/ AN ODE TO THE BLOCK /
We are located on Eagle Street in Asheville’s historic neighborhood called The Block. We proudly chose to highlight Eagle in the name of our restaurant as a way to honor and recognize our street for being such an integral part of our local community’s history.
For much of the twentieth century, Eagle Street was the place to be on The Block. Local businesses – ranging from record shops and grocery stores to dry cleaners and beauty parlors – lined the street; each one helped weave the collective fabric of our predominantly African-American neighborhood. Serving as the heart of The Block’s thriving social scene, Eagle Street was home to an abundance of gathering spots for food, drink, live music, and entertainment. The DelCardo Club and the Kitty Cat Club were some of the area’s most vibrant venues in the 1960s and 1970s and helped make Asheville a favorite stop for both James Brown and Percy Sledge. At the end of the day, everybody had a good time on Eagle Street.
Our neighbor, the YMI (Young Men’s Institute) Cultural Center of Asheville, has been a mainstay on The Block since 1893, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, our once-thriving neighborhood fell into disrepair. Since then, The Block has remained largely untouched and its business community in decline. We opened our doors in December 2018 and are proud to be a part of the revitalizating new energy on Eagle Street.
Benne on Eagle welcomes all – from those who grew up in and around The Block, to folks who might be visiting our town for the first time. We invite you to join us in bringing re-invigorated life and soul back to The Block and enjoying some great food while you’re at it.
Sankofa is an Andinkra symbol in Ghana that translates as "go back and get it." This ethos informs everything we do here at Benne on Eagle, from the décor to the art to the menu and our kitchen staff, which is comprised of many family members of people who ran thriving businesses on The Block in the 1960s and 1970s. Our neighborhood looks and feels completely different than it did in that era, but the memories and influence remain. What once was here is largely gone now, but we are reaching back to pull those traditions into the present day.
Chef de cuisine
Ashleigh Shanti is Chef de Cuisine of Benne on Eagle in Asheville, NC. Working closely Chef Fleer, Ashleigh pays homage to the rich African-American culinary traditions that once thrived in The Block – the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant – as well as honoring her own history as a Southern, African-American female.
Born in in St. Mary’s, GA and raised in Virginia Beach, VA, Ashleigh’s heritage has roots across the Southeast. Her happiest days as a young girl were Sundays spent in the kitchen with her family; friends would stop by to visit, eventually prepare themselves a plate, and stay for hours. These moments ingrained in Ashleigh the power of food and how drastically a meal could impact a person's mood. When her parents insisted she find a job at age 16, Ashleigh chose one with long hours and grueling tasks – a kitchen – in the hopes that they would balk. And so, it was this first job, chosen out of rebellion, where Ashleigh unexpectedly solidified her future career path.
After graduating from Baltimore International College in 2013 with an Associates Degrees in Culinary Arts, Ashleigh embarked upon a variety of culinary experiences, including a position teaching fermentation classes at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans and a stageat Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. Homesick for the Southeast, in 2017 Ashleigh moved to Kinston, NC to assume the role of Culinary Assistant for Chef & the Farmer co-owner Vivian Howard. Here, she learned the importance of establishing a culinary identity and discovered the impact of telling a story through a plate of food.
While each of her kitchen experiences helped hone her technical expertise, Ashleigh struggled to find a culinary home that resonated with her on a personal level. It was this longing that beckoned Ashleigh to Asheville in Fall 2018 to help Chef Fleer open Benne on Eagle. Here, Ashleigh has found her culinary identity in a kitchen where the food is both meaningful to her and honors her heritage. She is proud to help Chef Fleer build Benne on Eagle’s culinary program from the ground up by following the theme of Sankofa: progressing forward and integrating new food techniques and methods, while looking back to history to reclaim lost and forgotten traditions.
In her spare time, outside of Benne on Eagle’s kitchen, Ashleigh’s culinary explorations continue. She is often found foraging for wild foods or exploring the process of fermentation in her homegrown lab.
Executive Chef - Owner
John Fleer is the Chef-Owner of Benne on Eagle. A native of Winston-Salem, NC, Chef Fleer was named one of the “Rising Stars of the 21st Century" by the James Beard Foundation and is a five-time finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southeast.
Chef Fleer transforms local ingredients into world-class dishes. The unique “foothills cuisine” he helped establish at Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, where he served as Executive Chef from 1992-2007, walked the line between refined and rugged, fancy and familiar. It focused on interpreting the regional larder through classical and traditional techniques, eventually catapulting the resort to the honor of Relais Gourmand. In 2009, Chef Fleer took his first step back across the Blue Ridge from Tennessee, and opened Canyon Kitchen at Lonesome Valley in Cashiers, NC, where his food was enhanced by one of the most beautiful restaurant settings in the country. Chef Fleer left Canyon Kitchen in the summer of 2015 to focus his time on Rhubarb, which he opened in Asheville in October of 2013. At Rhubarb, and its sister bakery-café The Rhu, he brings the relaxed atmosphere of his previous pastoral posts to Pack Square, broadening his approach with a freestyle American cuisine well-suited for its location at Asheville’s vibrant crossroad.
When Chef Fleer was presented the opportunity to open Benne on Eagle in late 2018, he knew the only way for the concept to be successfully executed was if the restaurant could keep the true heritage of Asheville’s history alive. For him, this meant actively seeking team members to partner with him in shaping the menu to honor soul food, and in particular, how it relates to Appalachia and Asheville specifically. Maintaining the exclusive focus on seasonal and local ingredients that he established at Rhubarb, Chef Fleer works hand-in-hand with his Chef de Cuisine, Ashleigh Shanti, and Culinary Mentor, Hanan Shabazz, to shape the flavors of Benne on Eagle.
