A nationally-acclaimed eatery in Asheville that honors soul food and African foodways has a new chef de cuisine. The new head of the kitchen at Benne On Eagle plans to shift the restaurant’s flavors and focus.
“A solution lies in the salt and spices.” It’s an Ethiopian proverb that Chef Cleophus Hethington says is his guiding principle, in planning the new menu.
“Spices are definitely a significantly important thing to me, and anything and I do,” he said.
Hethington has focused much of his culinary career highlighting dishes of the African diaspora. He launched a pop-up dinner series in Atlanta and even started a line of spice blends, Triangular Traded Spices.
In addition to revising the menu, he hopes to strengthen Benne’s ties to the Black community.
“I want to create a voice and a space in this community for everyone to be a part of, and for us as a restaurant, to even be more so a part of the Black community here because I feel that disconnect in my three weeks I’ve been here,” he said.
Benne is situated in a luxury hotel on Eagle Street. The area, known as The Block, is Asheville’s historically Black business district. Particularly in the last year, The Block has seen an increase in efforts to preserve that legacy, much of which was erased due to redlining and rising rent prices.
Hethington points out, it’s not an isolated case. He grew up in areas like Coconut Grove and Overtown, a neighborhood of Miami, once considered “Harlem of the South” that was gutted by the 1-95 expressway in the 1960s. When I-95 was completed, a thriving community of 40,000 had been reduced to one quarter of its size.
“This being a restaurant that is highlighting food of the African diaspora, although it is owned by two white gentlemen, but still, as a Black chef, I’m going to take the opportunity I’ve been given to run with it,” Hethington said.
Hethington started his career in the US Navy as a hospital corspman. He went on to study public health at the University of Miami but says he was disenchanted by the health system. He got his start in a restaurant kitchen by taking an internship at Yardbird in Miami, a James Beard-nominated restaurant that centers on seasonal, Southern food. From there, Hethington cooked his way up to the top kitchen job, working at several acclaimed restaurants across the country, most recently at Lazy Betty in Atlanta.
Hethington is the restaurant’s third chef de cuisine since it first opened in 2018. Benne’s first head chef, Ashleigh Shanti, quickly rose to culinary stardom for her take on Appalachian soul food, garnering a James Beard award in 2020. Shanti says she stepped down last fall to pursue restaurant ownership opportunities. Her successor and former sous chef, Malcolm McMillian, filled the top kitchen job for less than a year.