Call of the Valley: Mark Henegan brings a taste of South Africa to Black Mountain
Though his journey has taken many a turn, there is a thread leading to Mark Henegan’s Bush Farmhouse restaurant and bar. It all stems from his South African roots. In fact, just resting under the roof in the former Roots & Fruits market reminds him of his grandmother’s farmhouse outside of Johannesburg where he grew up.
His calling as a chef and restauranteur also prompted him to recall his early days.
“My mom, dad and grandmother loved to cook,” Henegan said. “We always had fresh bread delivered to our house every day and we had a dairy farm. Everything was fresh and organic because we didn’t know anything else. There was a thriving produce stand nearby. My mom’s stepparents were Greek, so we had Greek food. My dad loved Portuguese food and we often had snoek, which he would marinate with chutney and put on the grill. When we moved to Durban on the coast during my high school years, we enjoyed great seafood. Food was a link between the Dutch, English, Africans -- so many cultures and tastes. The fusion of such a variety of dishes became the country’s rainbow cuisine.”
After Henegan completed his mandatory military service, his sister, who was working in the hotel business in New York, offered him a plane ticket to come over and visit.
“So I arrived in New York City and just loved it,” he said. “During apartheid, Asian people, Africans, Greeks, Dutch, English were separated. Here, all ethnicities were together in subways and everywhere. And I loved the New York pace as I began working in all kinds of restaurants.”
This heightened experience prompted him to return to South Africa to get his green card, remain in the U.S. and open up his own place. Once back home again, however, he discovered Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and a peaceful, transformative energy had been released throughout. Apartheid had been dismantled, equal rights had been established, Mandela was a national hero and became Henegan’s hero as well.
“And that’s when I thought of bringing South Africa here to New York,” he said. “I opened the first South African restaurant in the U.S. and called it Madiba after Mandela. It started as a little hole in the wall place with five tables and grew to over 50 with an expansive outdoor terrace serving the likes of Paul Simon and Archbishop Tutu during its 20 years of operation.”
Henegan also interacted with South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a group Paul Simon was involved with. Then, right after 9/11 when New York became a dangerous place to live, Simon and his musicians (who had performed here) suggested Asheville as a peaceful alternative. Henegan opened a place in the River Arts District as he, his wife and children shuttled back and forth to New York. The pandemic inevitably hit, and he found nearby Black Mountain to be cozy and stable, the ambiance of the old Roots and Fruits to be grandfathered-in since 1912 as a farm -- homelike and the perfect spot for a “bush” (African grassland) restaurant.
After much planning and almost a year in operation, the Bush is the culmination of Henegan’s vision.
“The food is South Atrican inspired,” he said. “The wine list is South African, affordable and amazing quality. It’s all basically a garden to table restaurant. I’m trying to create a place where everybody is welcome. We want families to come in with the kids and enjoy the farm animals like the goats, donkeys and ducks. We have a greenhouse and grow our own flowers and vegetables. We have live music representing different styles like African and bluegrass. In celebration of diversity there’ll be gay pride events. I’m very inclusive and want to be open to anything and everything. And we want to help out with community nonprofits like the Black Mountain Home for Children. As I learned in all those years in Brooklyn, the only way you can be successful within a community is to become part of the community.”