Interview with Chef John Fleer – Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, North Carolina

Interview with Chef John Fleer – Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, North Carolina

What is his advice for someone interested in becoming a chef? He gets asked that question often. His number one piece of advice is to work in the business for at least a year, especially for a young person or even someone changing careers. He said that it is not glorious in the kitchen and you will not end up on the Food Network! “It is not all about beautiful, locally grown wild mushrooms in a hot saute pan.” (Of course, I can relate to the reality of that situation after having a dinner party!) He adds, to be successful, you need perseverance and luck, as you do with anything.

When I asked Chef Fleer what chefs he admires or finds interesting, he said the two chefs that fascinate him right now are Victor Arguinzoniz of Etxebarri, which is outside of Bilbao, Spain and Francis Mallmann from Buenos Aires. Both of these chefs use the element of fire in their cooking.

Victor Arguinzoniz has a small restaurant with a tiny kitchen in the Basque Country of Spain and is a grill master of Basque cooking. He makes his own charcoal and pieces of equipment to cook with and has a very precise grilling method. Victor has a bank of grills and feeds them new charcoal for each dish. Pots are placed on a pulley and he adjusts each piece individually. This incredibly simple method of cooking maximizes the flavors of the ingredients by applying fire to them. However, Fleer says it is not smokey like a barbecue.

Francis Mallmann, author of the book, Seven Fires, uses the seven traditional fire methods based on cooking techniques that originated in South America. One of these is “little hell”, where the charcoal is placed on a platform on the bottom, similar to a Chinese barbecue box. Another technique is to string whole meat up over the fire. Food is also buried in ashes.

Both of these chef’s cooking methods are about the food and the fire and the seasoning is minimal. Chef Fleer says that it pulls back on the creativity and focuses on the ingredients and the heat and he is fascinated with this. Will we be seeing this at Canyon Kitchen in the future? Fleer says he “sees it in his mind all the time”, but certainly would like to do one small project incorporating this method of cooking on the menu.

When asked about how the chefs in the South are recognized in comparison to other parts of the country, Fleer said that Southern chefs are beginning to get their due and they certainly have deserved it for a long time. He was very happy to see two of his good friends (Linton Hopkins and John Currence) included in the event at the White House several weeks ago, which was part of the anti-obesity campaign in our schools that Michelle Obama is working on.

While we were finishing up our discussion, I told Chef Fleer about the series of posts I have been working on for the Highlands-Cashiers plateau and mentioned The Lick Log Mill Store and how we had driven past this wonderful little store for ten years and never stopped in. (I have spoken to so many people who have read that article and say that it made them want to go and visit the Lick Log Mill Store and many of them already have.)

Fleer said that this is the great thing about the blogging world. “There are so many eyes and ears focused elsewhere.” He hopes that by reading about those real “finds” it will lead to preserving these little places and that it may be “an anecdote to corporate mentality and takeover of our experience”.

I hope that you will get a chance to come to this part of the country and that you will make plans to dine at Canyon Kitchen when you do. Chef Fleer’s cuisine truly is exceptional (and he is an awfully nice guy, too!). This restaurant is one of the highlights here in the mountains. There is nothing better than spending a Summer evening dining in the Jennings Barn at Canyon Kitchen with all the doors open surrounded by views of the box canyon. There is a certain glow that radiates from this restaurant when the sun sets in the evenings and the lights are turned down low. It is a very special place.

Chef Fleer shared his fabulous recipe for Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry-Champagne Soup with me so that I could share it with you. I just prepared it over the holiday weekend for friends and it truly was one of the best desserts I have ever had!


Dining in the Highlands-Cashiers plateau. Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry-Champagne Soup.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry-Champagne Soup

Courtesy of Chef John Fleer
Serves 12


Buttermilk Panna Cotta
1 tablespoon (1/4 ounce package) unflavored, granulated gelatin
1/4 cup water
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
3/4 cup sugar
2 each vanilla beans, split, scraped
2 1/4 cups buttermilk (room temperature)

Strawberry-Champagne Soup
(Yield: 1 1/2 quarts; Serves 12 4-ounce portions)
2 pints strawberries, washed, cleaned of stems, and halved
4 ounces water
8 ounces orange juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
8 green peppercorns
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
10 ounces Champagne

1 pint strawberries, stems removed, washed, diced brunoise


For Panna Cotta:
Bring half-and-half, sugar, and vanilla beans and scrapings to a simmer in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepot. Turn off heat and set aside.
Sprinkle gelatin over room temperature water. Bloom gelatin in water for five minutes. Warm the gelatin over water bath until gelatin is fully dissolved.
Whisk in dissolved gelatin and buttermilk and stir until fully combined.
Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed strainer.
Cool panna cotta mixture over ice, but do not let it set.
Ladle mixture into small ramekins or dishes.
Chill panna cottas for one hour in the refrigerator.

For Strawberry-Champagne Soup:
Bring water, orange juice, sugar, cinnamon stick, salt, honey and green peppercorns to a simmer. Let stand for one hour. Strain mixture through a fine-meshed strainer and pour over the strawberries . Put the strawberries in a blender. Puree until mixture is smooth. Stir in the lemon juice and champagne. Serve chilled.

To remove panna cottas from their dish: dip the bottom of the dish into warm water briefly and turn out onto your dessert bowl or plate. Serve cold.
Pour 4 ounces of the soup slowly to one side of the panna cotta.
Tilt the bowl to allow the soup to move to all areas surrounding the panna cotta.
Garnish with brunoise of fresh strawberries.

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