Chef Cleophus Hethington tells story of the African diaspora with his spices

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

When Cleophus Hethington met chef John Fleer, the owner of Asheville's Benne on Eagle, he told him of an Ethiopian proverb: "Yameftehay guday, chewna berbere lay," or, "A solution lies in salt and spice."

Soon Hethington, a Miami Culinary Institute grad who has worked for top chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Ford Fry, would take a chef de cuisine position at Benne on Eagle. In February, he earned a semifinalist nod for the James Beard Foundation's retooled "Emerging Chef" award.

Situated in a former Black business district leveled by Asheville's "urban renewal," Benne was named one of the "World's Most Important Places" when former chef Ashleigh Shanti was making her mark there with her signature "Afro-lachian" style of cooking.

Chef de Cuisine Cleophus “Ophus” Hethington of Benne on Eagle.

But while geographically Hethington is Southern, "Culturally, I am not," he said. His upbringing in Miami and his travels around the world while in the Navy have brought to Benne a whole new take on African diasporic food. With salt and spices, but mostly the latter, Hethington traces the worldwide trade routes along which coffee, spices and enslaved human beings were trafficked. 

A Miami native, the 39-year-old chef grew up surrounded by Argentinian, Haitian, Dominican and Trinidadian food, and more world flavors. "Miami is a melting pot of Latin and Caribbean culture and even beyond that," Hethington said. "It's just as much of an international city as New York and San Francisco."

Citrus and tropical fruits were abundant. He had easy access to a world of spices, which didn't change when he joined the Navy and explored parts of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe.

James Beard awards: See which chefs and restaurants in the South were named semifinalists

Spicy recipe:Trinidad native Sedesh Boodram's spiced-up Southern style shines in this chile-spiked sauce

Now he's planted roots in the mountains of Appalachia, a fully different climate in terms of both culture and growing season. It's more poke salat than plantains. It has wild ramps, but not West African grains of paradise.

Hethington has brought with him to Asheville his own pocketful of magic and traditions, including his own spice blends under his Triangular Traded Spices label. The name is a nod to those brutal trade routes where humans were treated as commodities. 

"It's a part of our history," the chef said. "It's dark, and it should be recognized and identified (how) within that trading of our ancestors there were a lot of food cultures and dietary habits also exchanged."

Dress up veggies:Rethinking Southern vegetables: Husk Nashville chef Ben Norton on how to make produce sing

Hethington created the company in 2019 as a way to gain access to African spices not readily available even in multicultural cities like Miami. In his Viagem blend, Portuguese for "voyage," are West Indian grains of paradise and tart amchur, made with green mango. Le Courage is blended with Grains of Selim, the African pepper pods used widely in countries including Ghana. 

It's the latter that lends flavor to Hethington's Ghanian Red Red, now on the menu at Benne on Eagle with an Appalachian twist: smoked local trout.

Hethington grew up eating what he calls soul-Caribbean, a blend of the Miami food culture and his grandparents' South Georgia flavors. Red Red, a stew of cowpeas in a tomato-red base cooked with palm oil, touches many parts of Black food culture, he said. It's a one-pot stew and a Black history lesson in a bowl.

"You think about how, in most cultures outside of European culture, you didn't have a traditional kitchen," Hethington said. "You had one pot and a hearth, you didn't have a fridge, but you had salt and you had spices."

That's why the Ethiopian proverb, "a solution lies in salt and spice," which he spotted on a bumper sticker during his travels, resonated with him. 

Salt, he said, lends flavor and helps preserve food from bacalao to pastrami. Spices tell stories of trade routes, of entire cultures broken apart and reassembled in far-flung corners of the earth.

"It can be uncomfortable to hear the stories and realize our connections," he said. "It's sometimes grim and dark, but there's always light. Food is a great equalizer, in my opinion. You can get a lot of people to come to the table if you have food there."

Chef Cleophus Hethington's Red Red 

This take on a traditional Ghanaian dish features a special spice blend from Triangular Traded Spices. It's a garlicky blend of smoked paprika and chilies, punched up with African pepper pods. You can use canned black-eyed peas for this recipe, but it would be best to cook your own until they're still firm. 

Ingredients

½ cup Nutiva Red palm oil (sustainable palm oil)

½ cup grapeseed oil or any neutral oil

½ cup diced red onion

3 cup black-eyed peas, cooked

½ cup grated ginger

6 tablespoons chopped garlic

4 tablespoons tomato paste

4 cups chopped tomatoes

1  cup chopped red bell peppers

1 teaspoon minced Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers

2 tablespoons ground black cardamom

2 tablespoons Triangular Traded Spices Le Courage Spice Blend

 8 ounces of smoked herring or other smoked fish

4 fresh bay leaves

1/2 cup fresh marjoram, stemmed and chopped

2 cups dry white wine, or palm wine found in African grocery stores

Salt to taste

2 ½ cups lump crab meat

Instructions

Heat the palm oil and grape seed oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot. Sauté the red onion, ginger, red bell peppers, scotch bonnet, and garlic in the palm oil for 2 minutes, or until fragrant, stirring often. (You don’t want any browning.)

Once the onion and garlic mixture has become fragrant and translucent. Add in tomato paste, stirring often to prevent scorching. Deglaze pan with white wine, and once again bring to a simmer. 

Reduce heat to a medium-low temp. Add chopped tomatoes, Le Courage, black cardamom, bay leaves, smoked fish, and marjoram, cook for 1 minute, while stirring. 

Once herbs and spices have been well incorporated. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low. Add crab meat and cooked black-eyed peas, and simmer for 30 minutes.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com