A love for food is a natural prerequisite for an aspiring chef, but that alone wasn't what drew John Fleer to the profession.
The award-winning chef of three Asheville, N.C., dining spots—Rhubarb, the Rhu and Benne on Eagle—was first attracted to the notion that the dinner table brings people of all walks of life together; to Fleer, it was and still is a medium for dialogue. "The power of passing food is really one of the greatest barrier breakers there is," he says. "From there springs conversation, exchange and the swapping of stories. These are the things that make us human."
Before his professional cooking days, Fleer knew he wanted to find a way to merge culture and food. While enrolled at graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and simultaneously working at a local restaurant, Fleer decided to make the subject of his master’s thesis the dinner table—how it served as a model for community, aesthetics and political judgment. "I was trying really hard to anchor [my thesis] to what had then become my passion," says Fleer. "I actually ended up never finishing."
In a way, Fleer did finish. What was meant to be a 40-plus-page paper was instead fulfilled in his restaurants, most recently at Benne on Eagle, located in Asheville's Foundry Hotel. This restaurant's surrounding area, known as "the Block," was once a flourishing African-American community and a mecca for Appalachian soul food. But this was before the neighborhood's decline in the 1980s.
"Benne on Eagle is a historical celebration of this African-American, once-thriving business district that is now experiencing some rebirth," says Fleer. "We're trying to sort of plant a flag for some very specific food traditions."
Fleer knew he couldn't accomplish this alone. To help, he hired chef de cuisine Ashleigh Shanti, who is passionate about "looking backward to the sort of West African traditions where so much of our Southern and Appalachian food comes from," Fleer says. To keep the history of the Block alive, he also brought on chef Hanan Shabazz, who ran her own restaurant on the Block in the 1960s, as Benne's culinary mentor. "Hanan is an amazing anchor to keeping the food real," says Fleer. "How I see my job is [as] the facilitator."
Then there are the Sunday suppers at Fleer's other full-service Asheville restaurant, Rhubarb, where guests, on a first-come-first-serve basis, are invited to eat and converse in the "family room." The dinners have become so much of a tradition that Fleer says town realtors often suggest them to people moving to the area. "It's sort of the welcome wagon of Asheville," he says.
These Sunday suppers often spotlight local farmers, foragers and distillers and brewers that work with the restaurant. "[They] have a few minutes to talk about what [they do] and why. We celebrate them and their contributions, because we can't do what we do without them," says Fleer.
And where would you be without your father? Express your gratitude with a home-cooked Sunday supper of your own. For that, Fleer shares a recipe for a whole red snapper packed with flavorful fennel, red onion and lemon. It's started on the stovetop, finished in the oven, then served over a boiled peanut succotash.
While the fish preparation is relatively simple, the most important part of the process happens before the fish even hits the pan: Make sure the fish's skin is completely dry (with a paper towel is fine) and the pan is well-oiled. Even so, it's not uncommon for parts of the fish's skin to stick to the pan, so "don't freak out if it sticks a little bit," he adds. "It's still going to be super tasty."
When it comes to the wine pairing, Fleer goes with a Sonoma pick, the 2018 Davis Family Cuvée Luke Russian River Valley from Saralee's Vineyard, a Rhône-style white blend consisting of Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier.
"It's got great body, but it's not an oaked wine," says Fleer. "It has a lot of minerality; it has a little bit of oiliness from those Rhône grapes. It's still kind of bright and summery and aromatic, but it has the body to stand up to all of those other elements."
Below Wine Spectator recommends 7 similar Rhône whites.
Whether you're on the beach, on a boat or in the backyard, you might think back to Fleer's "power of passing food" philosophy. Just remember, the act doesn't require a physical dinner table.
