The Past as Possibility in the Appalachian South
How chef and Eater Young Gun Ashleigh Shanti centers African-American voices through her cooking
Story excerpts originally published on eater.com Young Guns Rising Stars by Osayi Endolyn | Jun 3, 2019 Photography by Tim Robison
About a year ago, Ashleigh Shanti was trying to imagine her future in the culinary industry. A search was necessary. Shanti planned a meandering road trip hoping to feel a natural draw to the next thing.
A cook, herbal enthusiast, and food event producer from Virginia Beach, Virginia, Shanti had been reflecting on her life’s resume. Before attending Hampton University, she spent a gap year in Nairobi, Kenya. After graduating from college, she continued on to culinary school in Baltimore. She worked at Cindy Wolf’s restaurants Cinghiale and Charleston. She bartended for a while, then later became a certified sommelier. She catered for the El Paso Supper Club in West Texas. All this training had served her well. Still, she was struggling. “Being in this industry, a woman, an African American among a sea of faces that are typically white and male, it can be easy to feel like you don’t have a place,” she says. She carved out time and space to consider what 2019 could bring.
Not every path to chefdom is linear. Ashleigh Shanti’s star rose as the culinary assistant for chef Vivian Howard’s PBS show A Chef’s Life, and now she’s working as the chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, a new Asheville restaurant from big-deal Southern chef John Fleer. In her role there, Shanti brings her unique perspective to the restaurant’s mission of showcasing the African-American foodways of Appalachia, combining her love of culinary history and storytelling with the relentless forward momentum needed of anyone opening a restaurant.
Just six months after Shanti hit the road, she landed as chef de cuisine of Benne on Eagle, a refreshing Appalachian restaurant that declares a celebratory and exploratory focus on black regional foodways. Since beginning at Benne on Eagle last fall, Shanti’s menu, rich with spices, memory, and a remix of tradition, has attracted regular diners and popular industry figures alike, all enamored with her dexterity. Her cooking brings forward a part of Appalachia that many haven’t heard about, or have forgotten. Her work has earned her recognition as an Eater Young Gun for the class of 2019.
[Before meeting with chef Fleer] she’d spent months thinking not just about where she’d settle, but about how her identity appeared in her food. She wanted a culinary home that could speak to her skills as much as her heart. She had been remembering her great-grandmother who was also from Virginia. As a kid, Shanti would snap beans and help “hang britches” on the clothesline. She remembered how her mother, who aimed for quick dinnertime meals during the week, seemed to transform into an all-day home cook on Sundays. She remembered slow-stewing pots, put-up preserves, fresh leaves, and all sorts of pickled things.
Walking around the space that would become Benne on Eagle, Fleer pointed out four portraits of African-American women who’d once owned restaurants or bakeries in the Block. Shanti saw in their faces a sense of herself. This place — , this idea for a restaurant — it held pieces of her cultural history. That future Shanti had imagined was taking a more defined shape.
To read the complete article about Ashleigh Shanti go to: https://www.eater.com/young-guns-rising-stars/2019/6/3/18646491/ashleigh-shanti-chef-benne-on-eagle-asheville-eater-young-guns-2019
THIS IS APPALACHIA: When Johnson died, he was one of the richest black men in the South, famous for owning saloons, race tracks, and some of the world’s finest horses. #ThisIsAppalachia