Cooking food that's part haute and part homey

Dishes: Chef John Fleer's `foothills cuisine' wanders the line between refined and rugged at Tennessee's Blackberry Farm luxury resort.

March 13, 2002|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

Sit down for a chat with chef John Fleer, and it's immediately clear you're not talking to an ordinary cook.

For one thing, the "foothills cuisine" he has developed at Blackberry Farm, a world-class luxury retreat in the Tennessee shadows of the Smoky Mountains, has earned accolades for its sophisticated take on regional good food.

For another, he's as comfortable discussing the culture and philosophy of food as the techniques of preparing it. After all, he began his cooking career to help pay his way as a graduate student in religion and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His thesis, as yet unfinished, carries the imposing title, "The Dinner Table as a Model of Political and Aesthetic Community in the Work of Kant."

That tome may well remain incomplete, as Fleer's profile rises in the food world. Plenty of his culinary fans would be just as happy if he continues to neglect Kant in favor of the kitchen, where his interest in weaving classical cooking techniques into traditional recipes has resulted in food that, like ham hock consomme or buttermilk soup thickened with day-old corn bread, is both fancy and comfortably familiar.

"Wandering the line" between refined and rugged, between haute cuisine and down-home cooking, is one way Fleer describes foothills cuisine. It's a style uniquely suited to Blackberry Farm, which blends the notion of a luxury resort with a comfortably elegant place that, were you lucky enough to have such a relative, could be your rich uncle's country house.

"It's important to me that food have some kind of heart and history to it," Fleer says, and, that means, at Blackberry, "really localizing it in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains."

Fleer and his staff introduced foothills cuisine to Baltimore last month at a dinner sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food. The menu featured Carpaccio of Sweet Tea Cured Wild Boar and Pork Osso Bucco with Truffled Grits and Tasso Collard Greens. (Tasso is a spicy, Cajun-style cured pork.)

Fleer traces his appreciation of good food to boyhood summers with his grandparents in the Tidewater area of Virginia, where crabs and other bounty of the Chesapeake Bay combined with fresh produce from the backyard garden for simple but memorable meals.

Back home in Winston-Salem, N.C., his working mother called home one day after school, saying she was running late and telling him how to assemble a tuna casserole and put it in the oven. These days, Blackberry's menu pays homage to such memories, with more elaborate versions of tuna casserole and other dishes common to the family dinner table.

During his undergraduate days at Duke University, Fleer spent a semester in Venice, where his love of food became a passion involving not just good food, but also the culture surrounding it, "people gathering together to share food."

His interest in an academic vocation soon flip-flopped with his avocation, and he enrolled in culinary school, graduating cum laude with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. After a fellowship at a restaurant specializing in contemporary nutritional cuisine and a stint as Mary Tyler Moore's personal chef, he moved to Blackberry Farm in 1992.

Since then, Blackberry Farm has become a hot destination, in no small measure because of the humor and heart in foothills cuisine. Says Fleer: "Guests get a hoot out of it."

Collard Greens With Tasso

Serves 6 to 8

2 teaspoons clarified butter

1/2 cup minced tasso (see note)

2 tablespoons sweet red-wine vinegar

2 tablespoons light-brown sugar

2 large bunches of collards, ribs and stems removed, blanched, diced into 1-inch-by-1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Add clarified butter to a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add tasso and render for a few seconds.

Add sweet red-wine vinegar and brown sugar. As soon as the sugar dissolves, quickly add collards, salt and pepper.

Allow collards to warm completely through. Serve.

Note: Tasso is spicy, cured pork from Cajun cuisine. Look for it in the deli case of your local gourmet market.

Pork Osso Bucco

Serves 6

6 pork osso buccos (see note)

3 ounces clarified butter

salt and pepper

1 1/2 cups seasoned all-purpose flour (see note)

2 Vidalia onions, roughly chopped

1 carrot, roughly chopped

1 stalk celery, roughly chopped

1 leek, cleaned, roughly chopped

3 ounces tomato paste

1/2 cup red wine

1 pint remoulade (see note)

1 whole head garlic, cut in half

5 sprigs of thyme

2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.

Tie each of the osso buccos tightly around the middle with butcher's twine.

Heat clarified butter in a small roasting pan over medium-high heat.

Season the buccos liberally with salt and pepper. Dredge the buccos in the seasoned all-purpose flour. Dust off excess flour to leave a light coating all over.

Brown the buccos on all sides in the butter. Remove when they are a rich amber color all over. Set buccos to the side.

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