Food Artisans and Farmers Speak Out For a Food Hero
To quote Brigham Young – A good man, is a good man, whether in church, or out of it.
My husband and I traveled the back roads of Tennessee and North Carolina this year with the intent of writing a story about the best of the region’s food artisans and farmers. While their stories were inspiring and we have already written several articles, there was a much larger and quite unexpected story that emerged.
There is a backstory in the culinary world about a chef that has quietly impacted the lives of so many chefs, farmers, and artisans in the Southeast. In today’s culinary world dominated by chefs and individuals seeking recognition for their own work, Chef John Fleer has always been the spokesperson for others. This is a story of how one individual can enter a person’s life, cause a turning point, inspire a career, create a new path, or accelerate the one they were on.
Fleer received his degree in the humanities from Duke University and was pursuing his master’s degree at the University of North Carolina with the plan to become a minister when his passion for Southern foods and cooking was ignited. The food he experienced at Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina the year he graduated from Duke “was fun food, interesting food, food I recognized, and I was blown away.” This experience combined with an increasing interest in cooking eventually led him to an extreme shift in careers and to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), trading in a pulpit’s robe for a chef’s jacket.
John Fleer was the executive chef at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee from 1992 to 2007 and has been the executive chef of Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Cashiers, North Carolina since 2009. Fleer joined Blackberry Farm after graduating from the CIA in 1992. At that time, Blackberry was an upstart mountain retreat with an ambition to become one of the finest destination resorts in the United States. Owner, Sandy Beall, upon hiring Fleer, charged the new chef to translate his vision for the property into a culinary vision and serve it on the plate. Fleer’s focus was on rustic, yet refined, Southern cuisine. He developed recipes that incorporated regional ingredients sourced primarily from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and other parts of Appalachia. He called it, “Foothills Cuisine.”
“When I graduated from culinary school and went to Blackberry Farm I had Southern sensibilities. I wanted to do Southern food and to do Southern food, you have to have Southern ingredients. It’s that simple. You seek them out.” Fleer would often visit local farms and markets in search of unique and extraordinary ingredients. “My cooking reflects my heritage, but it also reflects some of the other things I have done in my life.”
Here are the stories of some of the lives and places that Fleer has touched as well as some of his culinary contributions.
Allan Benton – Smoky Mountain Country Hams
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams is housed in a modest building on busy Highway 411 in Madisonville, Tennessee. Entering the retail store, you are instantly taken back to the 1960s as the establishment has changed little over the years. The air is filled with the overwhelming smoky aroma of cured meat. It is from this small building that Benton’s prized hams and bacon are smoked, aged, and shipped to chefs across America. It is also where locals come to shop, chat, and see friends. Allan Benton, who has become known as the king of bacon told us, “I can promise you that no one would have ever heard of me if John had not started using my products. John singlehandedly changed my life and got my name out there to chefs. I would not be in business without him.”
Fleer modestly added, “My relationship with Allan is longer than with anyone else and goes back to the beginning at Blackberry Farm. Allan will remember that first telephone call. I called to talk to him about his product and place an order. He was so impressed that there were other uses for his ham besides serving it for breakfast. He used to have a covered pick-up truck and would deliver to Cracker Barrel-like places in Gatlinburg. Blackberry was on the way, so he could deliver. To this day, he cures his meats and does business the old-fashioned way. He continues to use his old rotary phone.”
“I was trying to sell twelve-month hams for the same price others were selling eighty-day hams in Gatlinburg and I was literally starving,” Allan told us. “When John started using my product and sharing it with some of the best chefs in the country visiting Blackberry Farm, these chefs would get home and my phone would be ringing and asking, ‘Can you sell me this?’ ”
Early in his tenure at Blackberry Farm, and as part of Fleer’s culinary vision for the property, he invited guest chefs from around the country to cook with him. “They were the chefs I wanted to meet and work with,” he said. While they were in town, Fleer introduced them to and had them work with Benton’s products and those of other regional producers, including Muddy Pond Sorghum, Sunburst Trout, and Tennessee Truffles. “The chefs would also see the walk-in and the pantry. We all peer into each other’s closets, so to speak, to see what tricks and products we are using. One of the biggest things was the buttermilk from Cruze Farm. ‘You don’t use Sealtest? What the heck is this?’ they would ask.”
As a token of appreciation for their time spent at Blackberry Farm, the visiting chefs were given gift packages of local products like Benton’s Country Ham or bacon and small jugs of Muddy Pond Sorghum, taking these products far beyond the foothills of Tennessee.
