Bon Appetit magazine describes Blackberry Farm, a small, luxury resort-hotel in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, as "a haven for hikers and fly fishermen...[and] those who just want to eat well. It was a most sybaritic experience." Much of the press and praise that the resort has received in the last few years has been generated by the accomplishments of its executive chef, John Fleer '86.
Building a career as a renowned chef is a far cry from what Fleer always thought he would do. "My dad was a professor at Wake Forest, and for my entire life I thought I would be a professor," he says. "The university life was all I had ever known, so at first it was strange and uncomfortable to make a change."
A religion major at Duke, Fleer studied in Venice during his junior year. He describes his experience there as "the time that I first became intrigued by the culture of food. European culture is so much more oriented toward whom you eat with, what you eat, and the quality of the food. This was a new concept for someone who was used to supermarkets, casseroles, and microwaves."
Back at Duke, Fleer continued to cook for himself and friends at his off-campus apartment, but never intended to turn his passion for good food into a career. Later, to pay his way through graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, he worked in a restaurant. It didn't take long before the job increased his appetite for related pursuits.
He left school, before finishing his master's thesis to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I was itching to do something else," he says.
Fleer describes the Culinary Institute as a "boot camp/art school." "A lot of discipline is required in the profession, and the school is very regimented in terms of the curriculum. But it's a creative profession as well, and we were given the opportunities to explore the creative side."
His road to executive chef was far from typical. He earned a post-graduate fellowship to work as sous-chef for a year at one of the four public restaurants run by the Culinary Institute, where he learned the skills necessary to manage a kitchen. But the restaurant only ran Monday through Friday. So he took up the role as a personal chef on the weekends--for Mary Tyler Moore.
When his fellowship was over, Fleer began to explore options in Virginia and North Carolina. At that same time, the innkeepers of Blackberry Farm happened to be at the Institute taking a class and recruiting for a chef. They hired Fleer.
He considers himself lucky to have found his ideal job so soon after graduating. "Most new chefs are peeling carrots and potatoes. I knew at that time that the property was something that I wanted to be involved in."
When he arrived at Blackberry Farm nearly ten years ago, he admits, he was not an expert chef, and the resort was still young. Since then, it has grown from twenty-three bedrooms to forty-four, with a full spa. "It's really a world-class resort now."
Fleer's role in the development of the resort was to define the style of food that would match the property. He named his new creation "foothills cuisine," which is oriented toward Southern foods. "The name also locates us regionally in the Appalachians, and more broadly, in the Southeast. It's not super-refined city food like you'd find in New York or Chicago. The fine edges are burnished off, making it a little more approachable." He and his staff use classic techniques and apply them to regional ingredients, such as curing a rack of pork with sweet tea.
In the last four or five years, Blackberry Farm and Fleer's reputation have taken off. In 1996 and 1997, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Food and Wine all reviewed the resort and foothills cuisine, sparking more press and awards and a substantially larger clientele. During the first year Fleer worked at Blackberry Farm, the resort brought in about $1.4 million; this year it will make nearly $10 million.
"Unless I started my own thing, this is the best job that I could imagine," he says. "I've been able to make my mark and put my signature on the product."