The African diaspora refers to the mass dispersion of peoples that occurred as a result of the transatlantic slave trades. From the sixteen through nineteenth centuries, people and their cultures’ varied traditions—including ingredients, spices, and foods—were scattered through the Americas, West Indies, Europe, and beyond. In the U.S., many dishes and foods labeled as “soul food” or “Southern” became emblematic of Black cooking traditions. The stereotypes, however, exclude a host of food cultures shaped by the African diaspora that still prevail in Latin America, the Caribbean, and regions throughout the United States. One young chef, Cleophus Hethington of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, is on a mission to change that.
The Miami-raised Hethington considers himself a citizen of the world. He’s lived in Salvador, parts of Africa, and dedicated lots of time to traveling through the Caribbean islands and Central America, all while reading, cooking, and “devouring knowledge” to better understand Black cuisine. “I’m trying to elevate and educate and give as much exposure to Black food as I can,” he says. “Black food can have just as much of a presence in the world as Italian, Japanese, French, or other cultures.”
He started exploring foods of the African diaspora through his Miami and Atlanta-based pop up Ębí Chop Bar in 2017, preparing recipes from Jamaica, Haiti, Ghana, his Miami roots, and beyond.
When he joined Benne on Eagle as the chef de cuisine in 2021, Hethington made his mission clear to executive chef and owner John Fleer. “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 knew that already.”
The restaurant’s former chef, Ashleigh Shanti, drew national attention with its distinct Afro-lachian menu. Now under Hethington’s direction, ingredients, spices, and dish preparations shine light on global foodways.
Hethington’s Mission Shapes Favorite Dishes at Benne on Eagle
One of the most popular dishes, red red and trout, is Hethington’s interpretation of the Ghanian staple that a friend introduced him to while visiting her mom in New York.
“I remember there was smoked fish, a ton of umami, and tons of spice. It’s always stuck with me,” Hethington says. After some time, he introduced the dish at an Ębí Chop Bar pop up, but put his own spin on it—an approach that largely characterizes his cooking.
“A lot of the dishes I’ve done or plan to do, I always try to make clear that this is my interpretation of a traditional dish. I’m not trying to make the jollof rice like your mom or grandmother did. I try to cook food that mimics the feeling.”
One dish, however, that does pull on his mother and grandmother’s cooking is the fried catfish with broken rice grits. Growing up, breakfast was often a plate of grits with leftover protein from last night’s dinner—fried chicken, country fried steak, or pork chop—and gravy (tomato gravy was Hethington’s stepdad’s favorite).
The catfish at Benne on Eagle gets dredged in buttermilk and cornmeal then fried and placed over cheesy broken rice grits with a tomato gravy. “It’s all made with the same ideas of how I grew up,” Hethington says. “I want to warm people’s souls and make them feel comfort.”
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- by Robin Roenker
- by Maggie Ward