This Revolutionary Chef Wants to Topple the Table
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her food tells a story — and it's not an easy one.
By Shaan Merchant
- Asheville, North Carolina, chef Ashleigh Shanti is crafting the “Afro-lachian” food of the future by drawing on Black culinary history.
- As she gains local buzz, she’s eager to take back a toxic kitchen culture, defeat cultural appropriation and revolutionize your plate.
Ashleigh Shanti listens to the music of old souls. Voices like Nina Simone’s might be ringing through her halls while greens and ham hock slowly simmer in a large pot. And this music taste makes sense, because while Shanti is a chef of the future, her food is rooted in the past.
After graduating from Hampton University, Shanti knew she wanted to work in kitchens but didn’t know what that might look like. “I didn’t see my reflection in what I wanted to do, so I think that’s what made it seem impossible,” she says of the lack of visible Black women in the culinary world. “I wanted to cook food that was reflective of me, and I couldn’t really find that.” That search led Shanti down several paths, from serving and bartending, to getting certified as a sommelier, to staging in several of the country’s top kitchens.
As Shanti, 31, found herself reflecting on the food of her childhood in Virginia — the stewed beans and greens, rice and okra of the Black Appalachian foodway her mother and maternal grandmother would make — she was approached by acclaimed chef John Fleer with a unique opportunity.
Eagle Street in Asheville, North Carolina, had been a booming Black business district before it was destroyed by urban renewal in the ’70s. “It’s been an open wound in our social scene ever since,” says Stu Helm, Asheville’s most prominent food writer. As the neighborhood has grown in recent years, many have pushed for a more historically conscious growth, including Fleer. He recruited Shanti to launch a restaurant that paid respect to Eagle Street’s history.
For so long, I thought, “I want a seat at the table,” but now I have this urge to knock over the table.
Shanti took the opportunity to develop a menu reflective of those long-neglected Black foodways. Her “Afro-lachian menu” tries to “tell the story of the Black women who made [Eagle Street] successful.” She cherishes a cookbook written in the 1860s by a Black woman from the Tennessee mountains named Miranda Russell. (It was a gift from legendary Appalachian food authority Ronni Lundy.) Shanti took it on as her responsibility to preserve these recipes and techniques — such as foraging and seed-to-stem cooking — and to highlight the influence of African ingredients on Southern food.
As she honed this approach, Shanti’s food took off at Benne on Eagle, garnering the praise of Asheville locals, critics and fellow chefs. One of these chefs was Lexington, Kentucky’s Lawrence Weeks, who became a friend. “Her food is super nuanced, and either visually or in taste creates such a flavor memory. It’s like, ‘Oh I’m having my mom’s black-eyed peas.’ But it looks so beautiful and modern that obviously, it’s white tablecloth food,” Weeks says.
Helm was also impressed by Shanti’s style — which “straddles that line of fine dining and home cooking,” he says — as well as her humility. He recalls a liver pudding that left him in awe. “It was seared on the outside, and it came with house-made crackers and house-made pickles, and it was so good.” The dish speaks to how Black families had to make the most of offal meats and other unwanted ingredients — and their ability to coax greatness from such ingredients. This liver pudding won Shanti one of the many awards she’s received from Helm’s publication, Stu Helm The Food Fan. Shanti was named a finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year James Beard Award in 2020 before the ceremony was canceled due to the pandemic.
The popularity and prominence that Shanti’s cooking chops gave her also helped white Ashevillians face a moment of reckoning, given how few Black chefs receive such recognition. “We’ve had to confront the fact that we’re not as liberal as we thought we were, or as open-minded as we thought we were,” Helm says.
But this issue reaches far beyond Asheville, as conversations happen throughout the country around appropriation and recognition in the world of food. Black chefs, Weeks says, often go unrecognized, while their talents and ingredients help white chefs cash in and gain prominence. But Shanti is changing the game. “She is going to be one of the pioneers when it comes to — and I hate this term — the new Southern cuisine,” Weeks says. “Because Southern cuisine has always been Black. I guess it’ll be the revitalization of owning Southern cuisine.”
While agreeing that appropriation is a concern, Shanti adds that what happens in the kitchen is only one dimension of a chef’s power, and chefs must look to lift up communities they are in and from which they draw inspiration.
“For so long, I thought, ‘I want a seat at the table,’ but now I have this urge to knock over the table. … We’ve been trying to fix it, but it has been broken for so long; what are we fixing?” From appropriation to serving food stripped of its Black history and context, to ignoring community-building to toxic workplaces rampant in the industry, Shanti’s generation has ample grievances. “The future of restaurants can’t look anything like what it has looked like,” she says.
As Shanti moves on from leading the kitchen at Benne on Eagle — with an eye on developing recipes and perhaps some pop-up offerings — she looks forward to her own restaurants that shift these practices and tell her food stories. Still, with some 17 percent of all U.S. restaurants closed for good as of Dec. 1 amid the pandemic, the industry is in upheaval, and it’s unclear what opportunities may lie ahead. “Somebody needs to approach her and give her her own thing,” Weeks says. “The nation should know that she’s important. They need to give her her flowers right now. Recognize a revolutionary while they’re young and watch them grow.”
Like Simone sang of being “young, gifted and Black,” Shanti’s desires reach far beyond her craft. She’s looking to develop not just great flavors on the plate, but real justice in the kitchen.
- Shaan Merchant, OZY Author Contact Shaan Merchant