In Asheville, North Carolina, Benne on Eagle dishes out soul food’s next chapter
Sankofa means go back and get it. Symbolized by a bird with feet firmly planted on the ground, head craned backward, the word comes from the Akan tribe in Ghana. It’s a reminder that we must remember our roots in order to forge ahead. And it’s the mantra of Benne on Eagle, a new restaurant dedicated to exploring the nuances of soul food through Appalachian ingredients in Asheville, North Carolina.
The kitchen isn’t serving the pork chops and plastic bowls of black-eyed peas and collard greens that the mention of soul food surely conjures (though each of those foodstuffs has its place on the menu). At first it may feel like a new kind of soul food, seamlessly weaving mountain ingredients into West Africa’s ogbono soup and akara fritters, along the way touching down on the South’s familiar deviled eggs and biscuits. But then again, wouldn’t that make it the epitome of soul food—a cuisine forged when cultures collided and then evolved at the hands of migration? At Benne, it’s both. The food is an old soul in a new form; it moves forward but always looks back.
The restaurant opened last November inside Asheville’s new Foundry Hotel. It marked chef John Fleer’s third concept in the mountain town as well as the main-stage debut of Ashleigh Shanti, a Virginia-born chef who helms the kitchen as Benne’s chef de cuisine. At the core of its culinary identity is the patch of downtown it calls home; to tell the story of Asheville’s soul is to tell the story of this place. It begat the Block, the city’s oldest black neighborhood and business district, which was filled with thriving restaurants and shops along Eagle and Market streets through the ’50s and ’60s. But in the 1970s, urban renewal efforts in the town displaced residents and left the district behind. Its prominence slowly dwindled.
In the last decade, as Asheville exploded into a craft beer mecca that beckoned thirsty travelers, developers’ eyes turned back to the Block. Hilton’s Curio Collection announced it would open the Foundry, an eighty-seven-room boutique hotel in the brick-building complex that formerly forged the steel used for the Biltmore Estate. They approached Fleer about becoming a restaurant partner. “My gut was to not do the project,” he admits. At the time, his first restaurant, three-and-a-half-year-old Rhubarb, was just starting to find its groove. He’d been asked to partner on other projects in town, and always turned them down. But he felt strongly that the hotel’s forthcoming restaurant needed to honor the history of neighborhood. “This was the location for a really healthy soul food restaurant population,” Fleer says. “So it really was the location that was the impetus to say, ‘Let me think about it.’ There was a passion for doing the right thing that was driving me forward in this project.” So he said yes. Before Shanti met Fleer, she’d racked up an impressive resume for a young chef. After attending culinary school in Baltimore, she got her start under the city’s distinguished restaurateur Cindy Wolf at Cinghiale, a paean to northern Italy.
Most recently, she was the culinary assistant for Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. But she had found herself at a crossroads. “I think I was burnt out,” Shanti says. “And the burnout was from cooking food that wasn’t mine, that wasn’t my story.” So she traveled. For six months, she staged in kitchens from Savannah to Richmond to Copenhagen, searching for her culinary voice. It was a friend from Chef & the Farmer, now the chef de cuisine of Rhubarb, who convinced her to pay Asheville a visit. “He said, ‘John has this amazing project I think you’d be interested in,’” she recalls. “At that time, I still didn’t have any answers. And I was skeptical that this would be the answer after six months of traveling; it sounded too good to be true.”
But she said she’d sit down with Fleer. And when he shared his vision for the restaurant, with its foundations in the nearly forgotten history of the neighborhood and devotion to the evolution of soul food, Shanti says she got chills. “It sounded so unbelievable,” she says. “It’s what I was trying to do in my career, the stories I was trying to tell.” Flash-forward two weeks and she and her partner were packing up a U-Haul bound for Asheville.
