Appalachia is so much more than moonshining, feuding, inbreeding, and mining – the stereotypes and tropes associated with the region that spans across eleven Southeastern states and one in the Midwest (Southeast Ohio). Truth is, Appalachia contains a wealth of cultural treasures, including culinary traditions that are a part of the American food story.
James Beard award-winning chef John Fleer has been a respectful influence in Appalachia as both a cook and cultural ambassador through his expression with food. Chef Fleer is also a vested influence as he is a son of the region and the creator of what he has termed “foothills cuisine,” his homage to the unique foods and preparations indigenous to the areas of Appalachia, where he has operated eateries. However, his latest venture, Benne at Eagle, is his most inclusive and reverential to the foodways to date. Benne at Eagle is what happens when foothills cuisine meets soul food.
Benne at Eagle is located in Asheville, North Carolina, in the Eagle District, an African American neighborhood. Eagle Street was the main street surrounded by The Block a historically black neighborhood, and for decades the area bustled with thriving businesses, including restaurants. Fleer is a part of the community’s resurrection. He recruited chef-culinarian Ashleigh Shanti to be Benne’s chef de cuisine. Shanti’s culinary résumé is nothing to sneeze at; she is the former culinary assistant for Chef & the Farmer co-owner Vivian Howard. She has helped chef Fleer build the restaurant’s culinary program using the theme Sankofa (“go back and get it” in the Twi language of Ghana), which informs the menu’s respect for tradition while moving forward with new food preparation techniques.
Shanti and Fleer have been consistent and diligent in maintaining the integrity of the restaurant’s Sankofa mission. They have had help. Benne’s culinary mentor is Hanan Shabazz, a former Eagle Street restaurant-owner, who was born and raised in Asheville. According to Benne’s website, “Hanan plays an essential role at Benne on Eagle, helping both the restaurant team and its guests reflect on the rich history of The Block through food.” Variations of Shabazz’s recipes are on Benne’s menu.
Three other long-time residents and business owners on The Block contribute to Benne’s operation: Mary Jo Johnson, Earlene McQueen, and Mary Frances Hutchinson. Each woman either owned a restaurant or food-related business. Shabazz, McQueen, Johnson, and Hutchinson are kindly and respectfully dubbed “Legends of The Block,” and Fleer commissioned Asheville artist Joseph Pearson to memorialize each woman in portraits that adorn the walls of Benne. Pearson also used Shabazz’s archival photographs to create a mural depicting The Block.
To round out the culinary team are Kaley Laird, executive pastry chef and Anthony Auger, bar director. Laird comes with experience at multiple Michelin starred restaurants, and worked with Fleer on his team at Asheville’s Rhubarb. Auger is a veteran culinary and hospitality professional building the bar’s program using the history of the neighborhood, bits and pieces of West Africa, the Caribbean and New Orleans into his cocktails and drink offerings. Benne is open 7 days a week for breakfast service and dinner service. The address is 35 Eagle Street. Call (828) 552-8833 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information and reservations.