Chattanooga celebrity chef shows a talent that goes beyond knowing the right ingredients, plus tips for creating a beautiful plate

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Kenyatta Ashford chops sausage for a gumbo at Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga.

When it comes to creativity, the culinary arts might be considered the most demanding of professions to enter. Not only does food need to be appealing to the palate, it must look good as well. As the adage goes, "We eat with our eyes first."

Once established, a chef becomes an artist with a palate that offers a sensory experience filled with deliciousness and offering a wide range of attributes to help enhance food attractiveness.

Kenyatta Ashford, chef and owner of Neutral Ground, is one such artist whose plates show a talent that goes beyond knowing the right ingredients that are needed to heighten the flavors of a recipe. When he plates a dish, color and texture play a key role in the overall satisfaction of the finished product.

"We try really hard to make our food look appealing and appetizing," says Ashford, a native of New Orleans. Those factors, plus a desire to offer an authentic dining experience, help showcase the lively flavors of Afro-Creole cooking.

  photo  Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Kenyatta Ashford

"Growing up in New Orleans makes it difficult to exclude the love of food and cooking from your personal identity," he says.

"Neutral ground" is the term used in the Crescent City for a street median. It's a wide space along the city's trolley lines that allows people of all races and backgrounds to gather.

"My food, the menu at Neutral Ground and the way we work are all connected," Ashford adds.

Ashford moved to Chattanooga in 2003, a time when the city was beginning to find itself as a food destination. Ashford compares the food scene back then to a blank canvas, allowing chefs to create new, innovative concepts for all to enjoy.

"As far as chain restaurants are concerned, much hasn't changed, but the landscape of independent restaurants has grown tremendously in the last few years," he says. "It's so exciting to see new chefs creating and operating concepts that bring new food to Chattanooga."

In order to stimulate the growth of restaurants and offer chefs an opportunity to test the waters before opening their own brick-and-mortar establishments, Ashford and a handful of other chefs opened Proof Bar and Incubator on M.L. King Boulevard in 2020, a collective of restaurants under one roof that laid a foundation for his success in the restaurant industry.

"Proof created a place that allowed Neutral Ground to flourish by lowering the barriers of entry for restaurant startups," he says.

The success of Proof as a place for startups led to the opening of a second food incubator in Brainerd: Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga.

"The move to K.I.C. seemed like the most logical step, given the fact that our goal is to open a brick-and-mortar space. It provides the space and equipment to continue to develop our food concept and brand," Ashford says.

The menu at Neutral Ground is best described as authentic Creole with seasonal chef-driven specials and menu mainstays, such as po' boys, gumbo and smoked brisket meatball yakamein, a Chinese dish popular in New Orleans that shows the melting pot of foodways found there.

"New Orleans is awash in different cultures, and that makes it alive and dynamic and ever-evolving," Ashford says.

In 2021, Ashford made a bold step forward in his career by entering and winning "Chopped," a food competition on Food Network. It was an experience that became another stepping stone on his career path.

"The 'Chopped' victory changed so much for me personally and professionally," he says. "I'm still figuring out the whole 'celebrity chef' thing. I have to admit it's a nice way to help build a recognizable brand."

Five Ways to Create a Beautiful Plate

As important as it is to make a dish taste great, it also has to look good. Here are five ways to add color and texture to a dish using ingredients you may already have in your pantry or refrigerator.

1. Add some height. Instead of putting all the foods together on a plate, put them on top of each other. Stacking foods adds drama to your presentation. If you need some support, use a ring mold or cookie cutter to create a base, then gently lift up from there.

2. Slice meats horizontally at a 45-degree angle, then fan the slices out to show off the texture and the color of perfectly grilled or roasted meats.

3. Don't overcook the vegetables. Cook them to an al dente stage so no color will be lost and each bite has a slightly crunchy edge.

4. Choose the right plate size, color and style as the plate becomes the canvas for your food.

5. Serve smaller portions so the plate isn't overcrowded and don't pile on a gazillion garnishes. If the food is cooked right, it's worth showing off. A steak seared to perfection garnished with a touch of watercress is eye-catching on its own.

  photo  Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Chef Kenyatta Ashford holds a bowl of his chicken and sausage gumbo at Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga.