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Meet Kenyatta Ashford of Neutral Ground in Chattanooga

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kenyatta Ashford.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Kenyatta. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
My business was born at the intersection of deep passion and necessity. I recognized as an adult after beginning my career as a teacher and basketball coach that my true calling was to the culinary trade. When my sights turned to the culinary arts, I began to dream a big dream. That dream began with uprooting of our family to this country’s most revered culinary school, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). At CIA, my passion for food was awoken with deep influence drawing from the city that I call home. New Orleans and its historical foodways and traditions of my African ancestors has an enormous sphere of influence on my cooking. Once my time at CIA was complete, I began a series of understudies with great chefs like John Besh and I also began to learn about African heritage cuisine with chefs like Michael Twitty. I was also introduced to rising stars and subject matter experts on the cuisine that I care about, like B.J. Dennis, Mashama Bailey, and Lois Eric Elie. As I studied in various environments ranging from high volume restaurants to full-service hotels, I continued my education, my exploration, and my pursuit of my full voice as a chef.

Neutral Ground fuses together the tastes of my childhood and the traditions of my hometown with the care for a craft that I learned at CIA. The concept is built around staples of New Orleans daily life and the menu intentionally created to be accessible to all. Po’boy sandwiches, which come from a tradition formed by an early labor movement for streetcar conductor’s in New Orleans, ground the menu in high quality, delicious food that is intentionally portioned to be a robust meal during times that seem to be getting harder by the day. The Yak-A-Mein dish on our menu harkens back to global influences and fuses homemade noodles with smoked beef in a flavor combination that few outsides of my hometown get to experience. Our name is unto itself, a values statement and an invitation. “As New Orleans embarked upon its second century, it was a city divided.

On one side, in the city’s First Municipality – the present-day French Quarter, for the most part – lived the French Creoles, with traditions dating to the city’s founding. On the other side, in the Second Municipality – today’s Central Business District was the Anglo-American section (American Sector). The two didn’t particularly get along and so each stuck mostly to their respective side of Canal Street, the center median of which was declared in the March 11, 1837, edition of The Daily Picayune to be “The Neutral Ground.” We are opening in a place that is similar for Chattanooga. Martin Luther King Boulevard, 9th Street, or the “Big Nine” was the epicenter of Chattanooga’s African-American culture for many years and has become a place frequented by many people in modern Chattanooga. We are building Neutral Ground with an ethos of including everyone and being a place where people can come together, no matter their race, creed, or class and share together in the joy of food conceived and cooked with great care. We are initially focusing on lunch service and will be building our team intentionally from emerging culinary leaders from the African-American community.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I was furloughed within days of outbreak and sent home to be with the family that my wife and I work every day to support. Recognizing that my talents are best kept off the sidelines regardless of world events and evolving economies, I decided to chart my own course with the support of my family. My business is inspired by the love of a 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.

Please tell us about Neutral Ground.
Regarding the Neutral Ground (the median in the center of the street where the streetcars now run), my father explained that it was the space that business people from the American Sector and French Quarter would meet to do business and settle disagreements.

“Neutral Ground” is a modern New Orleans – style Po-Boy and Yakamein Shop reminiscent of the neighborhood corner stores that feed many New Orleanians. “Neutral Ground” is intended to be a place that brings people together. The evocative power of this image is one the resonates with me because I have always viewed food through the lens of togetherness and community.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
One memory I often go back to when thinking about my childhood are our family gatherings. My mother comes from a family of 9 and my father has 12 siblings. When my extended family gets together, its always a party. My mother’s food was always the center of attention.

Contact Info:

  • Address: Neutral Ground Chattanooga-Restaurant in Residence at Proof Incubator & Bar
    422 E M. L. King Blvd
    Chattanooga, TN 37403
  • Website:
  • Phone: +1 (423) 541-6858‬
  • Email:
  • Instagram: Neutral Ground Chattanooga
  • Facebook: Neutral Ground Chattanooga
  • Yelp: Neutral Ground Chattanooga
  • Other:

Image Credit:
Lamb Po-Boy-Matt Lawson
Tortellini and Brodo-Matt Lawson

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