Sean Brock [SB] / I came to Blackberry Farm [where Fleer was executive chef for fourteen years] and applied for a job in 1999 or 2000. I remember sitting there in the office. That’s about as nervous as I’ve ever been.
John Fleer [JF] / I didn’t give you a job. And you went off and became an incredible chef on your own. So I think that was probably a good thing.
SB: Time flies.
JF: It certainly does.
SB: We do an event each year at McCrady’s as part of the festival. It’s a really special opportunity to think about who we’d like to have it with; I always try to pick chefs that might not have cooked a million times in Charleston, someone Charleston should experience, someone who I really admire and want to cook with. It’s something we look forward to every year. And this year, we wanted Chef Fleer.
JF: I was certainly very flattered when you sent me the invite. It also made me think of the last time I was at Charleston Wine + Food, which was the very first one, and we actually had time to hang out. So in addition to having the opportunity to cook with you, getting the chance to hang out again will bring back great memories. I believe it was your birthday that night.
SB: Oh, dear! [Both laugh.] I hear we had a good time.
JF: I hear we all did.
SB: We should talk about what we’re gonna cook. I’ve always thought that this type of event is a cook’s stage, a platform to tell stories that highlight your food. That’s actually one of the first things that really struck me about you. When I was nineteen or maybe twenty years old, I came to Blackberry that winter, and I just remember you coming out and telling stories about the ingredients, dishes, culture, and region. The art of storytelling. That stuck with me.
JF: Well, I think both of us continue to try to tell the story of this region in different ways—stories that need to be told and need to be repeated.
SB: For our Signature Dinner, I want you to cook whatever you’re excited about. I’ll just fill in the rest of the dishes, trying to keep it similar. Bring whatever you want to bring.
SB: I did that in Australia once, smuggled everything in the luggage. You can’t cook without some things. It’s pointless. I learned my lesson the hard way: when cooking in Brazil, they promised me that their cornmeal was amazing, and it just ground like cardboard. I’ll never do that again.
JF: There are always surprises. I was at a symposium in Spain eight or nine years ago and stupidly put peanut butter as a part of my demonstration. It was an element of a dish, and the Spanish just don’t understand peanut butter, at least then. I think there is a lot more cross-pollination a decade later. I don’t think it ended up being a disaster, but it did end up being quite a challenge.
SB: Typically a lot of the big disasters happen in airports.
JF: That’s why I drive everywhere! I’m glad Charleston is so close.
SB: I remember the first SFA Symposium [Southern Foodways Alliance]. I got invited to do a demo where I was teaching people how to make bacon-flavored cotton candy. You have to have all these crazy emulsifiers to do that. I packaged up the stuff in a Styrofoam box. When I got to Memphis waiting for the luggage, the belt started going, and I started seeing pieces of Styrofoam, then all these vacuum-packed bags full of white powder coming down the belt. I had to explain that to TSA. That was fun.
JF: As time has passed, I have chosen to do less and less traveling. I don’t relish the opportunity of spending a lot of time away from both of my restaurants and my family—if I travel it is going to be fun, enriching, something very worthwhile for me. But when you have an opportunity to do something like this, it feels exciting.
SB: One of the things I love about the festival circuit is that you always meet one person that you stay in touch with forever. You’re almost guaranteed to pick up a lifelong friend. I still cook for guests that I met at the Stone Crab Festival in Florida years ago. Having the opportunity to hang out means something; there’s this connection that lasts for a long time. You stay in touch. It’s pretty cool.
SB: I’m just super excited and counting the days down.
JF: As am I.
SB: We’ll feed you some tacos.
JF: We’ll visit some hole-in-the-walls. Under decent circumstances!