Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Neutral Ground chef Kenyatta Ashford.

Note: This story was updated June 10 to correctly identify Kenyatta Ashford's restaurant as Neutral Ground.

Chef Kenyatta Ashford credits his upbringing in New Orleans for his love of cooking and his ability to take whatever ingredients are put in front of him and make something unusual and delicious. It's a skill set that served him well enough to win Tuesday night's episode of "Chopped" on Food Network.

Ashford owns Neutral Ground at the Proof Bar & Incubator on M.L. King Boulevard.

The four contestants on each episode of "Chopped" are presented a mystery basket of four items during each of the three rounds and the cooks must use those and anything else from the pantry to create a dish good enough to advance them to the next round. To make things even more interesting, each round has a time limit.

"The competition was a great experience, but it was very nerve-wracking," Ashford said, "but the situations weren't something that were really unusual.

"The time [constraints] and the pressure are something as a chef we commonly face. I cook every day."

Ashford said he enjoys the challenge.

"That's the most challenging part I think. The on-the-fly under-pressure thing is the fun part. Overcoming the gripping fear. I like to take things and make something different from them."

The theme for the Chopped episode's mystery basket was "Time Capsule: '90s Food" and for the appetizer round, the chefs were given sun-dried tomatoes, Chinese chicken salad, appletini and a Lunchable. Ashford made spring rolls.

For the entree round, the ingredients were pasta in a can, flank steak, portobello mushrooms and strawberry fruit leather. Ashford created a West African peanut sauce and served it with rice.

The dessert round basket had corn dogs, drinkable cereal yogurt, mini cookies with frosting and chocolate covered strawberries.

"I made rice pudding," Ashford said.

The taping took place in November, and Ashford said it was fate that got him on the show in the first place.

"Because of COVID-19, they moved taping of the show to Knoxville. A contestant had tested positive, and I actually got a call on Monday asking if I could be there on Wednesday to test for COVID and then tape on Thursday. I said, 'Sure.'"

Ashford attended Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where he played basketball. 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 gives Forsythe much credit for encouraging him to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Ashford said he doesn't plan to pursue other such reality cooking shows, but would consider doing it if given the opportunity.

"They do come with celebrity, but I don't want to focus on celebrity. I want to focus on my business being successful."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.