finds inspiration. So while he can't really describe what the restaurant will become — you'll just have to eat there — he can promise to approach the regional ingredients and the Southern history that drive him with both play and praise.