Half a year later, Shanti has found her home in the mountains. Asheville, the town with a weekly drum circle and patchouli to spare, is just the place for an avid forager and fermenter. When Shanti’s not in the kitchen, she craves adventure. So she takes to the hills with her pup, Roux, in search of sorrel, nettles, oyster mushrooms—anything she can get her hands on and play with in the kitchen. Lately, she’s zeroed in on spruce tips, the fresh growth of evergreen limbs that are only available for a short window in late spring; by summer they’ll have hardened into mature needles. “You have to climb,” she says. “They’ve got this great botanical, herbaceous pine flavor.” She loves them pickled. “When you realize you really can eat off the land, it’s like a challenge. It’s exciting,” Shanti says. “I don’t know how else to cook other than seasonally.”
She’s quick to point out this mantra connects her with the generations of her family who preceded her, like her great-grandmother Inez who lived along the Dan River in Virginia. “She saw what was growing outside and cooked from that. There wasn’t always a grocery store to buy your produce. So you were automatically cooking farm to table,” Shanti says. “It’s a thing that is trending, but that’s what the women of my family did.”
And then there are Shanti’s ferments: miso, kefir, kombucha (“I was once pretty convinced I’d be a kombucha brewer,” she says). Fleer was converted by a tincture she made from reishi, a mushroom with origins in Asia that’s said to have healing properties. “He claims he almost got incredibly sick, but took my reishi tincture and got better within a day,” she says.
Her live-off-the-land, DIY ethos fits squarely with Benne’s culinary philosophy. It’s a restaurant where the fish sauce is fermented in house and the menu is dictated by what local purveyors can supply. With Shanti at the wheel, there are elements of her journey, too. Brook trout, a main- stay in mountain cooking, is breaded and fried in a dish that recalls schnitzel (Shanti fell for it in Copenhagen). Crowned with peas and foraged nettles bathed in buttermilk, it’s springtime in Appalachia on a plate. Panzanella—the beloved bread salad of Tuscany—is partly a reference to Shanti’s time at Chingale. But it’s also steeped in soul: cornbread comprises the base; it’s accented with sour corn, blueberries, and buttery walnuts.
There are distinctively African elements, too. Consider the akara fritters. Shanti puts her stamp on the popular West African street food, made from black-eyed peas, with the addition of hominy and a rum mustard for dipping. Collard greens, so often a soul food solo hit, are incorporated into salad of field peas swathed in sumac molasses vinaigrette. The dish reminds Shanti of the pickled bean salad she, like so many Southerners, grew up eating.
And sweet potatoes are celebrated for all their beauty. “They aren’t just a simple Southern staple. They’re capable of lending a nutty, buttery creaminess that cannot be mimicked,” Shanti says. She roasts them under a slather of brown butter, sorghum, and that housemade fish sauce.
On an eastern-facing wall of Benne adjacent to the bar, hangs a grand painting that depicts the view formerly visible from a window that had to be replaced with brick during the restaurant’s construction. “We’ve had people who come in and look at it and say, ‘My aunt lived in that house,’ or, ‘My family lived here,’” Fleer says. He and Shanti work with longtime community members to help guide the kitchen—namely Hanan Shabazz, a chef who co-owned and operated a soul food restaurant on Market Street and whom Fleer describes as “basically everybody’s grandmother.” It’s all a part of the restaurant’s efforts to find its place on the Block. “Our mission is not just with the food, but with the history of the neighborhood,” Fleer says. “I am completely aware that the neighborhood will never be what it was, but it think it will be a better place if we don’t forget what it was, if we remind people that, though it is different now, there was a thriving community here that was created and driven by the African-American population of Asheville.”
Like the neighborhood, Benne itself will evolve. In fact, that’s precisely the point. By high summer, plates will pop with tomatoes and okra and other ingredients that crave the heat. But what’s more, its account of Appalachian soul food will evolve too—Fleer and Shanti will never be satisfied with a single storyline. “This is not the end-all, be-all,” Fleer says. “Discovery is cyclical. We keep going back and finding more.”
- by Trisha Boyer