Kenyatta Ashford brings Africa to America.

To reach Neutral Ground, you have to let go of something.

Kenyatta Ashford  brings Africa  to America.
Kenyatta Ashford, Lamb Merguez, Hearth Roasted Yard Bird, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

This is the way to Neutral Ground.

"I want to be able to foster change by bringing people to the dinner table."

Time machine back to New Orleans, early 80s. Ken Stabler just retired from the Saints, the Superdome was open for business and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band had just crushed it at Tipitina's.

On Broadway Street, near Gert Town, young Kenyatta Ashford and his six siblings sit down for dinner in their shotgun house, the sounds of New Orleans sift through the screen door, just outside where the delivery man brings cold gallons of milk and tin cans of Charlie's Chips.

Across the street, his preschool teacher. On the other side, his nanny.

In the backyard, his mother's garden: cucumbers, tomatoes, red peppers, carrots.

It feels like teenage Kenyatta – "skinny as a rail," he remembers – and his six siblings – one brother is 6'5", another 6'4" – are eating 100,000 calories a day. His mother, with some loaves-and-fishes power, is somehow able to provide. But she can't prevent brothers from being brothers.

Hey, who drank my Kool-aid?

Nobody. It evaporated.

Aww, come on, man.

To the circular laminate table, with its 70s patterns and yellow chairs, she brings dinner: neck-bones and potatoes, smothered pork chops, red beans and rice, carrot and raisin salad.

"This is one of the first core food memories I have," he said.

At Christmas, his parents may not have been able to afford presents, but they made damn sure there was a Christmas meal on the table. In the summers, the family diaspora came home for backyard parties: aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, all DNA-connected by Louisiana Blackness manifesting as strength.

"My grandmother was the first Black woman to register to vote in Pointe Coupee Parish in Louisiana," he said.

Do you know these feelings? The joy and safety of community? The hugs, jokes, stories? The food? Decades later, Kenyatta, 47, still feels it all.

"A place for everybody to gather. Food bringing people together. That became a foundational thing for me," he said. "It inspired me to be a chef."

It was loving ground.

"What makes places and neighborhoods safe? People in a community knowing who their neighbors are."

Field pea salad with Seq. Cove Farm vegetables, watermelon rind pickles, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.
Kenyatta Ashford, farm dinner, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

After starting at Wiley College then graduating from Lee University, Ashford began teaching and coaching, yet food remained in his consciousness. Not yet married, he'd come home and pour over two cookbooks his father mailed him.

"Paul Prudhomme," he remembered.

In the early 2000s, he was teaching and coaching at Tyner Academy. His classes in business ed and computer literacy were popular. His boys basketball team won the district championship. They named him Coach of the Year.

But something was missing.

"I only have one life. I might as well do what I really want," he said.

Kenyatta Ashford, Chattanooga, Tenn.

At 27, he enrolled in New York's Culinary Institute of America and, over time, built an expansive career, learning from some of the South's best:

  • John Besh in New Orleans.
  • Joseph Lenn at Blackberry Farm.
  • Daniel Lindley at St. John's.
  • Erik Niel at Easy Bistro.

He became the head chef at Black Creek as well as Chattanooga's Read House Hotel and the sous-chef at Manchester Country Club.

Then, in 2017, Volkswagen.

Yes, Volkswagen.

He was burnt out, needed to breathe non-kitchen air. At VW, he worked the factory line assembling the Passat and Atlas.

"Scuff plates. Cover hatch," he said. "I put the wheels and doors on."

Yet, food never left his consciousness. During his 10-minute breaks, he'd read Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene, a few pages at a time.

Among the scuff plates and doors, his consciousness assembled a new way forward:

He applied for a James Beard Foundation grant that would allow him to travel to Africa.

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One day, as he was walking to his car after his VW-shift, his phone rang.

It was the James Beard folks calling.

Kenyatta, you won the grant.

So, in 2018, he and other African American chefs, including Michael Twitty, traveled to west Africa, eating, listening and talking their way through Ghana. (He would later return to Benin and Cameroon.)

It was transformative ground.

Swiss chard, Chattanooga, Tenn.

"It allowed me to reject a lot of the stereotypes people portray about Africa," he said. "I was able to see it for myself."

In Benin, there was this moment with stewed white beans.

"It was so reminiscent and serendipitous and nostalgic, I had a moment in Ratatouille," Kenyatta remembers. "It felt so much like something my mother would make."

Sea Island white peas, Chattanooga, Tenn.

In Ghana, he toured the slave castles and the Door of No Return. In Cameroon, he met a Nigerian chef whose work rivaled any Michelin restaurant on earth.

And so much of it tasted like home. New Orleans. There in west Africa, he also found his mother's formica table on Broadway Street.

"Wow, this makes sense," Kenyatta said. "Connecting the dots of cultural heritage in America from what I was experiencing on the ground in Ghana, Benin and Cameroon. It was very empowering. It allowed me to be able to have the freedom to break away from the ideas or ideologies that European food and culinary school were the end-all-be-all."

