When Cleophus Hethington came to Asheville at the end of July 2021 to interview for the chef de cuisine position at Benne on Eagle, it was his first time in the city. Sure, he was familiar with the restaurant established on Eagle Street in The Block, a thriving center of African-American commerce before urban renewal shuttered dozens of Black-owned businesses there. He’d seen the articles and magazine profiles. But he had only recently learned more specifics about the people behind the lauded restaurant that had claimed the No. 5 slot on Esquire’s 2019 Best New Restaurants in America list and positions on a slew of other lists. Still, he walked into the restaurant unfazed by the buzz. After all, he’d come to do one of the things he did best: chart food histories through his own cooking.
Hethington respected and was well aware of Ashleigh Shanti, the opening chef of the restaurant in late 2018 who quickly snagged the attention of national media and a semifinalist nomination for James Beard Rising Star Chef in 2020, as well as being named an Eater Young Gun in 2019. “Because Ashleigh is a Black chef and a woman, and the kind of food she was putting out and accolades she was getting, there were lots of eyes on her, especially among other Black chefs,” he says.
He knew who Benne owner John Fleer was and the reputation he established as executive chef at Blackberry Farm from 1992 through 2007, lauded for establishing the Smoky Mountain resort’s “foothills cuisine.” He opened Rhubarb in Asheville in 2013, the Rhu in 2015, and Benne in December 2018. “If you’re a cook in America and work in the higher end of things, you know of Blackberry Farms and what he did there. I just didn’t know he was behind Benne.”
Although Hethington hadn’t been in the industry as long as Fleer, he has rapidly built momentum and garnered a reputation of his own. When he first graduated from high school, Hethington enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served for five years before earning a degree in public health and accepting international postings in the field. After growing disenchanted with the healthcare field, Hethington decided to turn his lifelong interest in cooking into a career. He took his first kitchen job at 28, interning at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami, his hometown.
The internship led to a job and then another. As he learned more and got the practical experience he’d looked for, he began taking incrementally higher positions in restaurants around the country, including tenures at the Matador Room, Jean-Georges’ ABC Kitchen, Four Seasons Surf Club, the Optimist, and Lazy Betty.
Mindful of his lack of formal culinary schooling, Hethington sought serious, instructional and explorative cooking programs that could supply him with more technical knowledge and experience. Watching Sean Brock, in Mind of a Chef, trace the roots of Brock’s grandmother and great grandmother’s cooking from Virginia to Africa motivated his own deep dive into history. “Here’s a chef I look up to, a white man from the Appalachian region of Virginia, tracing the roots of his food to Senegal, and here I am, a Black man in the same industry, and I don’t know anything beyond the stereotypical stuff associated with soul food,” Hethington says.
He bought a copy of Jessica B. Harris’s book High on the Hog. “That’s when the wheels began turning in me to study these spaces, and I got more books, cookbooks, and history books; I love history,” he says.
He led several well-received pop-ups in partnership with Dinner Lab before the company went out of business. Then, he launched Afro Dinner Series, his own Miami-based pop-up in 2017, eventually renaming it Ebi Chop Bar. Soon after, Hethington went on to start Triangular Traded Spices, an online shop selling spice blends. “One of the main reasons I wanted to do pop-ups was to explore and share the things I was learning.”
Hethington was living in Atlanta and traveling around the country staging Ebi Chop Bars when, in June 2021, a recruiter connected him with Fleer. “John and I talked on the phone, which is when I found out Benne is in Asheville,” he admits. “I had a bunch of pop-ups on my schedule and couldn’t get here to meet in person and do a tasting until the end of July.”
The two clicked immediately. “I knew Benne was doing Black people food. Whether it’s Brazil, Jamaica, Ethiopia, or America, it’s Black people food. Ashleigh was more focused on Afrolachian cooking. She was raised in the Appalachian region and her family is there. I made it clear to John I’m not from here and don’t do that. If the expectation was for me to come here and do ‘Southern food,’ that was not what I would do. Our food is more than just this region. But he had done his research on me and already knew that.”
For his cooking demonstration, Hethington began with duck ham and cornbread, a starter he created for one of his first pop-ups and has had on every pop-up menu since. The appetizer was his interpretation of bruschetta. He creates a version of prosciutto by dry marinating, dry curing, and cold smoking duck breast over the course of 30 days. He layers the thinly sliced meat atop a toasted rectangle of cornbread, then adds local pickled apples, sorrel, ribbons of celery, and robiola. From there, the introductory meal progressed through rabbit in egusi stew, creamed corn elote, and mustard greens.
Fleer was impressed. “It was kind of an instant match. A lot of Benne resonates with him, and he resonates with me in terms of what we want the next steps for Benne to be.” Those next steps, Fleer said, will be using food to track the path of the African diaspora to Eagle Street. “I think our staff is looking forward to going deeper into that, to learning the effects on culture here, not just in food but also beverage.”
When he arrived for the job, Hethington stacked part of his collection of cookbooks in one of the iron support girders in the dining room and set to work getting to know the kitchen, staff, and local purveyors before developing a new menu for the restaurant. “Everything on the menu now is new or has been changed.”
Hethington’s revamped menu echoes Benne’s noteworthy place- and history-focused approach while incorporating more dishes exploring specific cultures across the African diaspora outside of Appalachia. The duck ham and cornbread he made for Fleer is a popular starter, as well as the Jamaican bun and cheese. Haitian griot — pork shoulder marinated in citrus and epis, an herb-forward Haitian seasoning base — is a dish he grew up eating in Miami. “It’s my experience of soul food as opposed to my Virginia sous chef’s experience of soul food.”
His take on Ghanain Red Red, a nod to the culinary traditions of his ancestors, is one of several stews and braises that Benne will offer year-round. “A lot of the cooking they did was about the tools and products they were allowed to have and how to make food delectable,” Hethington says. “It was one-pot cooking over an open fire on a hearth.”
And Hethington’s interventions have gained him solid footing among the restaurant’s consistent influx of diners. Since he added pepperpot stew on the menu in late October, it has been the restaurant’s best-seller every night. “It’s considered the national dish of Guyana. The short ribs brine for at least 48 hours and braise for three more.”
Hethington says the biggest challenge for him has been learning and understanding the local landscape, familiarizing himself with the farmers and purveyors that Fleer maintains long-term relationships with, and tracking down ingredients that tend to be more accessible in bigger, more diverse cities. But as he settles into his new home, at the restaurant and in Asheville, he is also bringing a comfort he grew up with to the dessert menu – the Daisy Mae sweet potato pie, which honors his late grandmother. “Her name was Daisy Mae, and when she passed away in October 2019, I decided that any menu I had any influence on would always have some variation of her sweet potato pie, to pay homage to her and my family.”