On Monday, September 9, Lazy Betty in Candler Park hosts Ębí Chop Bar, a five-course pop-up dinner inspired by the cuisines of the African diaspora, prepared by chef Cleophus Hethington, a South Florida native and currently a chef de partie at Lazy Betty.
A Yoruba phrase meaning “family” and “hunger”, Ębí intends to celebrate foodways of people of African descent who were separated by “politically forced migrations and voluntary migrations to countries outside of the continent of Africa” due to the transatlantic slave trade.
Hethington says his own African roots trace back to Cameroon and Senegal, by way of southern Georgia and the Caribbean. The chef’s travels throughout Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean, and in the United States all influence Ębí’s menu.
“You’re part of the African diaspora whether you’re from the West Indies or you’re African-American, Afro-Latino, from one of the 54 countries in Africa, or you’re an African living in Europe,” Hethington says. “We’re all part of that. That’s my idea: really focusing on African diasporic food and the connections we all have.”
The dinner begins in Trinidad with curried chickpeas, or “doubles,” consisting of green mango, culantro herb (a stronger version of cilantro), and shiitakes. From there, food travels to the American south with a soul food-inspired duck ham and cornbread topped with pickled green apples and soft robiola cheese and then a course of catfish and grits with cabbage and turnips.
Following the main course of king crab and Ghanaian “red red” (black eyed peas stewed with plantains), dinner ends with a cassava cookie and a mamey fruit ice cream sandwich with benne seed granola, blending West African, Caribbean, and South American cuisines. Each dish is paired with either wine or cocktails using African, Latin, and Caribbean liquors.
“It’s not just a niche thing. It’s education, and making connections for myself and for people who will enjoy the food I’m cooking,” Hethington says of creating the Ębí Chop Bar dinner series. “It’s not always going to be super-authentic to a Guyanan or Jamaican or Senagalese or African-American, but there’s going to be something in there that you’re going to recognize.”
Branding himself with the moniker “Chef Ophus,” Hethington has a fine dining background and a resume featuring positions at highly respected restaurants. His first culinary job was prep-cooking at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami. He went on to work for chef Michael Schwartz at The Cypress Room, eventually joining Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s team at his Miami Beach restaurant, Matador Room & Market.
Hethington also lived in Atlanta for almost two years and worked at Ford Fry’s seafood restaurant The Optimist in its early months. Having recently moved back to Atlanta, Hethington spent the last four months working at Lazy Betty while planning Ębí Chop Bar in his spare time.
“When I left here [Atlanta] six years ago, I always knew I wanted to come back, because I love the city, but I never really got the chance to experience it,” Hethington explains of his return to Atlanta.
Hethington says his ultimate goal is to have a hospitality group named “Ophus”. He hopes to open a restaurant of his own in Miami, but doesn’t plan to leave Atlanta anytime soon. “Miami’s my home. I’ll always want to have something there, but I want Atlanta to be my home base.”
Growing up with an appreciation for his mother’s home-cooked meals, Hethington says he was also a fan of Julia Childs and chefs Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. The chef excelled in athletics and home economics in school. However, a wrist injury on the football field ceased his sports dreams, sending him into the armed services six months before the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.
A U.S. Navy veteran who served five years as a hospital corpsman right out of high school, Hethington earned a degree in public health from the University of Miami after his service, then worked in the healthcare industry until 2011.
He refers to himself as an “extreme introvert” and says he grew tired of the politics of healthcare and dealt with anxiety for years. One source of peace was in cooking for coworkers for office potlucks. People began pitching in to purchase groceries for Hethington’s potluck dishes. He turned those into weekly staff meals, as he had done for his fellow Navy service members. “Cooking was always there. It was always a love and a therapy, but I never thought about getting out and making it a career.”
When Hethington lost his job, he briefly considered attending the Culinary Institute of America. He thought otherwise when he ran the numbers on tuition expenses. Hethington went looking for jobs anywhere that would hire him, from Yardbird to TGI Fridays. His lack of professional kitchen experience turned out to be a problem.
Hethington then discovered a new cooking program at Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute and took a class on sanitation. The chef soon learned of an opening at Yardbird, which was not yet open for business. Hethington interviewed for a position in the kitchen, where he displayed enough basic knife skills to score an unpaid internship, launching his career.
“Cleo is a soft spoken person that has an unshakeable courage to him,” Lazy Betty partner and chef de cuisine Aaron Phillips says of Hethington. “It is represented in the way he treats his craft as an expression of his individual style, but also the culture which he represents always interweaves the flavors and the story.”
“At the end of the day, in some ways, we find our identities in food,” Hethington explains. “And that’s usually what brings us all to the table and to talk over food, even if we have differences.”
Take a look at Monday’s menu for Ębí Chop Bar:
Follow Ebi Chop Bar on Instagram for future pop-up dates and locations.