Ashleigh Shanti has developed her brand of Black Appalachian food since coming into the culinary spotlight five years ago. As the former chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle in Asheville, she introduced modern diners to dishes like buttermilk-cornbread soup (a recipe from her grandmother) and collard greens salad with fried plantains. Through extensive research and re-creation of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother’s recipes, Shanti preserves the old flavors and foodways of Black Appalachia. In 2019, she was named one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” by The New York Times and an Eater “Young Gun.” This past year, the now-freelance chef competed on season 19 of Bravo’s Top Chef, and the excitement doesn’t end there.
On the phone this fall, Shanti and her fiancée are in Texas, scoping out wedding venues. She’s also in the process of opening her first restaurant in South Asheville (scheduled to open its doors in spring 2023). The brick-and-mortar space will be the latest evolution of her pop-up, Good Hot Fish. The concept embraces old-school community fish camps with “a focus on Appalachian-soul cuisine,” Shanti says.
The menu is a blend of old and new, with standbys like cornmeal-battered catfish sandwiches with sour collards and Old Bay aïoli alongside smoked trout melts with hot sauce and more Old Bay aïoli. The grounding ingredient across the menu, Shanti says, is Duke’s Mayonnaise.
“It’s hard to NOT specifically highlight Duke’s,” Shanti says, who uses it as the base in the menu’s tartar sauce and Old Bay aïoli, as a marinade for fried proteins, and generally keeps it on hand as a year-round staple. From blending Duke’s with spices for a quick summertime dipping sauce or using it as a binder for cheese balls during the holidays, Shanti calls the twangy emulsion “a chef’s best-kept secret.”
She argues that there’s Duke’s and then there’s other mayonnaises. “In the South, Duke’s can be compared to salt; it enhances the flavor,” she says. “It’s got that zest and tang.”
As Shanti preserves her family roots through cooking, she leans on Duke’s and other ingredients that connect her with her childhood. She grew up in a Duke’s family (those who know mayonnaise know that brand loyalty can be as divisive as politics and barbecue style), but it wasn’t until adulthood that she recognized the power of Duke’s. “I use Duke’s more often than making housemade mayo because it evokes so many memories. There’s something so special about those flavors,” she says.
In the midst of restaurant opening and wedding planning, Shanti—like many of us—is in the midst of planning her Thanksgiving menu. As she thinks of ways to create a homey, nostalgic dinner, she’ll reach for her trusty family ingredient to elevate her recipes.
A creamy, decadent turnip gratin will round out the holiday table, with richness and tanginess added by the addition of Duke’s. Mayonnaise is also a great rub for turkey, Shanti recommends, as it adds moisture during the cooking process to avoid ending up with a dreaded dry bird. For a no-brainer snack to tide everyone over before the feast, Shanti makes a pimento cheese made smooth and creamy by Duke’s.
But the celebration doesn’t end with a slice of pie. Shanti plans ahead for the post-holiday brunch, too, where one of her favorite dishes will be the star: her mom’s salmon croquettes. Laced with Duke’s Mayonnaise, the cakes have enough acid to balance the fatty fish. “Food was always present in my family,” she says. “This is the food that makes me feel good—the food that my grandmother cooked—it’s Appalachia and the Lowcountry.”
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