He began to assemble a new way of approaching and cooking food.

The line between Africa, New Orleans and his own body became clearer. The connective tissue between continents became more sensitive, all of it running through his own palate, consciousness and body.

"Every human being that walked the earth? The first thing they do when they're born is take from their mother's milk. They have to have a meal," he said. "That is the most common human experience everybody has."

Undo the misconceptions, he told himself.

Bring Africa back to America.

Field pea salad, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Take gumbo. It's Cajun, right?

"That is far from the case. Gumbo is an African dish," said Ashford. "It comes from Africa. At its roots, gumbo is a very African thing. A very Black thing."

In Africa, gumbo is a stew. They use whole crabs, whole fish, with lots of chili peppers and okra, he said.

"It gets real slimy and stringy," he said. "Mucous-like."

Louisiana cuisine is not Cajun cuisine. Sure, Cajun culture influenced Louisiana cuisine, but so did others.

Shakshuka with farm arugula, tomatoes. Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

"Everybody, even Black folks, attribute that Louisiana and New Orleans to Cajun culture," Ashford said. "Acadians came long after Louisiana was established. Native Americans had been living there. African Americans had been living there. People from Spain and France had been living there." 

His work subtly began to re-center and reposition Africa as the primary influence among his culinary constellations.

He also began to rethink this one particular term.


The word often feels like a reduction or mac-and-cheese caricature. Notice the way we instantly react to the following two terms:

French cuisine.

Soul food.

The first feels elegant and refined?

The second?

Sort of substandard. Sure, it may taste good, but it isn't ... sophisticated.

Ashford noticed the way restaurants serve traditional Southern food; when white folks prepare it, we call it Southern cuisine. When Black folks serve it?

"Soul food," he laughed. "That’s so convoluted. It's the same stuff. It’s the exact same thing because Black people are cooking it and white people are cooking it."

Now, he prefers a new term:

Afro-Creole cuisine.

Field pea salad, Kenyatta Ashford, Chattanooga, Tenn.

Coming back to Chattanooga from Africa, he returned to the kitchen at The Read House. Then, furloughed during the pandemic, he realized:

"I need to do my own thing now," he said.

He made plans for his own restaurant. Got a spot at Proof Incubator on MLK Blvd.

But what to name it?

Sorghum candy roaster squash, Marion Co., Tenn.

In New Orleans, a streetcar runs through the heart of the city, bisecting uptown or downtown.

Historically, that line was highly racialized. At times, Black folks couldn't walk uptown unless they were wearing a uniform, he said.

But there's this rare spot in the middle.

The neutral ground.

"If you were there in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you were on neutral ground," he said. "Everybody from all walks of life on the neutral ground. Black white and anything else in between. It’s a place where people come together."

In 2020, Ashford opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Neutral Ground.

To find your way there, you had to leave something behind.

"Prejudice," he said. "To prejudge somebody, you assume things about people when you haven't even cracked the can of worms yet. You haven't talked to anybody. Or shaken their hand. Never introduced yourself or know about their background. We want people keeping an open mind. You will be surprised at how much you will learn about people. And how much safer we are.

"What makes places and neighborhoods safe? People in a community knowing who their neighbors are."

Field pea salad, Kenyatta Ashford, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

"I want Neutral Ground to be known for our mission. To really give back to the community. I also want to be known to be a standard bearer for high quality cuisine in Chattanooga," he said. "I want to be somebody who's helped change the game in our region and city."

Take his gulf shrimp salad and west African red-red dishes.

"Both inspired by who I am and what I learned while I was in Africa," he said.

The gulf shrimp salad uses a Ghanian pepper sauce combined with mayonnaise, plantains, cucumbers and herbs.

The red-red is red beans and rice, "my favorite," Ashford says.

In Ghana, they made red-red: a stew of black-eyed peas with palm oil. It took his breath away.

"It was similar to the red beans and rice in New Orleans," he said. "So, at Neutral Ground, we made ours with Sea Island red peas with Anson Mills Carolina Gold coconut rice. And avocados and plantains with salsa dressed in chili and lime juice."

After COVID, Ashford and Neutral Ground formally ended brick-and-mortar residency at Proof. Today, he's still serving and preparing out of a kitchen incubator near Eastgate while overseeing an online fundraiser that runs through April. As of last week, he'd raised more than $114,000 from 128 investors.

"They can invest to help Neutral Ground become a stand-alone restaurant," he said, predicting that a brick-and-mortar restaurant will open "sometime in 2025, if not sooner."

Koji aged grass-fed ribeye, Kenyatta Ashford, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

"Chattanooga seems to embrace different kinds of food. That is one of the most powerful ways to introduce people to different cultures and perspectives and life," he said.

Visit his website, follow his social, invest if you can.

This ground that he's preparing?

We need it desperately.

"Being able to foster change by bringing people to the dinner table," he said.

Chattanooga, welcome to Neutral Ground.

Kenyatta Ashford, farm dinner, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion Co., Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger.

All design by Alex DeHart.

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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