By Emily Patrick
To get to Chef John Fleer’s newly opened restaurant, Rhubarb, you’ll probably have to pass the juggler.
Rhubarb occupies a spot at the very center of downtown Asheville, North Carolina, a destination mountain city of boutiques, restaurants, and historic estates, where even on cold December days street performers entertain from most every corner.
The juggler spreads an array of objects around him on the wide brick plaza that surrounds the restaurant—shoes, bowling pins, hatchets—and solicits passersby to choose which ones he will toss.
“One day, I’m going to get daring enough and go juggle with that guy out there on the square,” Fleer says, grinning. “But he’s really way better than I am.”
The James Beard Award-nominated chef juggles lemons and onions mostly, he explains.
Fleer has a penchant for levity, which is easy to infer from his restaurant’s refined whimsy. Little buckets of chalk hang on Rhubarb’s walls, inviting patrons to draw. Wooden spoons—Fleer’s favorite tool—decorate the entry wall where a less playful person might have stationed an oil painting.
On the menu, too, you’ll notice his sense of humor. A North African-spiced buttermilk dressing accents crispy Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, lending the dish a flavor of the South via Morocco, or perhaps Spain, where Fleer has traveled extensively with his family. Italian-style gnudi come stuffed with North Carolina goat cheese and topped with mushrooms cultivated in the dense forests that surround Asheville, enlivening the Mediterranean staple with the flavors of Appalachia.
Yet Fleer has the unusual ability to mix fun with thoughtfulness. “I like tricks, but I’m not a trick chef,” he says. “I don’t know that I want anybody to think I’m a great chef. I want them to come in here and have an amazing time, and lean into their food, and enjoy their company.”
Of course, anyone who knows Fleer’s background recognizes his talent. In addition to four James Beard Award nominations, Fleer boasts a fourteen-year stint as the chef at Blackberry Farm, an exclusive resort in eastern Tennessee and a long-time culinary powerhouse of the Appalachian region.
But while Fleer was busy fathering “Foothills Cuisine” (a term the resort has since trademarked), he felt he was shirking his other paternal duties—those he owed to his three sons. “When this wave of Blackberry’s success caught me and everyone else up in it, the thing that suffered the most was probably my ability to sit at the table with my family,” he says. “It was eye-opening to see how important that was to me and how much I had let it go.”
At Rhubarb, Fleer hopes to foster communal dining, within families and between them. He’s devoted an entire room to the concept, a daring move in a time when upscale dining is becoming increasingly adult, emphasizing craft cocktails and late-night menus.
Every weekday, during the early evening when families with children typically dine, Rhubarb hosts the community gathering. Unaffiliated groups sit together at long tables to pass plates and share conversation.
“For me, there’s just a bond created when food is passed,” Fleer says. “I think the qualities of sympathy and empathy are lacking in the way that most of us behave and the way that we eat. Passing food requires you to hold the plate for someone else or let them hold it for you.”
Although Fleer hopes families and singles alike will gather year-round for the communal meals, he says the holidays are a welcome reminder of the memories and fun that originate from eating together. Fleer still derives inspiration from meals his family cooked when he was growing up.
During the holidays, he prepares bûche de Noël, which his mother has baked for him since he was a young child. The cake, complete with meringue mushrooms and marzipan foliage, was particularly special for Fleer, since Christmas is also his birthday.
This year, Rhubarb celebrates its inaugural Christmas. The highly anticipated restaurant opened in October with a distinctive lineup of Appalachian ingredients set off with spices from around the world. The offerings will change with the seasons, Fleer explains, but he expects the community atmosphere to remain. “If I’ve done anything well over the course of my career, it is to create a culture within these restaurants where good things might happen,” he says. “The dream is to have a restaurant where people come and enjoy themselves.”
cocktails + hors d’oeuvres
dinner / soups / sides