In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lonesome Valley has evolved from the pioneer-style living of the early 1900s to the 800-acre private gated community in Cashiers, North Carolina. Through the historical and agrarian preservation of the valley, the Jennings family has remained the owners of their land since the 1800s. At the helm of the valley’s restaurant, Canyon Kitchen, is Chef John Fleer, also executive chef at Rhubarb in Asheville. The native North Carolinan shares his views on the restaurant that pays homage to the history of Southern Appalacia.
When you were executive chef at Blackberry Farm, you established the “foothills cuisine”. What is the cuisine exactly and how has it fit into Canyon Kitchen’s menu?
Foothills cuisine focused on resurrecting some of the ingredients and approaches of traditional southern cuisine. My cooking has evolved in the same way that southern cooking has over that time to become more inclusive of the contemporary influences on our food and culture.
Canyon Kitchen is housed in the Jennings’ family’s old sporting barn. How does the atmosphere-located at the foot of the canyon- enhance the dining experience?
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Canyon kitchen is one of the most beautiful places in which you will ever dine. It fits into the landscape of the meadow organically. The restaurant affords beautiful up-canyon views as well as views looking out over the gardens. All the doors open accordion-style to the outside, which allows for the cooling mountain breezes to flow through the restaurant.
Lonesome Valley invites its members to use the various community gardens and the chicken coop. What has been the value of these gardens for the restaurant?
The canyon kitchen gardens, both in the beds behind the restaurant and at the chicken coop, give the kitchen constant access to interesting things to cook with and use. I think it enhances the organic setting of the restaurant and gives diners and our staff a real connection to the process of growing and preparing food. Although it does not provide anywhere near all of our produce, it does connect all of us to the farm to fork way of thinking about dining.
The Jennings family owns Sunburst Trout Farm in Waynesville, where Canyon Kitchen sources most of its trout. What makes their trout farm special?
There is nothing like knowing that the trout delivered to your back door on a Friday afternoon was swimming earlier that morning. We are very lucky to not only have access to this product, but also to know that it is the best, most sustainably-raised trout anywhere in the country.
You’ve been in North Carolina most of your life. What distinguishes Lonesome Valley from the rest of the state?
Lonesome Valley is a unique community that is focused on family and nature. Canyon Kitchen is a perfect complement to that focus. I cannot imagine that there is another place in North Carolina that provides such a harmonious atmosphere for its residents to focus on the important things in life.
What do you think about Atlanta’s dining scene and the chefs here? Have you worked with any of them or do you have plans to collaborate in the future?
I love visiting and eating in Atlanta because both the diversity of options and the quality of the restaurant’s work is world-class. I have been fortunate to know Linton Hopkins and Billy Allin for a long time and they have influenced the evolution of my cooking.
Some call you an “under-celebrated” chef in the South. What is your response to that?
The only thing that is important to celebrate is making people happy in a restaurant. I think the elements that come together at Canyon Kitchen: a beautiful setting, great food, a carefully curated wine list of sustainably produced wines, and warm attentive service speak for themselves.