Lee alumnus Kenyatta Ashford ’00, ’02, has won Food Network’s “Chopped,” a reality-based cooking television show that pits four chefs against each other as they compete for a chance to win $10,000.
The former Lee Flame, coach, and teacher turned chef was shocked to get the call last fall, but did not hesitate to accept the invitation to compete on “Chopped” when the pandemic moved production from New York to Knoxville. The pre-recorded episode aired on June 8.
During each episode of the show, contestants receive a mystery basket of four items at the beginning of each timed round, and they must use the ingredients to make a dish that will allow them to move on to the next round. Chef Ashford created spring rolls for his appetizer, West African peanut sauce and rice for the entrée, and rice pudding for the final round, which secured his win.
Chef Ashford transferred to Lee from New Orleans in 1999 to play basketball for coaches Rick Hughes and Robbie O’Bryan. While at Lee, he also helped to found Umoja, the Black student association aimed at promoting unity.
He graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and went on to be one of the first students to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching at Lee. While working on his MAT, he served as a grad assistant coach and later as an assistant coach for Coach Hughes and Coach O’Bryan for one year after graduation.
“My time at Lee was extremely formative in a good way,” says Chef Ashford. “I spent a lot of time in prayer, grew closer to God, and discovered a lot about myself, what I wanted to do, and what I wanted to be.”
After accepting a teaching position in Chattanooga, Chef Ashford spent his summers cooking in local restaurants. “I quickly realized cooking was what I wanted to spend the rest of my working years pursuing.” With the support of his wife, Tomeka, and a “leap of faith,” they moved to Hyde Park, New York, with their infant son for Chef Ashford 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, Chef Ashford landed a job as a chef at Chattanooga’s Read House Hotel.
In June 2020, after being furloughed like so many others during the pandemic, Chef Ashford decided to open his own restaurant, Neutral Ground, an Afro-Creole restaurant in downtown Chattanooga, housed in the Proof Incubator for start-up businesses.
“When I think about food, I think about coming together, in one place, in unity,” says Chef Ashford. “That’s what Neutral Gound is about – a common place where anybody from any walk of life can come and enjoy a really good meal.”
The menu at Neutral Ground blends traditional New Orleans comfort foods with interpretations that emphasize the impact of Black diasporic culinary traditions, such as house-made Louisiana hot sausage PO-boys, smoked brisket meatball Yakamein, and chef-driven seasonal specials.
Chef Ashford says his $10,000 winnings from “Chopped” will go toward helping grow his business and donating to those who also want to pursue a career in the culinary arts. His hope is to move out of the incubator and into his own brick and mortar building, soon.
He and his wife have two children: Nkenge, 14, and Knea, 8.
To find out more about Chef Ashford or Neutral Ground, visit neutralgroundchatt.com/, instagram.com/chefkenyattaashford/, linkedin.com/in/kenyatta-ashford-508b6b53/, or follow on facebook.com/NeutralGroundChatt/.