We had the good fortune of connecting with Kenyatta Ashford and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kenyatta, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
The pandemic didn’t leave me with a long period of time for thinking about my business but I was fortunate to have a clear vision when the hospitality world was essentially shut down in March of 2020. My primary thought was, “how do I build a business that supports my family and builds a better world all at the same time?” Fusing together my New Orleans upbringing, my time at the Culinary Institute of America and my learnings from the kitchens of great chefs, I developed Neutral Ground to be a place for all people that provides opportunity to our team and food that shares stories with our customers. In pursuing entrepreneurship, I’m working to highlight the diaspora of food ways that influenced my ancestry and create upward mobility for those who join our team.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Neutral Ground is a restaurant simultaneously working to reach deep into the pass and to push into the future. We don’t strive to create some steady state idea of what food is from my hometown of New Orleans. We create food that peels back Afro-Carribean influences and shows where food that ended up in New Orleans came from. We also embrace the ever evolving place that is New Orleans from the more recent explosion of Vietnamese influence on menus to the cultural inputs of music, dance and more. Starting a business not just during but because of a pandemic was certainly not easy. We’ve overcome many challenges and know there will be many more. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by many supportive people anchored by one of my former student athletes from my past life as teacher and coach who are helping bring the Neutral Ground to life and scale. Of the many lessons I’ve learned and re-learned recently, the top three are to believe your ideas into existence, people want great and different food, and that determination is essential. I want people to know that Neutral Ground has started as a single restaurant but is an ambition that’s much bigger to build an enterprise that creates prosperity for people of color and shares deeper stories about food and where people come from.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Chattanooga has so many things to do. Of course, I’d have to anchor any visit in food. We’d definitely do breakfast at Bluegrass Grill on Main Street. The Worsham Family has been serving great food over there since before Main Street was a big deal. We’d also hit up Miss G’s Torta’s and Tamales and their food is ah-maz-ing. Add to that Brandon’s ribs out at Chatterbox Cafe, piping hot fried fish at Uncle Larry’s and the spectacular desserts from Poppyton’s Patisserie. Neutral Ground is currently house at the Proof Incubator so we’d spend plenty of time here too in order to sample their incredible cocktail program and the other in-house and guest culinary offerings. For outdoor activities, the new parklets and artwork on Glass Street would be a must to visit. We’d seek out outwork that Rondell Crier, Issac Duncan, Josian Golson and others have around the city. We’d take a hike from the Craven’s House on Lookout Mountain to look out over the city and think out the complexity of a community that has always been a borderland between the North and the Old South. And we’d spend family time on the Riverwalk along the Tennessee River and the public sports parks in Highland Park.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d like to shoutout each and every member of my family from my parents to my children that helped me get to where I am today. The lessons I’ve learned from each of them and my love for family inform my actions and beliefs.
Casey Yoshida Emily Unkle