Chef John Fleer is taking the traditional American idea of family and friends gathering around a table for a Sunday evening meal to a new level. Fleer’s Pack Square restaurant, Rhubarb, is reimagining its current Thursday evening Family Meal as Sunday Supper, a celebration of the abundance of area farms in a communal dining setting that is appropriate — and enjoyable — for all ages and includes local farmers as guests.
Fleer, a three-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist well-known for his years as head chef at Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, opened Rhubarb in October 2013 with a goal of hosting regular communal meals — where groups of diners are seated together at large tables and serve themselves family-style from common bowls and platters.
Fleer attributes the limited success of Rhubarb’s Thursday Family Meal to a somewhat “strict format and simple set menu.” Sunday Supper, he says, will offer more flexibility in that diners can opt to be a part of the community meal or can choose from an a la carte menu.
He will also encourage farmers to join in the meals, both to offer diners a chance to connect with their local growers, and to allow farmers to witness people enjoying their products. “We don’t want to exclude anyone from the experience,” he says.
Fleer, a devoted family man and father to sons ages 12, 15 and 21, believes that although people often feel uncomfortable at first about dining with strangers, the experience of meeting new people and getting to know them through sharing a meal can be transformative. And for children, he says, it can be especially valuable.
“One of my hidden objectives [with Sunday Supper] is that I feel like, for children, eating in mixed company at the table with people they know as well as people they don’t know is a great tool. It helps for them to hear conversations, it helps for them to learn about other people’s lives. It’s a powerful tool in helping them become good people,” says Fleer.
Many parents will acknowledge that bringing the children along for a dinner out doesn’t always make for a relaxed and enjoyable evening. Throw in the wild card of having a few strangers for dining companions, and it seems that the potential for disaster — or at least for discomfort — could increase exponentially.
But at a recent Sunday Supper dry run at Rhubarb, I put Fleer’s convictions to the test by bringing my own teenager and kindergartener to the communal table, and I was pleasantly surprised. Sharing the meal with us at our rustic, wooden six-top were a friendly couple of local innkeepers. The kids were shy at first, but soon became engaged in lively conversations with our table mates, and they even received a lesson in creative napkin folding.
Beyond the social aspect of it, as the bowls and platters of food were passed around, both kids tried — and liked — things they would normally never even consider eating. The little one loved the salad of local lettuces with Three Graces manchego and crushed strawberry vinaigrette as well as the chicken breast saltimbocca. And the superpicky teen actually enjoyed the wood-roasted treviso with escarole and green garlic as well as the rice beans (think teeny, tiny beans the size of rice grains) with spring onions and beet greens. Win-win.
The Sunday Supper menu will be separate from Rhubarb’s regular menu and will reflect what’s fresh at the weekend tailgate markets. Each meal will offer a selection of snacks, a main course with several accompaniments and dessert. The cost is $26 for adults, and $13 for children ages 12 and younger.
Sunday Supper will be offered at 6:30 p.m. every Sunday starting June 22. Rhubarb is at 7 S.W. Pack Square. For details, visit rhubarbasheville.com or call 785-1503.