Local chef and owner of Neutral Ground, Kenyatta Ashford, said his “grit” and “positive energy” were keys to being named the top winner on Food Networks hit TV show “Chopped.”
“It feels really good, you know, to be able to put some positive energy out there in the world, and to be able to be recognized for the grit that I have,” Ashford said.
“I feel extremely fortunate to have so much support from the community, to be able to do what I love, and to be able to set a good example for my kids and my family.”
Chef Ashford stunned the judges last Tuesday night with his ”Afro-Creole” style of cuisine as he competed, under strict time constraints, against two other skilled contestants during the latest episode of the major Food Network competition show “Chopped Next Gen.”
He received recognition and a $10,000 check for his winning meal, which had a theme of “Time Capsule: ’90s Foods.”
Now 44, Chef Ashford began his journey in the culinary world when he was 27. A former teacher and coach at Tyner Academy, he realized being an educator wasn’t something he was in love with.
The future award-winning chef said food was what he was drawn to, as well as something he had some talent for. So in a “leap of faith,” he quit his teaching job and moved with his wife and child to Hyde Park, New York to attend The Culinary Institute of America.
During this time, he was awarded the Jean-Louis Palladin Professional Work/Study Grant by the James Beard Foundation, which enabled him to visit Ghana and Benin to study the cuisines of West Africa.
Following several culinary work experiences across Chattanooga, New Orleans, New Hampshire and Rhode Island–Ashford in September 2018, landed a job as chef de cuisine at the Scenic City’s historic Read House Hotel.
After being furloughed during the pandemic, Ashford in June 2020 decided to open his own restaurant in downtown Chattanooga–Neutral Ground, located at 422 E. Martin Luther King Blvd., inside Proof Bar and Incubator.
“Neutral Ground means the common place, where people come together,” he said.
Chef Ashford noted that his love for the culinary arts and desire to create an experience within a meal come from his native New Orleans roots.
“My business is inspired by the love of 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,” he noted.
Ashford said his $10,000 “Chopped” winnings will go towards helping grow his business and donating to those who also want to pursue a career in the culinary arts.