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Ashleigh Shanti On Foraging And Desperation Cooking

Making do with what you have, and hoping for the best.

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Ashleigh Shanti grew up in the South and started cooking early, taking her first kitchen job at 16. After college, she tried out several food- and beverage-related roles from teaching fermentation techniques in New Orleans to a stage at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York. In 2018, she returned south to help chef John Fleer open Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, serving as chef de cuisine for a menu that moves the African origins of southern soul food front and center. Shanti is a semifinalist for the 2020 James Beard award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.

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I’ve been trying to do my best to find light and hope in these bleak circumstances and hang onto the resilience that most of us know that we need working in a kitchen anyway. I’ve been thinking through new dish ideas despite not having a kitchen to really dig in and do R&D. I’m finally beginning to read that stack of books that’s been put on my list of things to do for a while, and finding inspiration there. And there are all of these amazing community efforts happening right now, and these initiatives that have seemingly formed overnight. That gives me faith in humanity.

Also with it being spring season, which is usually high time for foraging in this area, I’ve been foraging and trying to find a sense of familiarity in that way and getting some sunshine. Right now, there is a ton of violet, and redbud is coming up as well. And Japanese honeysuckle. I’ve been foraging bamboo lately, which is something new. Bamboo is actually native to Appalachia, so there’s a ton of that everywhere. When the Blue Ridge Parkway is open, there are a ton of trails off the parkway. It’s easy to ride down the parkway and find a place to park. I usually just allow the sumac to lead me, so wherever I see a huge patch of sumac, I pull over and go off-trail.

My heart is beating for the 13 million-plus Americans that have been laid off, and all of the people that we employ. I mean, I’m not a restaurant owner, but as a chef having a team, just the knowledge that we are a part of one of America’s largest industries, and then everything came to a screeching halt. That has been my focus, staying in regular communication with my staff and encouraging them. It’s really tough. One of the last things we were able to do with another company was to set up a pantry where we packed up all of our perishable goods and allowed our staff to take them home to their families. We have since closed our doors, and things seem very uncertain.

Obviously no one knows when this is going to end. We’re all making predictions and being hopeful that people will do their part and stay home and practice social distancing so that we can get back to normalcy as soon as possible. It’s no secret that service industry workers already had it tough. But one thing that’s been encouraging to me is that I’m communicating with my staff and friends in the industry that are also reeling from this. The resounding theme is that we as a team and as an industry, we won’t lose hope. We’ve decided that if anyone can bounce back from this stronger than ever, it’s our industry. There’s such a resilience that lives in us, and I think that’s going to take us really far. That to me has been really powerful, just the underdogs in this story, the ones that are accustomed to adversity, that they still have hope.

My dad always told me this one story. He’s originally from Mayesville, South Carolina. One summer, my great-grandmother Inez—his grandmother—decided to make dinner for the family after church, which was not unusual. They had a family of seven children, two adults—three, if you count my grandmother—and my dad, being the oldest boy, was tasked with pulling onions from the fields across the street. There were a few regular sweet onions left over there, so he had to walk across the dirt road and pull these onions. That was a really big deal. He was nine years old, and he felt super-honored that she was trusting him with this. It was something that the kids didn’t normally do.

So he walked down to the field and he pulled up the last two onions that he saw, shook them free of dirt, and walked back home. On his porch stoop, he started to work on the onions, tugged at the onion skins and peeling off the first layer, and then another layer, and then another layer. Off kept coming all of these onion layers. The way that he describes it was that the onion layers kept unraveling and he was totally at their mercy. The onions finally gave in, and he walked inside so defeated, because what he had in his hand could have passed for tiny little pearl onions. It was essentially nothing.

That’s the story that he tells me whenever he sees me with an onion. But then, the other day we were talking about me foraging. And I mentioned yard onions, because we aren’t really going to the grocery store. He thought of his onion story again and realized that he’d never finished telling me how it ended.

So he showed my great grandmother Inez what were now like pearl onions. She gave him that look that, if you’re a southerner, you know that look that most southern moms and grandmoms get. She led him through the backyard, and he followed her, convinced that he was about to, like a lot of old southerners call it, “pick a switch” and get whipped as penance for ruining the pork hash.

She looked around and she pointed to the ground. She told him to look down, at the wild yard onions in the grass, and she was like, “Those are onions right there.” She reached down and snapped the blades and let him smell them. He realized they had the same aroma as onions from the field, something that he had been around for so long but he had never really paid attention to. She made him pull a few handfuls of these tiny yard onions and gave them a good rinse. She was like, “We call this desperation cooking. You make do with what you got, and you hope for the best. And I know it will still come out good.”

After he told me that, that desperation, and that creativity, and that ability to think on your toes and make something great with limited resources—to me, that is the spirit of service industry workers. We’re used to being able to bounce back. It was really encouraging. I feel if we keep that spirit, then we’re going to be OK. We know the statistics that the service industry employs an incredible amount of people. In our state alone, in North Carolina, they make up over 13 percent of the working population, and that doesn’t include all of the people that we employ as restaurants, the makers and the farmers, people that we support locally. These people are all now jobless.

And I’m still hearing them talk about how they’re getting on the phone and calling their district reps and using their online presence to speak up and using all the resources that are out there now, these coalitions that have seemingly formed overnight, like the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Activist Ashtin Berry, she’s got this awesome movement called America’s Table. That’s been another foundation of mind-blowing information.

For me personally, it’s finding hope in those little things like getting a new dish idea or reading one of these stories and finding inspiration in that, and warding off complacency and seeing everyone doing and using their voices and being active in different ways. A lot of us are out of our comfort zones right now, and seeing people still do the work that needs to be done to save out industry—it’s really mind-blowing.