Soon after it opened in late 2018, Benne on Eagle became the subject of laudatory profiles in national publications and nabbed the No. 6 spot in Esquire magazine’s list of 2019’s Best New American Restaurants. Owned by white Asheville chef John Fleer of Rhubarb and The Rhu, the restaurant has received kudos for paying homage to African American influence on Appalachian food and honoring the legacy of the once-thriving Black neighborhood known as The Block.
In May 2020, Benne’s opening chef de cuisine, Ashleigh Shanti, a Black native of Virginia, made the short list for Rising Star Chef in the James Beard Awards. A recent increase in attention and plaudits paid to high-profile Black chefs in America simultaneously sheds ambient light on their overall scarcity. Malcolm McMillian, who succeeded Shanti as chef de cuisine at Benne in October, asserts that the country’s restaurant industry has centuries of catching up to do when it comes to equity in the kitchen.
“When you talk about the meagerness, you have to begin with history,” he says. “Because of slavery, oppression and racism, we didn’t even get a chance to dip our toes into fine dining and kitchen hierarchy until maybe the 1970s or ’80s. Go back to the 1700s, the people owning and running restaurants have been white people; they hired white people. The people writing cookbooks are white people, the people on cooking shows are white people, the people winning awards are white people. They had like a 300-year head start.”
The issue remains a national one; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 just 14.7% of chefs and head cooks were Black, the lowest percentage of category by gender, race and ethnicity. A July 2019 story in The New York Times spotlighting 16 Black chefs (Shanti among them) impacting food in the United States, notes that before 2018, Black chefs had not won a James Beard Award in any of the Best Chef or Outstanding Restaurant categories for 14 years.
This meagerness, as McMillian describes it, is especially apparent in Asheville. The mountain town may have dubbed itself Foodtopia, but the view from within the kitchen is not quite so heavenly for Black chefs and cooks.
“At the level of executive chef, chef de cuisine or sous chef, I only know of three here in town,” says Rakim Gaines, executive chef at Capella on 9 since 2018. “Malcolm, me and Ashleigh, and Ashleigh isn’t in a restaurant right now.”
Of that trio, only Gaines is a native. Born and raised in East Asheville, he emulated his mother, whom he describes as a “soul food mom,” and was glued to the television set every day after school watching “Great Chefs of the World” on the Discovery Channel.
Though his parents urged him to pursue a more stable and lucrative career, two Black chefs who were family friends encouraged Gaines to take a culinary path. “They said if this is what you love to do, do it and figure it out as you go along,” he says.
Gaines enrolled in A-B Tech’s culinary program, but shortly before he was to begin an internship at The Omni Grove Park Inn, he became a father, and figuring it out took on new meaning. He left school and took a job shucking oysters at The Lobster Trap, where within five years, he advanced to the position of sous chef.
He later did a brief stint at Corner Kitchen before moving in 2017 to Capella on 9, the rooftop restaurant in the newly opened AC Hotel downtown. Just three months in, the executive chef position opened up, and at the urging of his fiancé and young son, Gaines asked to be considered. Posana executive chef Jordan Arace (Posana is part of the Mandara Hospitality Group that consulted on the Capella on 9 concept) saw his potential, Gaines says, giving him the opportunity to learn and prove himself until he was named executive chef six months later.
While Gaines says he has not experienced overt or severe racism during his career in Asheville, he acknowledges that it exists. “There are assumptions and stereotyping based on race, for sure, on every level,” he says. “A Black person comes into the kitchen or the dining room, and it’s all eyes on that person. It’s subtle, but it’s also normal. I have always had to work that much harder, but that motivates me.”
Shades of racism
Cooking is McMillian’s third career after four years in the Army, then a stretch putting to use the business degree he earned in his hometown of Orange, N.J., at the Bank of America in Charlotte, where the mother of his son had moved from New York. When banking went bust in 2008, he decided to use his GI Bill benefits to professionalize his knack for cooking.
In his classes at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, he noted a lack of Black faces. “In labs, there were typically 14 to 16 students, and maybe two or three were people of color,” he says.
After securing degrees in culinary arts and food service management, he began a peripatetic path of upper-level chef positions through some of Manhattan’s best-known restaurants, where he found opportunity and plenty of shades of racism. From some owners, he says, there was blatant bigotry, including open use of the N-word and discouragement of McMillian’s efforts to motivate Black back-of-house workers to pursue more skilled positions.
“From peers, it was more learned behaviors and stereotyping, like my decisions and cooking methods being questioned,” he says. “I’m 100% certain that would not happen if I were not a Black man.”
