Ashleigh Shanti grew up in a secluded house surrounded by acres of woods near Virginia Beach. But she has an explorer’s soul, and over the past decade her cooking career has taken her around the world. After she’d served as a culinary assistant to chef and television personality Vivian Howard, chef John Fleer hired her last fall to helm the kitchen at Benne on Eagle, in Asheville’s Foundry Hotel. Her menu—influenced by everything from her grandmother’s table to the results of a DNA test—considers the often-overlooked connection between African American heritage and mountain tradition. Benne seed biscuits, for example, share space with buttermilk-soaked leather britches. In the kitchen with her is Hanan Shabazz, who ran a restaurant in the same neighborhood more than thirty years ago when it was a black business center known as “the Block.” Development (including the hotel itself) may have altered the landscape, but Shanti hopes to showcase the enduring history and culinary contributions of black people in the Appalachian South.
“My partner and I spent a week in Shenandoah National Park, and in a visitors center there was an exhibit display that asked, where are the African Americans of Appalachia? I know we existed. There were African Americans who left the Deep South and resettled here. But it’s so hard to talk about, and this whole part of Appalachia gets erased. My great-grandmother, who lived by the Dan River in southern Virginia, would never feel like she was Appalachian, but she was. I grew up stringing green beans and hanging britches.”
On the Lookout
“I’ve always been a forager. From the time I was a little girl, my parents had to search to find me because I’d get lost in the woods looking for honeysuckle. I lived for a while in West Texas. It’s incredibly difficult to forage in the desert, but when you find something, it’s amazing. Here in Asheville, there’s a lot, and the foraging community is intense. There are wild onions all over my yard and wild cherries in my neighborhood. Let me see, what else? There are rose hips everywhere, wild rapini, oyster mushrooms…”
Heart and “Soul”
“I draw so much inspiration from my grandmother and my mother, and from Hanan. She’s making her fish cakes and her cornbread—dishes she sold here thirty-plus years ago. But I hesitate to call what we’re doing ‘soul food.’ My 23andMe report showed some Polynesian heritage; maybe that’s why I’m drawn to Asian food. We’ve got okonomiyaki, a Japanese cabbage pancake, on the menu now. That’s hard for people to come to terms with and call soul food. Then again, I called up my mom to get her recipe for oxtails, and they’re on the menu, too.”