Regret is not a word Chef John Fleer would use to describe his decision to leave Blackberry Farm.
Instead, he has spent the last three years relaxing, reconnecting and ruminating about his future.
“I have discovered some very important truths about what is important, and I have lived with and loved my family like I never have before,” Fleer said.
For 14 and a half years he served as executive chef (and sometimes general manager) at Blackberry Farm, a Relais and Chateaux designated property in Townsend.
His hours were long and arduous as he worked to fulfill a vision he had for the farm, and, for the most part, he enjoyed every moment of it.
“I invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, love and devotion into the property. … and I learned a lot about myself during that time,” he said.
In 1992, when he arrived at Blackberry Farm, he was fresh from serving a fellowship at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He shared his culinary ideas with then innkeepers Gary and Bernadette Doyle, who gave him free reign to achieve his goals.
“They did me the kindness of asking me what my vision was, and then I spent a lot of time trying to put that together. It’s since grown even further beyond my wildest dreams,” he said.
Fleer, who acknowledges that his tenure at the farm is unusual for most chefs, said he re-evaluated his employment with Blackberry every five years.
In 2007 he decided it was time for him to leave.
“I left because I had been there for 14 and a half. They were beginning another expansion, and it was something I knew would require another commitment of time, and I decided it was really time for me to figure out something else to do,” he said.
The first thing the Maryville resident did after leaving the farm was to spend time with wife Katy, and sons Jackson, 17, Daniel, 11, and Justin, 8.
“There is not a night that goes by in the past three years that I don’t think about how fortunate I am. In a philosophical sense one of the things that has always been important to me is that a family eat together, but for a long stretch of time I denied myself, or was denied, that opportunity. I’m making up for it now,” he said.
His initial plan after leaving the farm was to open his own restaurant. He even found a building in Maryville that he considered buying.
“I left Blackberry Farm the first of March, and by early May I happened upon a building that was up for sale in downtown Maryville. I became very excited about the idea of opening a restaurant, and then toward the end of that summer was the beginning of the real estate crisis and credit crunch. Something in my gut said this was not the right time,” he said.
As with most life changing events, a silver lining came to light in the form of Sally Eason, owner of Sunburst Trout Company.
“One of the things that I gained personally during my time at Blackberry Farm was developing relationships with amazing human beings who provide incredible products, be it Allan Benton, the Cruze family or Sally Eason, who I had been purchasing trout from forever,” he said.
Eason asked Fleer if he would help her develop a catering kitchen in a new community center building being erected on land she was developing in the Lonesome Valley community of Cashiers, N.C.
“I helped to design this little kitchen that they could use for catering events, then later that year she asked if I would think about converting the kitchen to a small professional commercial kitchen and run a restaurant out of the building during the summer months,” he said. He commutes from Maryville to North Carolina three days a week.
The result is Fleer’s latest culinary project - Canyon Kitchen - which provides him the best of both worlds.
“It’s perfect for me at the moment because it allows me to keep a foot in the kitchen and not just do consulting work for other people … (and) it allows me to live the spoiled life, being able to eat dinner with my family three nights a week during the summer, which is two more than I had when I was at Blackberry,” he said.
He describes the restaurant - which is open Thursday through Sunday - as “a big barn with doors thrown open, that has really good food, good beverages and a place where you can enjoy the essence of the area, a cool breeze and a beautiful sunset.”
And true to his earth-to-table philosophy, there is a garden at the kitchen’s back door.
“We have a wonderful gardener at Lonesome Valley named John McCarley who has recovered all the trout raceways that were on the property, which was originally the home of Sally’s father, and he has converted them into raised beds where we grow herbs, tomatoes, peppers, beans, lots of lettuce and that sort of thing,” he said.
It also brings Fleer closer to home.
“As a young man considering what my life would look like, I never thought I would live on this (the Tennessee) side of the Blue Ridge. I always envisioned myself either returning to North Carolina or going to Tidewater, Va. (where his grandparents once lived.),” he said.
Fleer grew up in Winston-Salem, where his father taught political science at Wake Forest University. After graduating from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in theology he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studied religion and culture.
“I grew up on a college campus, and it was the only life I knew. I thought I was going to be an academic,” he chuckled.
He became enamored with the culinary arts when working as a pastry chef while attending graduate school.
He said it didn’t take him long before he realized that “I was having a whole lot more fun in the kitchen than I was in the library.”
He decided to reevaluate his choice of career and was surprised that his parents took the news in stride.
“They were beginning to explore food, so they were more supportive than I thought they would be,” he said.
Unfortunately his maternal grandfather wasn’t quite as enamored with the idea.
“He had suffered under the misconception that since I majored in religion in college that I would ultimately be a man of the cloth, and, for him, that was a wonderful thing. When I made the call to tell him what I was doing I remember his very feeble voice on the other line saying, ‘So you are going to learn how to make communion wafers, right?’”
While those wafers aren’t on Canyon Kitchen’s menu, perhaps his grandfather, who has since died, might find comfort that Fleer’s work has brought him closer to an area of North Carolina that many natives refer to as “God’s country.”