A camping trip in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park put Ashleigh Shanti on a path to finding her real purpose. The globally-trained chef and certified sommelier was already at a crossroads after more than a decade cooking at top-rated, fine-dining restaurants such as José Andrés’s celebrated Minibar in Washington, D.C.
“I spent quite a while searching for my place in the industry. Being a minority, that can be very difficult,” says Shanti who was just appointed to the Eater Young Guns Class of ’19. “There are not a lot of opportunities and positions of leadership that are outright presented to us.” Yet she knew her training and creativity made the lovely food she saw on plates in her mind worthy of recognition. One of the stories she wanted to tell with her cooking appeared in a display at a Shenandoah visitor center.
“Right towards the end of our tour, we get to this display that says, ‘Where are the Blacks in Appalachia?”’ Shanti had been asking herself the same question, knowing that her great grandmother and grandmother once lived in the Appalachian Mountains. That was the moment the chef chose the direction for her future culinary identity. “Since the moment I saw that I have been committed to making a Black Appalachian menu.”
Dream Job in Asheville
Chef Shanti’s vision came to fruition when she met the James Beard Award-nominated John Fleer. The owner and chef of Asheville’s Rhubarb had a concept for a new restaurant in The Foundry Hotel. It stands in a neighborhood known as The Block, a historically African-American community that was a thriving commercial district before urban renewal contributed to its decline in the 1970s. Fleer would only agree to create the hotel’s restaurant if it paid tribute to the immeasurable contributions African-American cooks made to Appalachian and Southern cuisines for hundreds of years.
“I could see that he truly had a heart for the Black community and for The Block and that for me was meaningful,” Shanti says. In fact, Fleer’s ideas for serving food that celebrates the traditions of cooking in the West African diaspora, the South and Appalachia dovetailed with Shanti’s own research and menu planning for the new restaurant, Benne on Eagle. “There were quite a few similarities. You would have thought we had been working together for years.”
She accepted Fleer’s offer of employment and gained something precious and unobtainable until her move to Asheville. “I have a voice now that I’ve never ever had in my 10 years of being in the industry,” says the chef de cuisine at Benne.
Shanti calls her new responsibilities a dream job because Fleer asks for her input on the menu and running the restaurant. She also sees a genuine commitment to making all the staff feel welcomed. “It’s a place where they also have a voice and are accepted. They feel like they can thrive in this environment,” says Shanti.
Soul, Global & Appalachian Roots
The new restaurant’s name is more than symbolic. During Colonial and Antebellum Eras, African slaves brought the heirloom Benne plant to the Carolinas and grew it for a variety of medicinal and culinary uses. It became an essential staple in African-American and Appalachian cooking. Over time, Benne was primarily used for the production of sesame oil and lost much of its flavor and unique applications.
Shanti points to another lost connection between Appalachian cooking, soul food and Southern cooking. She sees the similarities connecting them despite the lack of attention given to contributions African-Americans have made to all three cuisines. “My grandmother has those Appalachian traditions ingrained in her. I would snap beans and hang them from the porch,” says Shanti. “My great grandmother hung garlic. The drying and preservation methods that I see in Appalachian cuisine are very much things my great grandmother did.”
The menu at Benne on Eagle is a modern representation of Appalachian, West African and African-American traditions as well as global influences from Shanti’s travels. “I’ve trained in Kenya, in Copenhagen, New Orleans, Maine and so many different places that it’s very difficult not to let those influences come into what you are making.”
Benne’s chef de cuisine is also enamored with Japanese food. It comes through in the cabbage pancake on the menu, with a nod to the cabbage and salmon fritters her mom made. “It includes southern ingredients and influences from my mom, who is not only southern but Appalachian as well,” Shanti says. “And I may have garnered a little of that influence from Japan in the fact that they do the okonomiyaki, a savory pancake with a bunch of dressings on it.”
Commitment to Community
Other essential aspects of the vision Shanti, Fleer and the staff are presenting at Benne on Eagle have more to do with storytelling than seasonings. They want to educate and entertain patrons with the history of The Block and traditions worth savoring. The menu is described as “Steeped in Soul,” and Shanti wants diners to experience the emotion of soul cooking that existed in the African-American neighborhood years ago. “I want them to feel that the food comes from our souls. We truly believe in this. We are truly trying to capture the essence of what The Block used to be.”
The décor at Benne tells some of The Block’s stories with the portraits of African-American women on the wall and the Joseph Pearson artwork that depicts a window with a view of the downtown Ashville neighborhood 20 years ago.
Hanan Shabazz can point out different places she has been in that drawing. As the proprietor of Shabazz Soul Food on Market Street in the 1960s, Hanan brings the history of The Block with her when she is cooking at the new restaurant. “It’s very beautiful to have her voice here and to have her actively cooking and executing a lot of our menu items. That’s been pretty powerful,” Chef Shanti says.
Benne on Eagle is less than a year old and still evolving as far as its commitment to the community, past and present. Maintaining a fine-dining reputation can make serving less affluent patrons more challenging. The bar’s less expensive appetizers appeal to some diners who want to spend less. The Sunday Suppers Shabazz prepares the last Sunday of every month also provides a more affordable option. “The last Sunday, she did fried chicken. She did her vegetarian greens. She did dressing. She did bean pies. It was incredible. That was for $22 a person,” says Shanti.
Seasonal Cooking & Menu
The menu at Benne will change with the seasons, which allows the restaurant to represent Appalachian and African-American traditions of cooking ingredients taken from the garden or the farm. Shanti pays attention to what local growers recommend. “I like to listen to them and give them that voice as well. That is one thing that I think the Appalachian region represents is cooking seasonally, cooking what you can pull from your garden or farm. My great grandmother cooked from what she had available in her garden.”
The onion-braised rabbit at Benne is a take on an Edna Lewis recipe. It is plated with the apple fritters Shabazz makes. She coats them in a Benne seasoning that replicates the umami flavor that comes from Furikaki seasoning in Japanese cooking.
The restaurant serves breakfast and dinner with plenty of snacks and appetizers on the menu including potlikker-braised chicken wings. The well-stocked bar delivers creative cocktails with West African and Caribbean-inspired combinations, such as hibiscus and honey, pineapple and ginger and pumpkin and clove.
Right Word, Right Place, Right Time
Chef Shanti sees Fleer and works with him almost every day. He even arranged for her to meet one of her idols, Carla Hall. The chef stopped by the new restaurant while it was still under construction. Shanti shared a rap song she had written that contains a word she loves. While reading Michael Twitty’s “The Cooking Gene,” she came across the word Sankofa, an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. “Sankofa means go back and get it; that concept of moving forward and trekking on while remembering all of the things from the past,” says Shanti. “Taking some of those nuggets that are so precious and using them and applying them to the future.”
Shanti wrote her name and Sankofa behind one of the restaurant’s firewalls. For her, it represents finding the right word and the right place at the right time. At Benne, she is fulfilling her dream of creating something new and fresh while honoring her ancestors. It is confirmation that her journey from the Shenandoah Mountains to Asheville allowed Shanti to become the chef she was always meant to be. “I think it was that moment when I discovered that word that I was able to apply it to my own life after looking for this meaning for so long.”