Over the course of his career, Chef Fleer has served on various boards, most importantly as a member of the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance from 2003-2009. When he’s not in the kitchen, you can find him on the soccer field or spending time with his wife and three sons.
Executive pastry chef
Executive Pastry Chef Kaley Laird brings her unique style and non-traditional culinary methods to the kitchen at Benne on Eagle. At just 31 years old, Laird boasts an impressive resume with more than 13 years of culinary experience.
Originally from Western New York, Laird’s interest in cooking was sparked as a young child decorating Christmas cookies with her mother. What began as a holiday tradition developed into a passion that allows Laird to combine her interests in math, science, art and business.
Laird honed her pastry skills at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park Campus and graduated with an AOS Baking and Pastry Arts in 2007. Throughout her career, she has had the privilege to hold many positions within the kitchen including Pastry Commis at Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, CA, where she won the Core Award, an honor bestowed upon the individual that best displays the CORE values of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group; Pastry Chef at Michelin starred Ubuntu Restaurant in Napa, CA; Executive Pastry Chef at The Carneros Inn in Napa Valley; and Executive Chef and Pastry Chef at Aveline Restaurant in San Francisco, before returning to the East Coast to join the team at Rhubarb in 2014.
Laird is a classically trained French pastry chef with a distinct edge. Tapped by Chef Fleer to also execute the pastry program at Benne on Eagle, she utilizes her experience with savory ingredients to broaden her repertoire of flavor combinations to create classic desserts using local, fresh and seasonal ingredients that call to mind the culinary point of view of The Block.
She currently resides in Arden, NC. When she is not in the kitchen, Laird enjoys culinary exploration, working out, and being outside.
/ HARVESTING HISTORY /
The visual centerpiece of Benne on Eagle is a mural by acclaimed Asheville artist Joseph Pearson. Working closely with Benne’s Culinary Mentor, Hanan Shabazz, to utilize her collection of photographs from the 1960s and 1970s to inform the content of the mural, Pearson has depicted historically significant black businesses and buildings on The Block, including Mount Zion Church and The Strand movie theater. The location of the mural, adjacent to Benne’s bar, was once a window looking out on Eagle Street, and the painting evokes memories of what was seen when looking out that very window fifty years ago.
Joseph Pearson also created the portraits on our featured wall. These line drawings depict four women whose culinary, professional, and personal impact on The Block in the 1960s and 1970s is still felt here today. Here at Benne, we affectionately refer to these ladies – all chefs and business owners on the Block in its heyday – as the “Legends of the Block.”
LEGENDS OF THE BLOCK
When Chef John Fleer was presented the opportunity to open Benne on Eagle, he knew the only way for the concept to be successfully executed was if the restaurant could honor and keep the true heritage of Asheville’s history alive. For him, this meant actively seeking a mentor who could guide him with true expertise and knowledge of soul food, and in particular, how it relates to Appalachia and the neighborhood. The answer, he knew, lay with one person: Hanan Shabazz.
An Asheville native, Hanan has spent most of her life, aside from a stint in New York City, immersed in the food of the local community, working to instill the love and understanding of soul food in the next generations. Hanan herself owned a restaurant on Eagle Street in the 1970s, Shabazz Restaurant, and her variations on some of the restaurant’s most iconic dishes are now served on our menu at Benne on Eagle. Drawing upon her extensive experience and the deep connection she continues to foster in Western North Carolina, Hanan brings the people of The Block and its history together to enrich and guide Benne on Eagle.
Once involved with Asheville-based non-profit Green Opportunities, whose mission is to train, support, and connect people from marginalized communities to sustainable employment pathways,Hanan worked with people of all ages and backgrounds for their Kitchen Ready program. Hanan finds meaning through teaching others her culinary art of soul food and takes pride in the opportunity to teach those who work at Benne on Eagle about the history of the food it serves.
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. With Hanan’s mentorship, the restaurant aims to ensure the African-American culinary traditions that once thrived in the neighborhood will continue to do so (once again) for many years to come.
Mary Jo Johnson
Known for her fantastic cheeseburgers (and their top-secret recipe – even her children don’t have it!) at Ebony Grill, Mary Jo Johnson was a fixture on Eagle Street for over 30 years. A member of Mount Zion church, as well as an accomplished restaurant owner, Mary Jo has been feeding her community through their bellies, their hearts, and their minds for nearly nine decades. Whether it was providing extra food in exchange for small chores so that folks could get dinner on the table for their family, or working through difficult personal situations, Mary Jo has always been a helping hand and a champion of the local community.
An accomplished cook and baker, Earlene McQueen was the owner of the Ritz Café in the 1960s, where she was especially known for her fabulous cakes. Like Mary Jo Johnson, Earlene employed many helpers, offering the occasional “odd job” to keep The Block thriving. She made full use of her building by renting out the apartments above Ritz Café to employees and community members, as well as hosting an after-hours nightclub below the restaurant called the Del Cardo Club.
Mary Frances Hutchinson
Mary Frances was a nurse at the local VA hospital in the 1960s and 1970s, and together with her husband Al Hutchinson, she owned a variety of businesses on Eagle Street. These included a pool room, a barber shop, a nightclub, and her namesake, Fran’s Lounge – a social club for drinks, food, and mixing and mingling between friends, business colleagues, or lovers.