McMillian found a mentor in Dominican chef Aksel Theilkuhl at STK restaurant in Manhattan. Theilkuhl later recruited him to assume the executive chef role at Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse and, in 2018, lured him to a small mountain town in upstate New York to serve as his chef de cuisine at the DeBruce Inn, named that year as one of Esquire magazine’s best new restaurants. But as McMillian sought to move closer to his son in Charlotte, Asheville loomed on the horizon.
“When Benne was on Esquire’s 2019 list, and I saw Ashleigh was Black, I reached out to her,” McMillian says. Conversations ultimately led to interviews with Shanti and Fleer. He accepted the position of executive sous chef last July, and when Shanti left in November, he took over as chef de cuisine.
Cooking for community
Mentorship led chef Kikkoman Shaw to his current position running the Asheville Housing Authority’s Southside Community Kitchen, which five days a week provides 300 meals for elderly, homebound and disabled residents using top-notch products, including fresh, local produce from We Give a Share.
The Asheville native first met the meal program’s co-founder, chef Mark Rosenstein, when he was enrolled in the Green Opportunities Kitchen Ready culinary training course. For a time, Rosenstein had managed the program, which was offered at Southside Kitchen, where Shaw is now referred to as “Boss Man.”
“Chef Mark told me if I could cook good food, I could go anywhere in the world and get a job, that it was all about building my toolbox,” recalls Shaw. “It opened my horizons to try different foods and experiment with different flavors. I started watching cooking shows and buying cookbooks. I knew there weren’t many Black chefs in Asheville, so I set my mind to achieve that.”
His first job after graduating from the program was at Bouchon, where he learned to cook French cuisine. From there, he went to Blackbird, where he ran the lunch service. When Blackbird temporarily closed due to COVID-19, Rosenstein called Shaw and asked him to helm the meals program at Southside Community Kitchen.
“Chef Mark believes in me, and I believe in him,” Shaw says. Shaw also believes in the team he has built of four Black graduates of the first GO Kitchen Ready class. “I want to see all of them excel and do wonderful in life,” he says. “I want to find people in the situation I was in and motivate them to succeed.”
In addition to Rosenstein, Shaw credits legendary Asheville chef and social justice activist Hanan Shabazz — recently honored by the Southern Foodways Alliance with its 2020 Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award — with providing inspiration for the entire crew.
“She has her way,” Shaw says with a laugh. “She brings so much to us. She has so much insight into what it was like for Black cooks years before we were born.”
Chef Clarence Robinson was born in Asheville and, as a “military brat,” lived in various U.S. states before settling back here, where he got his GED at A-B Tech. Always drawn to the kitchen to watch his mother, grandmother and aunts cook, he enrolled in the school’s culinary program, which led to positions at the Omni Grove Park Inn, Sunny Point Café and Chestnut, a stint managing the Western Carolina Rescue Mission kitchen and ongoing cooking demo videos with The Ingles Table.
Robinson launched Cooking with Comedy Catering in 2010 while he was still working in restaurants and also felt motivated to inspire young people in his community through free cooking classes. “I started bringing kids to my kitchen to teach them and show them how fun cooking could be and also a career,” he says. In 2019, he committed full time to his catering company and intends to resume the workshops for kids when pandemic social distancing requirements ease.
He says he’s experienced racism throughout his career in multiple ways, from verbal abuse and sabotage to being underpaid and undervalued. “One place wanted me to create a soul food menu for them and be executive chef, but the salary they offered was less than a white line cook would make,” says Robinson. He declined.
Robinson believes the key to success for Black chefs in Asheville is to create their own path. He’s set to debut a food truck this month, Cooking with Comedy by the Flavor King. And to help fill Asheville’s soul food void, he has partnered with SoundSpace@Rabbit’s Music Rehearsal Studios to create a café that’s projected to open in late fall or winter. The name, he says, will be Areta’s Soul Food in honor of his Aunt Areta. “That name just sounds like good food,” he says.
Ownership, says Fleer, is key to growing Black representation in the industry. The condition under which he agreed to open Benne on Eagle on The Foundry Hotel property was that it reflect the history and culture of The Block. “In the best of all possible worlds, there would have been a Black owner from the beginning of the life of Benne,” he says. “My ultimate hope is that at some point, there will be.”
When Shanti departed Benne, she made it clear she planned to stay in Asheville and devote herself to developing opportunities for Black and underserved communities. “As a Black woman and Black chef in Asheville, I see the importance of representation of restaurant ownership,” she told Xpress in December. “I want to be a part of diversifying that sector, and I believe Asheville is a great place to do it. I think most chefs want to open their own restaurant. I am definitely one of those.”
So is Gaines, who says, “My ultimate goal is to open my own small restaurant in Asheville, on the value of my own name, Rakim Gaines.”