What chef and owner John Fleer does every Sunday evening at Rhubarb restaurant in Asheville didn’t originate with a proverbial aha! moment. It began with a graduate school thesis he started writing as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill: the dinner table as a model for building ethical and aesthetic communities. That mouthful, if you will, has evolved into his Sunday Suppers, where diners gather at communal tables to enjoy a three-course meal served family-style, in bowls, rather than selected from a menu and plated in the restaurant kitchen. “I believe in the power of passing food,” Fleer says, “that the simple act of sharing food creates wonderful connections.”

Sharing a meal with others has been part of the Rhubarb plan from the outset. “It’s a component of the dining experience I’ve always wanted to include,” he says. Sunday Suppers feature a prix fixe meal that is both familiar (brined fried chicken) and sophisticated (salad of local wax beans and pickled shallots with buttermilk biscuit croutons, Three Graces manchego cheese, and creamy preserved-lemon dressing).

The concept has “been a long-standing obsession,” Fleer admits. “I was raised at a family dinner table. I have children. What I value is the implicit socializing effect of sitting at a table where you don’t necessarily know anyone and you have to engage. We’d love to see more children on Sundays,” he adds, and laughs. “Not a statement you hear from many restaurants.”

Sunday Supper menus change weekly, and their ingredients reflect the season and local markets, whether that means corn, tomatoes, or, well, rhubarb. “I have 80 pounds of rhubarb in my walk-in right now,” Fleer says. One Sunday’s snack was rhubarb-glazed lamb meatballs; dessert was peach-rhubarb fool. No matter the day of the week, Fleer — and his menus — refers to appetizers and entrees as “snacks” and “shares.” “It’s friendlier,” he says. “Less formal.”

And that thesis? Fleer abandoned graduate school to attend the Culinary Institute of America. “I was sitting in a seminar discussing the philosophical nature of what it meant to be a craftsman, and I thought, ‘Well, first I need to learn a craft.’ ” Lucky for us. Because food is so much friendlier, and less formal, than academics. Like “snacks” and “shares.” Like Sunday Suppers.


Rhubarb
7 SW Pack Square
Asheville, N.C. 28801
(828) 785-1503
rhubarbasheville.com

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Kelly is a contributing editor at Our State. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lives in Greensboro.