Cooking ‘Unadulterated’ Black Food Got Chef Cleophus Hethington His First James Beard Nod

Chef Cleophus Hethington of Asheville's Benne on Eagle has been nominated for a James Beard Award in the emerging chef category. Photo credit: Brittany Wages

Even before COVID-19 brought the globe to a halt in 2020, chef Cleophus Hethington unintentionally pressed pause on life. Due to a car accident in January that year, Hethington was hospitalized and forced to cancel a series of highly acclaimed pop-ups in Atlanta before relocating to his hometown of Miami. “I just kind of disappeared and then the pandemic happened,” says the 39-year-old. 

Despite that brief hiatus, by the time chef John Fleer tapped him to be the chef de cuisine at his renowned Asheville restaurant, Benne on Eagle in 2021, Hethington had already made an imprint on the culinary world. But his route to restaurants was an atypical one. Prior to landing an internship at Yardbird Table & Bar in Miami in 2011, Hethington served in the Navy and also worked in healthcare. Then came stints in kitchens steered by culinary bigwigs such as Michael Schwartz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Along the way, Hethington, whose own roots can be traced to Cameroon and Senegal, began using food to tell stories of the African diaspora. 

It’s why he overhauled the menu at Benne on Eagle, swapping Appalachian flavors with dishes that honor Black foodways instead. Hethington’s extraordinary efforts have earned him an emerging chef nomination at the James Beard Awards. “Countries are amalgamations of culture and connectivity, but until someone brings that to life, we don’t even realize it,” Hethington says, shedding light on why his plates, which star ingredients from the Caribbean, South America, West Africa, and beyond, double as edible history lessons.

Hethington spoke with OpenTable about his unconventional road to the kitchen, what the James Beard Award nomination means to him, and why the past is often best understood through food.

The interior of the restaurant Benne on Eagle which features a brick wall, tan barstools, and wood flooring.

Hethington transformed the menu at Benne on Eagle, swapping Appalachian flavors with dishes that honor Black foodways instead. Photo credit: Johnny Autry

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What significance does the James Beard nomination hold for you?

A: I look at it as a source of validation. I always say it’s like a golden ticket from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. I never thought I would have the opportunity to be leading a kitchen where I could cook the food that I want to cook, which is Black food, and do it completely unadulterated. This is a validation for a Black chef. We don’t get many opportunities to lead high-profile kitchens with budgets and good marketing and PR. Those opportunities are few and far between so as a Black chef, that mark of validation makes it seem like you’re worthy or accessible to be worked with with the rest of the world.

Q: Who are your culinary inspirations?

A: I fell in love with cooking from just being around my mom and my grandmother [in Miami], who are home cooks—they’re also teachers. I grew up in the late 1980s with PBS, not necessarily the Food Network, so it wasn’t all glitz and glamor the way it is now. I got to see real chefs, so to speak, cooking. When I graduated [from high school] in 2000, cooking was still looked at as a trade. 

After my experience in the Navy and healthcare, I thought about becoming a hotel chef or a private personal chef. But then I saw the second season of Mind of a Chef on PBS with Sean Brock in 2014. I remember watching him travel to Senegal and thinking, damn. Here is this white chef from the Appalachian region of the United States tracing the roots of heirloom food—stuff that his grandmother and great-grandmother cooked for his family through the years. And I’m a Black culinarian and I don’t know the depths of this. Since then, I’ve grown and I’ve read and reached out to culinary historians like Adrian Miller and Jessica B. Harris. That’s what sparked things for me and got me to where I’m at now.

Q:What led you to become the chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, a restaurant known for Appalachian cooking?

A: In 2017, I started doing a series of pop-up dinners around Miami. I first called it the Afro Dinner Series. People would see it—12-course meals that reimagined African and Latin ingredients with wine and cocktail pairings—and ask, ‘is it only for Black people?’ And I’d be like, no! They would see that I usually only had Black chefs with me in the kitchen so it was an easy assumption, but for me, having other Black chefs in the kitchen with me was about giving them the exposure that they maybe didn’t have. I was doing pop-up restaurants in Miami last year when chef John Fleer [of Benne on Eagle] found me. I told him I wasn’t going to cook Appalachian Southern cuisine; I cook drastically differently from the restaurant’s previous chef, Ashleigh Shanti. I grew up in Miami and traveled and lived in all parts of the world. And since being here, [Fleer] hasn’t told me a single thing. 

It’s important for Hethington to work with Black chefs, giving them exposure they might not otherwise get in top kitchens. Photo credit: Johnny Autry

Q: Is there a dish on the Benne on Eagle menu that is especially reflective of your style of African diaspora-influenced cooking?

A: The moqueca dish, or the Brazilian seafood stew, is near and dear to me. I’ve been to Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, and it’s probably one of the cities in the country that has the most remnants of African influence—it’s very apparent there. The moqueca [at Benne on Eagle] is an amalgamation of the indigenous [Brazilian], Portuguese, and West African influences. We also use North Carolina shrimp that we’ll easily get from our local purveyor off the coast. This is the dish I’ve wanted to do for awhile and when I arrived at Benne, the lightbulb went on. 

Asheville is a predominantly white city with a predominantly white demographic that comes here for tourism. Often, diners see the names and ingredients on [the menu] and think that to an extent, it’s foreign, but I always try to incorporate something that feels comfortable and something that feels like a piece of home. Sometimes, it’s just about having a conversation about the history of the dish. I try to relay that message through our servers, too and get them to help people understand that there’s more to it than just the food—there’s history, and there are cultural connections.

Q: Your path to chefdom was somewhat unorthodox — what advice do you have for novices contemplating the road less traveled?

A: I tried to go to culinary school but just couldn’t afford to go. Which I’m glad [about now] because I’d be sitting on a lot more debt. Unless you’re able to go to a free program, I look at culinary school as a waste of money. I applied for [cooking jobs] everywhere—Chili’s, The Cheesecake Factory, TGI Friday’s—but nobody wanted to hire me. When I got an interview at Yardbird, which was getting ready to open in Miami Beach, I showed up in dress shoes and dress pants because that’s the world I was coming from. I worked there as an intern—it was free labor— before they eventually brought me on as an overnight prep cook for $9 an hour. I ended up getting a job at a hospital so I’d work the overnight shift there and go prep at Yardbird in the morning. That’s my foundation—working for chefs who had some MICHELIN star kitchens. A lot of the things we were doing there set the tone for the rest of my career. 

I hate to say this, but I always tell people to not waste their time with culinary school—you can learn far more with boots-on-the-ground cooking and experiences in the kitchen. School can [provide] a good networking base but I encourage people to take risks, be humble, and be a sponge. Just take in everything so you can get exposed to the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of this industry.

 

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