Kenyatta Ashford married into a family with a rich culinary tradition in Chattanooga — the LeMont Johnson family, owners of Cafe LeMont (now closed) and LeMont Catering. But Ashford, too, hails from a family and city with a strong connection to a cuisine that's purely American.
Ashford grew up in New Orleans, so a bounty of food was at his back door. All he had to do was look toward the sea or the surrounding land that offered a wealth of fresh produce. Combine that with the myriad cultures that call the city home, and you might consider New Orleans a melting pot of foodways. But Ashford says he prefers to think of his home city as a stewing pot.
"In a stewing pot, many of the ingredients maintain their unique identities while complementing and contrasting the other ingredients," he says. "New Orleans is awash in different cultures, and that makes it alive and dynamic and ever-evolving. It's also a place of struggle and systemic problems. I bring all of that to my cooking, the pride of strong people and the pursuit of a more just tomorrow."
Ashford is among the first chefs to occupy a space in Proof, a new food-and-beverage incubator on M.L. King Boulevard. His restaurant, Neutral Ground, is an ethos for what he offers. Neutral ground is what those in New Orleans refer to as a median — it's a slice of land in the middle of the road along the city's famous trolley lines. It's a wide open space where people of all colors, backgrounds and beliefs can gather.
"My food, the menu, the name and the way we work are all connected together," he says. "We're constantly working to build our business in ways that reflect this ethos, so we want the food and the menu to be inviting and approachable no matter where you're coming from. We chose the name because we believe that food, alongside family and faith, is a powerful force in bringing human beings together, and we want Neutral Ground to be a place for all people."
Unlike some chefs who chose their career path early on, Ashford didn't realize a love for cooking until early adulthood, after leaving the Crescent City. "My mother wasn't around, and I missed the flavors of New Orleans," he says.
Q: Do you come from a family of cooks?
A: To have grown up in New Orleans culture makes it difficult to exclude the love of food and cooking from your personal identity.
Q: What's your earliest cooking memory?
A: Having dinner with my mother, father and older brothers and eating vegetables from our backyard garden.
Q: Whom would you consider your mentor?
A: Chef LeMont Johnson and chef Neville Forsythe (deceased). I have been fortunate enough to travel and work in many places with very skilled chefs because of their constant encouragement.
Q: Describe your cooking style — is it soul food?
A: It's soulful, something different from what Southerners know simply as soul food. Soulful food has a deeper story to tell. I've traveled to Africa and explored the American coast to know the foodways, flavors and methods of my African ancestors and Creole food culture. I endeavor to pay homage to the cooks from my bloodlines who came before me and to also carry forward those ideas in new and respectful ways.
Q: What are some of your favorite foods to cook?
A: I enjoy cooking seafood most. It's versatile and requires some finesse.
Q: Why did you choose to start out in an incubator?
A: Because an incubator is a place of exploration — a place where you can take the time to really try and test out the menu, ideas about what food can mean for Chattanooga, and be around other people who are pursuing their dreams against the odds during this time of great change.
Q: What are the benefits of starting your restaurant in an incubator?
A: They are many and include the freedom to experiment, a supportive community of fellow food artisans and the ability to merge voices to invite customers in to experience what we're collectively offering.
Q: Do you plan to open a standalone restaurant in Chattanooga?
A: Yes, absolutely, once we've gotten the food just how we want it and have established a relationship with our customers and the community.
Q: What advice do you have for someone wanting to pursue a culinary career?
A: Be as intentional about knowing who you are and where you come from as you are about your technical training as a chef and read everything you can about food.
Q: What kitchen tool is the most important in your kitchen?
A: Your head connected to your heart. That's the most important part.
Q: What's your go-to cookbook or website?
A: "My New Orleans," by chef John Besh.
Q: What food do you consider your guilty pleasure?
A: A BLT made with thick-sliced bacon and garden tomatoes, lettuce and homemade mayonnaise.
Q: Complete this sentence. If I had not become a chef I would have been ...
A: An urban farmer and food-rights activist.
When Ashford is at home, he likes to prepare yakamein, a dish popularized by the Chinese in New Orleans. It's the ultimate fusion dish, with Asian flavors combined with Cajun spices.
1 (2 1/2-to 3-pound) boneless chuck or eye of round roast
8 to 9 cups water
2 teaspoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere's
1/2 to 2/3 cup soy sauce, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon ketchup, plus more for topping if you like
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons hot sauce, plus more to taste
1 (1-pound) package of spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and sliced
5 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half
Place the beef roast in a large stockpot. Cover with water, and then add the Creole seasoning. Place over medium-high heat, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, until the beef is tender. Remove the beef to a large bowl, and allow the beef and stock to cool for 20 to 30 minutes.
Shred or chop cooled beef, removing and discarding any large chunks of fat. Skim the fat from the top of the stock. Add the soy sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce to the stock, tasting as you go and adjusting the seasonings if needed. When you're ready to serve, reheat the skimmed stock over medium heat until simmering.
To serve, divide the spaghetti and meat among 10 bowls. Top each with scallions and half an egg and ladle some stock over the top. Serve with hot sauce or ketchup.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.