Neutral Ground chef Kenyatta Ashford poses at his restaurant space inside Proof Bar & Incubator on M.L. King Boulevard. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

The house where Kenyatta Ashford grew up in New Orleans has always been the place where family gathered for holidays and special events, in part because his mother always prepared a huge meal of traditional Cajun-style food.

Ashford, who recently opened his own restaurant, Neutral Ground, in the Proof incubator space on M.L. King Boulevard, didn't necessarily help her cook, but he was paying attention.

"I don't want to propagate the myth that everybody who grew up in New Orleans had a mom who could cook, but in my case, it's true," he said.

Surrounded by lots of siblings and aunts and uncles, it was quite a chore, especially after Ashford's grandmother started taking nursing classes at night.

"At holidays, my Uncle Michael would organize everything and cook the meat, but my mother cooked everything else, and she never had a recipe. She'd make stuffed bell peppers, fried turkey and gumbo. She did it all by memory and by hand."

Ashford said he was more the eater and didn't help cook, "but my palate was being trained big time."

He is among the first tenants of Proof, a food and beverage incubator and bar that also houses a commercial kitchen and restaurant spaces for new businesses looking to transition to their own space. It opened in February.

Proof came out of the Consumer Goods Accelerator program created in 2018 by local nonprofit CO-LAB, where Proof co-founders Mia Littlejohn and Michael Robinson were both entrepreneurs in residence.

They've worked with more than 20 companies, many of which they still work with, such as Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Cashew Plant Based Café and Hutton & Smith Brewing Co. They help these companies develop everything from a mission statement to a marketing plan to dealing with a pandemic.

The 6,000-square-foot building is also home to Chris Greer and his Lil Oso eatery, which describes its dishes are "modern American comfort food." Both Neutral Ground and Lil Oso are open 4-10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with full menus, along with Poppytons Patisserie, a food truck bakery. Kaleena Goldsworthy, owner of The Bitter Bottle, which makes herbal bitters for cocktails, and Toby Darling, owner of Dr. Thacher's, maker of cocktail syrups, also operate in the building. Goldsworthy and Darling also work with Robinson and Littlejohn on Proof programs.

Littlejohn said Ashford brings a fascinating background and story to the Chattanooga food scene.

"It's just an interesting story about the restaurant name and his food," she said.

Ashford attended Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where he played basketball. His goal at the time was to become a high school teacher and coach. He also started cooking just for himself, little knowing that those skills would one day change his life. A family member sent him a copy of one of chef Paul Prudhomme's cookbooks, and he found he had a knack for it.

After graduation, he got a job teaching at Tyner High School, and he also married Tomeka Johnson, whose father is LeMont Johnson, owner/chef at Cafe LeMont's on Dodds Avenue.

He also befriended the late chef Neville Forsythe, and his interest in cooking continued to grow as his passion for teaching and coaching was waning.

While his mother was self-taught, Ashford approaches things with a little more study. He began hatching a plan that wold eventually take him to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

"I would work with them during the summer doing catering, and I was also researching at the time as well."

He knew he had an advantage, having grown up in the house of a wonderful cook in one of the great food cities of the world, but with that came the pressure to do it well, he said.

"I was committed, and I thought, 'OK, I like this, and I want to be successful at this.' Because of my cultural background and as an adult, I realized how important getting proper training was.

"I knew I needed to be careful in order to make something lasting and that it would take time."

Before entering CIA, he got on the institute's website and found the list of cookbooks used in the classrooms there and began devouring them. After graduation, he worked at the Read House but was furloughed when the pandemic hit.

He met Littlejohn during one of the pop-up dinners he has produced called 4 Courses and ... . The "and" is a reference to the topical conversations that are part of the meals.

"She told me about what they do [at Proof]," Ashford said.

This educational portion of his training has confirmed what he already knew, that he'd serve Cajun food at any place he owned, and he knew what he'd call it — Neutral Ground.

It's a reference to the median on Canal Street in New Orleans, so called because it separate the indigenous Creole people of the area and the Europeans who settled there after the Louisiana Purchase.

"On one side, the streets are all in English, and on the other, they are all French. They didn't get along. Neutral Ground is the space in between, and it was Switzerland. It's where they would conduct business and settle disputes."

Neutral Ground serves Ashford's take on traditional items such as po' boys and yakamein, a noodle dish that was introduced to New Orleans by migrant Chinese workers who settled in New Orleans after the Civil War.

"They brought their culture, as people often do," Ashford said.

He said the yakamein he makes features spaghetti as the noodle. He also makes his own sausage, including a hot version that was inspired by his older brother, who always had to have a hot sausage po' boy whenever he came home from college.

"I also tend to favor pork," he said. "It's all my own take on things."

Email Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.