Beautiful story…and beautifully written. It’s fantastic to read the stories about these unsung food heroes and how one person really is able to make a difference.
Thank you for your comment. This piece took some time to put together, but it truly was a pleasure to write. I am glad you enjoyed reading it. John Fleer has touched many lives through his food and I wanted to share that story.
Gwen, what a lovely article and tribute to so many of the best! Thanks for such a great read and “local” tour!
Thank you so much and yes, that was quite the tour through parts not too far from you!
Incredibly captured. This is an outstanding leader in our part of Appalachia- A ‘great’ chef starts with the foundation of a ‘good’ man. We are so fortunate to have Chef John Fleer among us!
Thank you. It was quite the story to write. Yes, you are fortunate to have John in Asheville now and it has been our pleasure to know him since he opened Canyon Kitchen. I remember hearing that John Fleer had opened a restaurant in Cashiers and I couldn’t believe it. The first thing we did was head over there for dinner!
I am and will always be standing on the shoulders of Chef John Fleer. While its hard to say who started this movement in the South, its safe to say John was a pioneer. Certainly one of the first chefs to start combing the mountainsides in search of the cure masters and grit grinders. I first met John when I was 19 or 20 years old. I’ll never forget that experience. It was one of those life changing moments, one of those moments of clarity where everything starts to make sense. John was the chef at Blackberry Farm and I was there to help Chef Bob Carter with his cooking demo. Bob, if you are reading this, thanks again for taking me! The first night we were there we sat in the dining room and had dinner. Before each course John would come out and tell a brief story about an ingredient that we were eating, like a wash day pea or an old variety of corn. He would come out and tell the story of the artisans, the farmers and the producers. I can remember how these stories and connections changed the way I enjoyed the food. That obviously stuck with me and I owe a lot to John. Reading this article makes me want to drive to Canyon Kitchen and experience his food again. And I believe I just might. I owe Chef Fleer a couple of glasses of whiskey. Great job Gwen for shining the light on the original gangster of appalachian cooking.
Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment and to help with your perspective for the article. I think John has been an inspiration to almost everyone he has met. The culinary scene in Cashiers, NC has certainly been blessed to have him at Canyon Kitchen and it has been a pleasure getting to know him since he has been there.
Do you know that before I started the blog, I asked John if I could work with him at Canyon Kitchen the next season? He said that was a possibility, but I never pursued it since I started on a different path and began writing Bunkycooks. I wonder what life might look like now if I had gone to work with him in the kitchen instead.
If you head up to Cashiers, let us know and we will have a whiskey with you and John!
We only have a handful of restaurants that promote and use local ingredients here in the Charleston, WV area, but I frequent them constantly. Bravo to you Chef Fleer!
Thank you, Brenda.
There are a number of great restaurants and even some smaller places that focus on local ingredients in this area. It is also very important to me when grocery shopping to purchase as much as possible from small local farmers. It is particularly important (for me) when buying meats to buy from a smaller local producer that has raised their animals and harvested them humanely.
Happy New Year to you!
Gwen, Thank you so much for this written celebration of amazing, southern pioneers in food. With the inspiration that Chef Fleer and the above-mentioned individuals have evoked on the nation’s food community; and myself, it makes me so proud to call the south home. As we move into a new year, a new dawn in food is upon us. As we move ahead in this exciting year it gives us a chance to pay respect to all these amazing chefs and individuals who are truly making food the best way possible, the right way. We are on the precipice of an extraordinary time in our nation’s food community and we have these passionate people and chefs to thank! Kudos to you all and to Gwen for helping to share their drive, passion, and hard work. Stay Hungry!
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree, it is a great time to live in the South. There are many impressive things happening here and we have so many incredible chefs in this region. I am happy to be a small part of it and look forward to 2013 as the best is yet to come!
Happy New Year and we hope to see you soon!
John Fleer has created the ability to share not only the food, but the cultural connectivity that stems from it. His legacy allows many of us from Southern Appalachia to take pride in our heritage and appreciate all it has to offer. Not only do I consider John a friend, more importantly, I consider him a mentor. He has the innate ability to conquer crowds not only with his cuisine, but his warm & wonderful personality as well! Well deserved kudos and appreciation not only of his insight, but the wisdom he brings to our craft!! And a sincere shout out to both Gwen & Roger Pratesi as they capture these moments and share with many who would otherwise not be astute to our cultural culinary heritage!!
Thank you for your comments. As you know, we have thoroughly enjoyed sharing these stories with others. I think it is important to take them beyond this region and hopefully, in the process, people have learned something new and have been inspired by the work of other individuals.
John Fleer has been a real inspiration to us and so many people and as I spoke to these artisans and farmers, it became the real story.
Looking forward to seeing you soon and best wishes in the New Year!
Gwen, what a great article and revelation about the vibrant food culture, growing in Southern Appalachia.
My congratulations to chef John Fleer for his sensibility and appreciation from whence true food comes from and the artisans that produce it in Southern Appalachia. As chefs we have empty hands without the right products. If we are blessed with the gift and sensibility to appreciate and understand the products that nature has gifted to us, then as chefs, we have the responsibility to respect them and exalt them and the artisans that make them.
With best wishes,
I appreciate your thoughtful comments. While we have always enjoyed the foods in this region, it was not until we started traveling to visit these chefs, artisans, and farmers that we came to realize just how much heart and soul is behind so many of the dishes we enjoy. It has given us a whole new perspective on life, these people, and the foods we choose to eat.
I hope that by sharing these stories, it causes others to become more interested in the real story and for them to gain an appreciation and understanding of all the hard work and commitment of these artisans, farmer, and chefs who put incredible food on our table.
Wishing you a Happy and Healthy New Year!
Always inspired by what you write Gwen! I’ve been honored to be included in some of your food stories and very proud to call you a friend. This is at the top though! Like Sean said, it’s cool to read about one of the OG’s in Southern food! Just awesome Gwen! Big love from KY!!!
Thank you so much. I was excited to put this piece together to feature John Fleer. Once intended to be a different story, as you know, a more compelling story emerged.
We always enjoy working and spending time with you and feel privileged to have you as our friend. We look forward to getting together again in 2013! I know it will be a great year for you.
Feliz Año Nuevo!
Great story! John Fleer hired me at Blackberry Farm almost nine years ago, and transformed me from a “west coast” chef, as he called me to an adopted Southerner, teaching me the glories of buttermilk and sorghum, while introducing me to new friends, like Colleen, and chefs from around the world. Thanks, Gwen!
Thank you for commenting. What a great experience to be able to work with Chef Fleer while he was still at Blackberry Farm and to be introduced to the wonders of buttermilk and sorghum! I see that you are still there as the Pastry Chef, so I guess the South has captured your heart, as it is easy to do.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year!
Thank you, Cassidee. Happy New Year!
Gwen – amazing article!
As a native of Appalachia (WV), I have always had a love for local food and traditional Appalachian ingredients, and living in Asheville I have the opportunity to work with some of the best farms and producers our country has to offer.
Chef John Fleer has been leading these traditional Southern efforts here in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina for years.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Allan Benton with John, and was educated about his desire to bring the best of our regional ingredients to the top of the culinary rankings. He has always taken these ingredients and made them effortlessly shine on the plate.
John – thanks for all you do to support local farms and artisan producers, you truly lead by example.
Thank you for your comment. I know that you have also made a commitment to to use local producers in your region at The Market Place and we have enjoyed your dishes as well with beautiful ingredients.
Asheville is just getting better and better with the great chefs you have in town and I know having John Fleer in the group will elevate the culinary scene in the city even more.
Happy New Year to you and we look forward to seeing you in 2013!
What a heart warming story! Beautifully written and accompanied by Roger’s professional photos, it was a pleasure to read.
Having been to Blackberry Farm, Canyon Kitchen and meeting John with you this past summer I found the back story fascinating. I knew he was a special chef but did not know the extent to which he influenced so many important Southern farmers and other well respected chefs.
As they say it is always nice to know the rest of the story.
Thank you so much for your comment. It was a pleasure to share more of the story of John Fleer and the people that he has worked with and inspired over the years. I think it gives all of us who enjoy his work a greater appreciation for the dishes he creates and the man behind them.
Happy New Year and we look forward to seeing you at Canyon Kitchen next year!
YES! John Fleer is a national treasure… he is the founding member of a very exclusive cadre of American chefs able to cook a multi-course meal in which every ingredient owes its existence to, or is inspired by, his culinary vision and sense of place. John’s transcendent vision required courage when he moved away from prevailing food fashions early in his career to make his own way. Today, John leads all of us as we strive to recover the classic Southern larder and pantry.
