Asheville, North Carolina
Year of Award
Grant or Fellowship
Folk & Traditional Arts Master Artist Fellowship
Ashleigh Shanti is a Chef, Recipe Developer, and Appalachian Recipe Bearer celebrated for her commitment to traditional African American foodways and their influence. Based in Asheville, North Carolina, Shanti’s cuisine pays homage to the rich African American culinary traditions that once thrived in Appalachia and draws on her own experiences growing up in coastal Virginia. Shanti credits the women in her family for influencing her approach to cooking, hearing the oral histories provided by her matriarchs as they stood over steaming pots and leaned into ovens. Her most cherished childhood days were Sundays spent in the kitchen with her family and friends; many would stop for a visit, eventually preparing themselves a plate, then stay for hours. These memories ingrained in Shanti the power of food and illustrated how transformative a good meal could be.
From making her first cornbread at age seven through graduating from Hampton University and completing Baltimore International College’s Culinary Arts Program, Shanti embarked upon a variety of culinary experiences with acclaim as the 2019 Eater Young Gun and a 2020 finalist for the James Beard “Rising Star Chef of the Year” award. As the chef de cuisine at John Fleer’s celebrated Benne on Eagle Restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, Shanti has developed recipes and menus that pay homage to the African American women who cooked and baked in an Asheville area known as The Block. This neighborhood served as the primary African American community in Jim Crow-era Asheville. Shanti credits the influence of Appalachian cooks Hanan Shabazz from Asheville and her great-grandmother Hattie Mae from western Virginia on her work.
Shanti will focus her lifelong learning activities on Appalachian foodways during the post-Jim Crow era in Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. A forager who often uses wild ingredients to cook (as did her ancestors), Shanti will explore how food can be healing, transformative, and historical using tonics and tinctures and teas from wild ingredients. Her exploration will provide the opportunity to document and have hands-on experiences where Shanti will discover local flora foraging and preserving using methods she has learned over the years. This research will be included in her ongoing catalog featuring the preservation of the best of the wild from Appalachia. Shanti will also develop a modern day "Green Book" guide with the goal to provide a resource for “upcoming Black culinarians to be ushered into mentorship through new connections uncovered in a little known food world, gain an intimate look at exactly who we were then and finally be confidently guided by the black voices of Appalachian past.”
“Through recorded interviews and conversations of Appalachia's knowledgeable black elders, careful collection and modern documentation of historic receipts from Black cooks of old,” explained Shanti, “and gaining first hand experiences from several of the classic, last standing black establishments still remaining in Appalachia, Blacks in Appalachia will develop a sense of pride for their communities and develop a connection to their black heritage that is yet to exist here in the mountains.”