As a young, Black chef, Cleophus Hethington says that, “for years I made a concerted effort to stay away from dishes/food that are attached to the stigma and/or stereotypes of being Black […] worrying that I wouldn’t be respected or perceived correctly.”
Since starting his pop-up Ębí Chop Bar in 2017 and eventually assuming the role as chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, Hethington says, “Now I cook the food that I have the most connection and feel for, which is Black food. So whether it has influences of fifty-four countries of Africa, Latin America, Caribbean, or Black America, it’s all Soul Food to me. And I love its history, taste and how it makes me feel!”
Ask him about the catfish he prepares at Benne on Eagle, and the seemingly humble dish transforms into a carefully considered exhibition of his roots. “This dish in every way is representation of the great cooks my mother and grandma are and what I grew up eating.”
Family plays a significant role in his cooking and recipe development. For this catfish and broken rice grits, Hethington drew inspiration from his mother, grandmother, and particularly, grandfather, a man who loved breakfast so much so, that Hethington jokes he’d eat it for dinner if allowed. Growing up, breakfast often meant leftovers from the night before over grits. In their family, catfish and stewed vegetables were a go-to that, in a nod to his grandfather, could also double as dinner.
Serves 10 to 12
10 garlic cloves, chopped
½ cup ginger, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
8 roma tomatoes, chopped
1 sprig oregano
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon Triangular Traded Spices “Le Courage Spice”
750 milliliters (1 bottle) malbec
1 cup beef base
Pinch of salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
4 garlic cloves, crushed
4 shallots, sliced
2 cups gruyère cheese
1 gram xantham gum
2 cups jasmine rice
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup yellow cornmeal, medium-coarse grind
⅓ cup flour
3 teaspoons caraway seeds
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups buttermilk
10 to 12 catfish fillets
oil, for frying
Make the tomato gravy
- Heat oil in a sauce pan over high heat. Once the oil starts to shimmer, add garlic, ginger, and shallots. Sauté until aromatic, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, herbs, spices, and wine. Bring to a simmer then reduce heat to low. Allow to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent mixture from sticking to the bottom. After 45 minutes, stir in beef base, and simmer for an additional 15 minutes before removing from heat.
Make cheese sauce
- In a large sauce pot, combine cream with herbs, garlic, and shallots. Bring to a simmer then remove from heat and pass through a chinois to strain herbs and aromatics.
- In an up-right blender, combine hot cream with shredded gruyère and xantham gum mixture until smooth. Strain again through chinois. Let cool before storing.
Make the rice grits
- In the bowl of a Vitamix, add rice and blend, starting on low speed and increasing to high. Grind to desire texture, about 10 seconds (for a finer cereal, grind longer).
- In a medium pot, bring 3½ cups water with salt to a boil. Once boiling, slowing add cracked rice to boiling water, stirring constantly with wire whisk.
- Reduce temperature to low heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir frequently until rice turns al dente. Then lower heat and stir in 2 cups cheese sauce.
Make the catfish
- In a shallow baking dish, combine first five ingredients. Set aside.
- In a large skillet, heat about 4 inches of oil to 350 degrees.
- Place buttermilk in a shallow dish. Working one at a time, soak catfish fillets in buttermilk then dredge in breading mixture to coat evening. Being careful not to crowd the pan, fry the fillets in batches, turning once, until golden, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
- Created by chef Cleophus Hethington of Benne on Eagle