On a personal note, John’s ability to scale barn timbers to the rafters effortlessly after preparing a smashing pop-up field dinner all the while holding forth on the obscure and compelling back road influences on modern cuisine to an audience of 200 rapt fans seems impossible, but I’ve been in that audience… and John did this one handed to be able to sip a delicious beverage with the other.
John Fleer’s presence seems to trump the idea of original thinking with regard to food. Simply an amazing chef and an even more amazing person.
Great show Gwen. Thank you.
Glenn Roberts, Anson Mills
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I was very happy to write this article and share with others a little bit more about what John Fleer has contributed over his years while being a great chef at both Blackberry Farm and Canyon Kitchen.
While his cooking has inspired me, so has the heart of this man. I learned so much while intending to write a different article.
I hope to have the opportunity to see him scale the barn timbers at an event in the future! That would certainly be a memorable moment!
I’m admittedly biased on all fronts; however, I discovered new information about John and all of the artisans when I read your beautifully written article. How well I remember the first night Tom visited the cottage kitchen at Blackberry with an old Russo’s seafood container full of his freshly harvested truffles. As Joseph said, the kitchen stopped. All heads turned. And what a reception the chefs give Tom the minute he steps into the kitchen door. John Fleer was instrumental in sharing the news of the local bounty with his chef friends. In his subtle, professional manner, John quietly goes about his business and passion for serving up the finest provender of local artisans with his own special panache. He is definitely one of the true treasures of the Smoky Mountains. We thank him from the bottom of our hearts for his inspiration, enthusiasm, and continued friendship. Again, thank you, Gwen, for an article about John. THE TIME….HAD COME.
Thank you for your comments.
I love hearing the story about the evening Tom went to Blackberry Farm for the first time. We heard John tell it when we first interviewed him and then Tom shared the story. Joseph Lenn also talked about that moment when we interviewed him. Tom’s truffles are truly an American Treasure and we are so happy that he won the Made in America Award two years ago.
I would not have had the pleasure of knowing you or Tom without John suggesting that we visit the man in Tennessee who was growing black périgord truffles, so I thank him for that introduction. He has made so many connections for farmers and artisans in this region and his reach goes far beyond the South; the number of lives he has touched is very impressive.
I hope we meet again soon.
I’m a transplanted southerner in Japan, and often missing true Southern food. I feel that I’m missing out on a wonderful time for the culinary arts in the South right now. I’ll be home this next summer, and will just have to spend some time investigating (i.e. eating!)! 🙂
Thanks for the article. I’ve had the pleasure of both meeting John, and sampling his cooking.
You really had ought to make it up to the blue ridge around Blowing Rock and Banner Elk in the Northwest part of North Carolina. There are all kinds of great restaurants promoting local ingredients of Appalachia just as Chef John Fleer does. We even have a Relais & Chateaux resort whose cuisine is on par with the best.
Thank you for bringing this beautiful article to my attention. As you know, I am a Fleer fan having met him and shared many plates at Blackberry Farm on visits, 13 to be exact from 1999-2007. He was the pioneer of “Foothills Cuisine”, and did introduce my husband and I to Allan Benton back then. My husbands former wife is also named Allan Benton, and with our named being Benton, after many visits he would tell people we were distant relatives. Though I have not made it to NC to enjoy Fleers cuisine, I did meet up with him at a dinner in Allan Benton’s honor at the Grove Park Inn with Denny Trantham. With that, I found, Anson Mills, Muddy Pond, the Cruze family, and many other artisans due to Fleers way of bringing them to the forefront and his inspired dishes using their products. We enjoyed so many meals with Fleer standing by orally reciting the history of what was on our plates. Fleer has touched so many lives by being blessed with the gift of understanding food culture and staying true to his roots. An usung hero!
Kudos. I had known the name of Chef John Fleer before I had the opportunity to cook with him at the Seven Fires Dinner in Highlands, but did not have a full understanding of his contribution to the culinary world. As I researched the man, I came to realize that he embodied many of the ideals I had already begun to cultivate in my own mind as a budding culinarian. I am now blessed to work for John at Canyon Kitchen with MY mentor, friend, and kindred spirit Chef De Cuisine Mitch Sheppard, and wherever life may take me in the future I will forever be grateful for the experience. John has an amazing passion and a deeply philosophical nature which speaks to, and inspires people and I thank you for so eloquently highlighting the contributions and nature of Chef Fleer. Cheers to Chefs Fleer and Sheppard for the most comfortable work environment I have ever experienced; you make it easy.