On June 17, five days after walking the red carpet in Chicago as a finalist for the 2022 James Beard Foundation Emerging Chef, Cleophus Hethington walked away from Benne on Eagle in Asheville, the restaurant where he served as chef de cuisine since August 2021. Hethington succeeded chef Malcolm McMillian, who succeeded opening chef Ashleigh Shanti, a finalist in 2020 for the JBF Rising Star Chef and whose work helped Benne reach national attention.
All were hired by John Fleer, chef/owner of Asheville’s Rhubarb and the Rhu, who became operating partner with the owners of the Foundry when they renovated a former steel factory into a boutique hotel in the once thriving Black neighborhood known as the Block. Fleer insisted Benne operate as an independent restaurant honoring the history and culture of the Block and Black foodways and traditions.
“What I looked for in hiring was someone passionate about telling their version of the Black food story within the parameters of what we stated — that we were planting a flag on the Block for Black food after the erosion of the last many decades of that neighborhood and its culture,” Fleer says, “All three chefs told very different stories.”
Indeed, each chef brought their own interpretation of Black food to Benne. Shanti, raised in Virginia, explored Appalachian, West African, and Southern Black American culinary culture. McMillian applied his classical French training to dishes informed by Black traditions of the region.
Hethington learned his craft cooking from the bottom up for restaurants in Miami, New York, and Atlanta. On the side, he launched the Afro Dinner Series pop-ups in Miami in 2017 (renamed Ebi Chop Bar), digging deeply into the African diaspora, pulling from South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.
Within a few months of his arrival at Benne, he entirely flipped the menu, introducing dishes like Haitian griot, Ghanian Red Red, and pepperpot stew from Guyana. Like Shanti before him, he gained critical attention, and in early 2022 learned he was a nominee for the Beard award.
In March, Fleer decided to step away from operating Benne. “There was no conflict there,” he says, “I had spent a lot of time at 30,000 feet above all these properties, and I wanted to get back to maybe 5,000 feet. I feel like I served the role of getting that space started and hiring great chefs. The major goal I did not achieve was securing Black ownership of Benne.”
With Fleer’s departure, the Foundry folded the restaurant into hotel operations, hiring its first food and beverage director. It is currently interviewing for an executive chef, a new position that will oversee the Workshop Lounge, Benne, banquets, catering, and in-room dining.
Foundry general manager Larry Crosby says, “We have shored up the management team, hired an F&B Director, and will continue to add staff. What is consistent is that the restaurant concept is here to honor the legacy of African American cuisine and honor the Block. We still intend to treat Benne as an independent and unique restaurant and continue telling the stories of this neighborhood and reaching diners through the chef’s take on what honors the Block.”
Hethington respects the decision, but was not comfortable within the new structure, so he gave his notice to the hotel the first week of June. “Ultimately I don’t want to be a hotel chef,” he says. “I felt that we were speaking two different food languages, and that what I was trying to build was not the direction they wanted to go in. I think their concept going forward circles back to Ashleigh’s culinary profile.”
On Hethington’s last day in the kitchen, on June 17, he packed the dozens of Black-authored cookbooks he had stacked in an iron support girder in the Benne dining room into boxes to load in his car for his drive back home to Miami. He says he’ll take a much-needed mental and physical health breather for a few weeks, though he is participating in the Stolen Good Collective Sunday Cookout on June 26 in Atlanta with a chef line-up led by pitmaster Bryan Furman.
If there’s anything I’m good at, it’s doing a popup dinner,” he says. He intends to re-start his Ebi popups and hopes to find a permanent residency for them, likely in Atlanta, though he also has his eye on Charlotte. Wherever he lands, he is firm on his commitment to “100% of the kind of food I’ve been doing.”
Though he didn’t leave Chicago with a Beard medallion to hang around his neck, he did come away with a sense of pride in the recognition and camaraderie. “It was great to be with other chefs who heard about what I do or knew someone who had eaten my food. I know I have something and being at Benne validated a lot of that for me. I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m looking forward to what’s next.”
Fleer would vouch for that. After leaving his professional role with Benne, he and some companions had dinner there in the spring. “It was easily the finest meal I’ve had at Benne and one of the top two or three meals I’ve had in Asheville as long as I have lived here,” Fleer says, “Cleo is just super talented and great things lie ahead for him.”