Chef John Fleer — Photo courtesy of Johnny Autry
Chef John Fleer is one of the South’s best chefs, and he has a resume featuring the region’s most prestigious eateries. He’s been nominated for multiple James Beard Awards and has worked at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. Fleer’s latest restaurant, Benne on Eagle, opened in The Block, Asheville’s historic African American business district.
“Benne’s mission is to tell the story of a once thriving neighborhood, and also to plant a flag for that story so that it isn’t further eroded,” Fleer says. “By telling the story, we keep it alive and hopefully help push the neighborhood into a thriving new era.”
Benne takes its name from an heirloom sesame seed that was brought from West Africa to the South by enslaved people. The menu not only incorporates the seed, but also a West African spice and peanut blend called suya.
“We thicken and flavor the sauce for our ribs with ogbono, the seed from the wild mango tree. We love to explore legumes and rice, cream peas and Jefferson red rice, both of which we source from Anson Mills.”
Fleer worked with chef de cuisine, Ashleigh Shanti, and culinary mentor, Hanan Shabazz, to shape the flavors of Benne on Eagle. Visitors to Asheville can sample the regional ingredients at three of Fleer’s restaurants, along with some of his other favorites, listed below.
North Carolina wreckfish at Rhubarb — Photo courtesy of Melany Robinson/Rhubarb
Known for its seasonal ingredients, Rhubarb is one of downtown Asheville’s most popular restaurants, also helmed by chef John Fleer. The menu is full of the finest local produce and proteins like cheese, greens and fish.
“All of the vegetable-forward dishes are outstanding, thanks to great local farmers like Gaining Ground,” says Fleer.
While dinner is the main draw, the restaurant also offers brunch. It’s the best of what the South has to offer in terms of community and food coming together.
Pastries at The Rhu — Photo courtesy of Melany Robinson/The Rhu
Around the corner from Rhubarb is The Rhu, a casual cafe inspired by the sister restaurant. Their menu includes breakfast sandwiches like the pastrami bagel, as well as hearty sandwiches and salads.
“At least once a week, I have the Rhu salad and a locally brewed Shantie Elixirs jun,” Fleer said. The salad features local cheese and a seasonal vinaigrette. Shantie Elixirs is an Asheville producer of flavored fermented tonics similar to kombucha.
The same delicious ingredients that are incorporated into Rhubarb’s menu are for sale in The Rhu’s pantry. They also have small-batch soaps, tea and country ham. It’s the perfect place to purchase gifts or assemble a picnic basket.
Pizza at Cucina 24 — Photo courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com
This cozy Wall Street eatery was opened by chef Brian Canipelli in 2008. Cucina 24 prides itself on incorporating Southern ingredients in traditional Italian dishes. The menu changes daily, but you might find polenta, veal sweetbreads, wood-fired pizzas or handmade pasta.
But don’t sleep on the sides. “Eat any vegetable preparation that Brian Canipelli has on offer,” advises Fleer. The butter-braised turnips with mint and Calabrian chilies is a crowd pleaser, every plate artfully assembled.
Cucina 24 also has an incredible bar with cocktails.
All Souls Pizza
Set in Asheville’s trendy River Arts District, All Souls Pizza is the perfect place to grab a meal before visiting one of the many local breweries. It’s down the street from both Wedge Brewing Company and the East Coast operations of New Belgium Brewing Company. Opened in 2013 by chef Brendan Reusing and baker David Bauer, the restaurant puts an emphasis on grains. In fact, they mill their own flour and polenta, and they source meats and produce locally.
“[All Souls] is best known for their pizzas, which are all delicious, but I also love their salads.” Wood-fired pizzas come with toppings like chorizo and soppressata.
Breakfast bowl at Waffle House — Photo courtesy of Caroline Eubanks
There’s nothing more quintessentially Southern than Atlanta’s own Waffle House. The diner has locations throughout the region, all open 24 hours a day – the perfect hangout for members of the restaurant industry. While they’re known for their waffles, that’s far from the only thing you’ll find. Where else can you find a T-bone steak alongside a chili burger or an omelet?
Fleer loves Asheville’s location for its breakfast bowls: “Yep, the one on Tunnel Road makes a mean hash brown bowl –sausage and sunny eggs with a healthy dose of pico from the jar on the table is the way to go.”