It was an obvious choice for chef John Fleer to select Chapel Hill cookbook author Sheri Castle to be the inaugural presenter for the new demonstration kitchen at his Asheville anchor restaurant, Rhubarb. Castle’s newest cookbook, a small pamphlet numbered volume 20 in the Short Stack Editions cookbook series, focuses entirely on ways to prepare the namesake plant of Fleer’s well-known eatery. But in offering myriad ways to cook an underutilized but readily available food grown by local farmers, Castle’s book also relates to Fleer’s overall mission.
“I really wanted to be able to integrate [the new event space] into what we are doing and into what I feel like our mission is in terms of being engaged in the culinary and farming scenes,” says Fleer, who is known for his partnerships with Western North Carolina farmers and foragers. “Beyond the business side of things, I really think of this space as a food and beverage community center.”
Besides cooking demonstrations like Castle’s, Fleer lists farmer-hosted “how-to-cook-your-CSA” events and food policy discussions through a partnership with Edible Asheville magazine among the programs he has in the works for the downtown space. “Outside of serving great food, I really see it as our mission to be involved in the community and the broader discussion of what role we play in it,” he explains.
Rhubarb has a solid following as a classic Southern pie ingredient. But despite its abundance in the South in spring and summer and its willingness as a perennial to return year after year without replanting, it is often overlooked as a component for other dishes. Castle rectifies this oversight in her slender new volume — titled simply Rhubarb — by highlighting the tart, acidic and almost sweet flavors of this celerylike member of the buckwheat family.
“It’s much more versatile than you might think,” she says in her book, “and can behave differently — like a berry, fruit or vegetable — depending on the recipe. With the sour tang of a lemon, the tart moisture of an apple and the crisp grassiness of celery, it’s a remarkable ingredient and a cook’s dream.”
At Castle’s late-May demonstration, she methodically walks the audience — which for this first event is mostly a who’s-who roster of regional chefs, bakers and cookbook authors — through the preparation of rhubarb salsa, which works with the ingredient’s fruitlike qualities. Next, she does a step-by-step demonstration of how to make rhubarb and tomato dumplings, a tasty, fluffy, biscuitlike dish. Samples of each dish are distributed to the small crowd.
The Rhubarb event room, which is an upstairs space connected to both Rhubarb restaurant and Fleer’s recently opened The Rhu bakery, café and pantry, has a rustic feel. The décor leans decidedly toward simplicity in keeping with the standard themes of the rest of Fleer’s other businesses. Behind a set of massive rollaway doors that look as if they came from an old, weathered barn sits the dining room. The sprawling space, which was previously an overflow seating area when the building housed the French Broad Chocolate Lounge before its move to Pack Square, is filled with community tables and a small service bar.
After the cooking demonstrations, Fleer carries the theme of Castle’s book into Rhubarb’s regular Sunday Supper service. The multicourse, family-style dinner starts with a salad of local beets and lettuces with pickled rhubarb, lamb meatballs with rhubarb ketchup and General Tso’s-style tilefish lettuce wraps. Heavier dishes include a rhubarb-glazed duck confit and chard-rhubarb gratin with bacon-Vidalia onion relish and giardiniera.
Fleer says he isn’t ready to go gung-ho into hosting private events and massive chefs dinners. Instead, he plans to give the space a soft start, hosting a smattering of small events and celebrations over the next six months, with the goal of having more events online by fall.
The space is available for rehearsal dinners and corporate events, but that is not the end goal for its use, he explains. “I really want to focus on getting some of our farmers into forums where people can get more contact with these people who I think are the most important link in the chain of what we do,” says Fleer, adding that there are still a good number of people who don’t have a full understanding of the role small farms and food makers play in the local food system. “I’m hoping to do more celebrating of those folks in this forum. Hopefully, by this time next year, it will be fully integrated into what we’re doing.”