John Fleer eyes Asheville

House on a hill: Canyon Kitchen in Sapphire boasts stunning views of granite cliffs and a rolling property. Photos by Mackensy Lunsford

Asheville, we're about to get another feather in our culinary cap. John Fleer is looking at our area to open his first restaurant.

You may have heard Fleer's name before; he was the executive chef of Blackberry Farm, an Eastern Tennessee resort, for almost 15 years — and simultaneously the general manager of the resort for an understandably tiring spell. There, he pioneered the style now known as "foothills cuisine," (since trademarked by Blackberry Farm.) Under Fleer's tenure, Blackberry Farm was mentioned by Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Food and Wine magazines. The resort won numerous awards, including remarkably high honors from Travel + Leisure Magazine, which named the service and cuisine at Blackberry Farm the best, and second best, respectively, for resorts across the globe. "It was a total experience — the food, the stay, the grounds," says Fleer, who was also a finalist for the James Beard award for best chef in the southeast this year.

Fleer left Blackberry Farm in 2007, essentially just ready for a life and location change. He crossed the mountains to North Carolina, where he now helms Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley. The restaurant is located on a gorgeous swath of property in Sapphire, N.C. that’s owned by the Jennings-Eason family of Sunburst Trout Farms (learn more about the property at http://www.lonesomevalley.com/). The restaurant is only open from Memorial Day through late October (sorry folks, you missed it for the year).

Fleer originally met Sally Eason, the face of Sunburst Trout, when he began using her products at Blackberry Farm. He solidified the working relationship further at a Baltimore food-and-wine expo, where he also rubbed elbows with Allan Benton, he of the revered pork products, whom Fleer describes as a friend.

The partnership between Eason and Fleer seems to have served each party well. The food at Canyon Kitchen, built within a beautiful, lofty redesigned barn, is spectacular, and Fleer, for his part, is happy with the arrangement. It's hard not to get comfortable at Canyon Kitchen. That's in part due to the hospitality, which Eason oversees, and part courtesy of a stunning atmosphere. The wood-filled dining room has a wall of east-facing barn doors, generally flung open (even on chilly nights) to reveal the arresting view of the granite cliffs that form the backdrop of the restaurant upon approach. The fireplace is lit on chillier evenings, and people tend to gather around the hearth. "You feel more like you're coming into someone's home than going out to dinner at a restaurant," says Fleer of the space. "Even at its busiest times, it feels more like a house party than a restaurant."

One early October evening, Fleer invited Asheville culinary icon Mark Rosenstein to join him in cooking a multi-course dinner that included top-tier wine selections from distributor Kermit Lynch's portfolio. The event kicked off in the garden as the sun et, painting the cliffs terracotta, with the staff passing appetizers reflective of Fleer's style. Tiny chicken pot-pie fritters were a bite of comfort, while escargot Bourgignone fried in wantons were whimsical and deeply flavorful. Dinner courses included muscadine-glazed bison short ribs with Brussels-sprout confetti, onion jam, Anson Mills polenta and olive-oil braised fall vegetables, and a meltingly tender gallantine of chicken leg stuffed with fall mushrooms with a melted Tallegio-style cheese called Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy. It was a menu of sophisticated comfort food with a local bent and vast depth of flavor. 

Fleer on the way?

The next step for Fleer is to bring that sophisticated but unpretentious style to Asheville where he will open his first restaurant, he told Xpress. "[My wife and I] made the decision late in the spring that we were going to go ahead and move," said Fleer, who added that he and his wife discussed moving to Asheville 20 years ago. "We were always headed back home," the North Carolina native said.

Still, according to Eason, Fleer will remain the executive chef of Canyon Kitchen. “I don’t know how he’s going to do it, but if anybody can pull it off, it’s Fleer,” she says. Fleer confirms that it is his full intention to continue to be involved with Canyon Kitchen as his Asheville plans move forward.

And what exactly are Fleer’s plans for Asheville? It's still hard for him to say at this time — but his heart appears to be in the right place. "I know that Asheville is a great traveling and tourist town, and that's a great resource for restaurants, but if I'm going to live here, I want the community to be in my restaurant and support it," he says. "And the tourists will come or they won't come. That's probably the biggest thing on my agenda — figuring out what Asheville needs, meaning local Asheville as opposed to the passersby."

Now that the Canyon Kitchen has closed for the winter, that gives him more time to zero in on what would make the best fit, and how he can best contribute to a culinary scene poised to be even further recognized as a national culinary destination.

Xpress asked Fleer how he thought Asheville could best achieve world-class culinary destination status. "I don't know! But I hope to be a part of it," he says. "There's so much that's well-developed and maybe even better developed [in Asheville] than in other places," he adds. "I think there's just some kind of pipeline to the bigger picture that probably is lacking." Fleer says that our area could benefit from more widespread outreach to other food communities and chefs.

Some are already working on that: Jacob Sessoms of Table recently hosted a guest chef dinner with Jonathan Lundy, and William Dissen of The Market Place has done the same with some of the chefs he met this summer at the Cooking for Solutions event in Monterey, Calif. Last summer, chef Duane Fernades of Horizons at the Grove Park Inn hosted big-name chefs like Sean Brock of McCrady’s and Husk to cook lavish multi-course wine dinners.

"Those are the types of things that are bringing chefs into town," agrees Fleer. "There is a kind of fraternity of chefs out there to tap into. I like the fact that, in most cities when I travel now, I know someone whose restaurant I want to go support who's a friend of mine … In the overall scheme of becoming a food destination, I think that's really important," he says.

Asheville’s strengths as a culinary scene, Fleer points out, include a food focus that's hyper-local. "Asheville is certainly a model of local focus, and I don't ever experience it as a provincial town," Fleer says. "Certainly, there are other places in the south that are provincial in the negative sense, which was one of the issues I had with living in East Tennessee, and one of the really freeing things about going to Asheville, not having that experience."

The concept of Fleer's new Asheville location is still in the works, says the chef.

"That will all follow from [the location]," he says. "There's a certain evolution of my cooking which continues to change … but I can only be myself and cook what is important to me, and that continues to evolve and change. Whatever that is in the next year is what will be reflected in the restaurant."

Xpress will keep you posted on Fleer's developments.

— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com

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