Whole Roasted Red Snapper on Boiled Peanut Succotash
For the red snapper:
- One 2 1/2-pound red snapper
- 1 small fennel bulb, thinly shaved
- 1 small red onion, thinly shaved
- 1 lemon; one half thinly sliced, the other juiced
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt, to taste
For the boiled peanuts:
- 1 quart water
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1/2 pound raw shelled peanuts
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 3 cloves garlic, split
- 1 small onion, cut in half and grilled
For the boiled peanut succotash:
- 1 cup blanched fresh field peas (lady, pink-eye or black-eyed)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 medium Vidalia onion, diced
- 3/4 cup boiled peanuts (see recipe above)
- 1 cup fresh corn, removed from the cob
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
- 4 ounces whole butter
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
For the roasted red snapper:
1. Preheat oven to 400° F.
2. With a knife, gently score both sides of the snapper, no more than 1/4 inch deep.
3. Combine half of the shaved fennel and red onion with the sliced lemon.
4. Season the fish inside and out with salt. Stuff the belly of the fish with the fennel, onion and lemon mixture. On medium-high heat in a large skillet (preferably oval cast iron), sear the fish well on each side. Use a flat, long spatula to flip the fish so the skin stays intact.
5. Remove the fish to a small roasting pan and place in oven. Roast until just firm, about 13 to 14 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
6. Combine remaining shaved red onion and fennel. Toss with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Use this salad as a garnish for the fish.
For the boiled peanuts:
1. Combine all ingredients in a saucepot and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer and let cook until peanuts are soft, about 30 minutes. Add more water if necessary. Reserve; the entire mixture gets added into the succotash.
For the boiled peanut succotash:
1. Blanch the fresh field peas until tender in boiling, salted water, about 10 to 12 minutes depending on variety.
2. Sauté onion, corn and red and green bell peppers in a pan over high heat with olive oil. Add in peanuts. Season with salt and black pepper. Finish with vinegar.
Remove from heat and stir in whole butter. Serve warm on a serving platter as a base for the roasted whole fish. Top fish with fennel salad. Serves 3 to 4.
7 Recommended Rhône White Wines
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
LES VINS DE VIENNE
Viognier Collines Rhodaniennes 2017
Score: 91 | $26
WS review: Juicy and forward, with a plump mix of melon, peach and apricot flavors liberally lined with heather and white ginger notes. Drink now through 2020. 1,740 cases made, 800 cases imported.—James Molesworth
Côtes du Rhône-Villages White Laudun 2017
Score: 90 | $17
WS review: Yellow apple and green melon fruit weave together, with light verbena and honeysuckle hints. Offers a bright and fresh finish. Drink now. 3,000 cases made, 1,000 cases imported.—J.M.
RAVOIRE & FILS
Côtes du Rhône White Rhône to the Bone 2017
Score: 90 | $15
WS review: Bright makrut lime, green apple and star fruit flavors race through here, with verbena and salted butter notes providing for a thirst-slaking finish. Grenache Blanc and Viognier. Drink now through 2021. 4,500 cases made, 850 cases imported.—J.M.
CHÂTEAU DE ST.-COSME
Principauté d'Orange White Le Deux Albion 2017
Score: 90 | $22
WS review: A plump, fun-filled wine overflowing with yellow apple, apricot, melon and star fruit flavors. A light bitter almond note keeps this just focused enough through the finish. A crowd-pleaser. Viognier, Marsanne and Picpoul. Drink now. 3,300 cases made, 1,200 cases imported.—J.M.
Lubéron White La Ciboise 2016
Score: 89 | $16
WS review: Bright, with honeysuckle, green plum and yellow apple notes bouncing along, showing a juicy, unencumbered finish. Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Vermentino and Roussanne. Drink now. 4,000 cases imported.—J.M.
Côtes du Rhône White St.-Esprit 2017
Score: 89 | $12
WS review: Plump and friendly, with notes of lemon verbena, yellow apple and white peach, gilded with honeysuckle details on the finish. Charming. Drink now through 2019. 6,556 cases made, 967 cases imported.—J.M.
Côtes du Rhône White 2016
Score: 89 | $18
WS review: Intense, with a citrus oil accent weaving around the creamed peach, pear and apricot notes. A flash of bitter almond on the finish gives this needed tension to balance the opulent fruit. Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc. Drink now through 2020. 58,000 cases made, 17,500 cases imported.—J.M.