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Flipping A Pandemic Furlough Into Entrepreneurial Inspiration

Chattanooga chef Kenyatta Ashford makes the leap to his own restaurant as the industry contracts.

Kenyatta Ashford is chef at Neutral Ground restaurant, located in Proof, a food and beverage incubator in Chattanooga. A New Orleans native, Ashford was previously a chef at Chattanooga’s Read House Hotel among many other places.

I began my formal cooking education at the Culinary Institute of America while simultaneously working full time in New York restaurants. My wife and I had just welcomed our first child, so the dual pursuit was a matter of survival. From there, I went on to a culinary school internship at Restaurant August and Luke in my hometown of New Orleans, where I learned to cook and coax the soul out of a cuisine.

My subsequent educational experiences were spent working at a number of fine-dining restaurants. I learned the joy of ultra-fresh ingredients at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, and worked for two James Beard Award nominated chefs in Chattanooga at St. John’s Restaurant and Easy Bistro.

The Read House served as the exclamation point in my culinary education that allowed me to learn in diverse environments with a variety of challenges from a range of mentors and colleagues. My learning was also deeply impacted by two culinary tours in West Africa. I spent time in Ghana and Benin learning about, tasting, and internalizing the culinary heritage of my ancestors, thanks to Chef Michael Twitty of The Cooking Gene and Ada Anagho Brown of Roots to Glory Tours.

The arrival of coronavirus affected me like most in the food and beverage industry. I was furloughed from the Reade House within days of the outbreak. As a father dedicated to supporting my family, and a chef with a deep desire to demonstrate my own creativity, I leapt at the chance to fully express my talents in the kitchen.

Smoked brisket meatball yakamein at Neutral Ground in Chattanooga. Photo: Chloe Wright.

I have always felt that the story I have to tell might be of interest and inspiration to others. In order to tell that story, I needed to be able to express myself creatively without limits. Neutral Ground is that platform. Neutral Ground merges together the tastes of my childhood and the traditions of my hometown with the care for craft that I learned at CIA. Our food focuses on some of the staples of New Orleans’ daily life, like po boys and yakamein. Because we are building Neutral Ground with intent and the spirit of including everyone, it’s a place where people, no matter race, creed, or class, can come together and share the joy of food conceived and cooked with great care.

Entrepreneurship has always been the end goal for my culinary career. The pandemic just helped push me in that direction. After my furlough, I decided to chart my own course with the support of my family. Neutral Ground is inspired by all of this—by the love of a family, by the investment of those I’ve worked with, by the special character of my hometown, by the rich traditions of my ancestors, and by the belief that I can build a business that helps build a better world. We viewed the pandemic in a different lens than most and used it as an opportunity. Despite the effect COVID was having on the restaurant industry as a whole, we took a chance and are grateful to have a community of patrons rewarding us with their business during these unprecedented times.

I began a supper club dinner series with event planner Carmen Davis in 2017. The purpose was to highlight chefs of color, and to push the food and beverage industry forward in Chattanooga by giving back. It’s about representation for us, and during the pandemic, we have discovered we are not the only ones who felt that way. Given the changes taking place at the James Beard Foundation Awards and Bon Appetit magazine, our industry, like others, suffered from a myopic point of view. Our supper club dinner series, “4 Courses and,” was founded to erode some of that narrative.

The “4 Courses and” ethos is to bring together people of different backgrounds to enjoy a meal and have dialogue about various topics that affect the African-American community. Neutral Ground and “4 Courses and” have been welcomed with open arms. The restaurant’s sales have steadily increased each month since its opening on Juneteenth—June 19th—and we’ve sold out of every “4 Courses and” event. As a result of that success, we’ve donated $9,000 to local high school culinary arts programs.

Kenyatta Ashford and team cooking for his dinner series. Photo: Courtesy Neutral Ground.

We’ve held three “4 courses and” events so far, each with a specific theme. Our most recent theme was taken from Beyonce’s song “Black Parade.” We wanted to focus on these specific lyrics—”I’m goin’ back to the South / I’m goin’ back, back, back, back / Where my roots ain’t watered down / Growin’, growin’ like a baobab tree / Of life on fertile ground, my ancestors put me on game.” We also decided to assemble an all-female group of chefs and artisans for this event. Dishes included Sequatchie Cove smoked lamb, watermelon molasses, roasted eggplant, and yukon gold potatoes by James Beard Award winner chef Mashama Bailey. All of the cocktail pairings were made by Victoria Eady Butler, master distiller at Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

My goal is to build a restaurant that one day builds a movement. So, scouting and finding the correct location is key, because I value the inclusion of all the communities that make up our city. The current Neutral Ground incubator is located at 422 East Martin Luther King Boulevard in a neighborhood that has a rich history for the African-American community. Our desire with Neutral Ground is to be rooted in an area of Chattanooga equally representative of all walks of life, and rich in history. The idea of being a catalyst for growth as a Black-owned business—in a neighborhood where residents historically dealt with segregation, Jim Crow, and the struggle for Civil Rights—sits well with me.

We also have to deal with more technical aspects of being entrepreneurial. Recognizing my consumer base and fostering its growth while in the incubator has been my priority. Also dialing in our standard operating procedures with lots of detail and investigating ways to gain the capital needed to fund a brick-and-mortar venue has been crucial. We have also maintained consistent growth while simultaneously doing lots of exploration with our food. That’s an important combination for me.

The restaurant industry will forever be changed because of COVID. The pandemic revealed so much about the ability to pivot. It seems our industry’s former business model was not sustainable and needed to change. As a culinary professional, creativity is the ultimate pivot move and a key to success and flexibility. I believe these ideals foster growth, and being able to adapt, shedding the old, and embracing the new are the epitome of growth.

I selfishly want to eat an array of really delicious food when I’m older and have retired from cooking professionally. Preparing the next generation with the tools they need is key. Who knows the flavor profiles and techniques could be inspired and developed right here?