Oil droplets cascaded from the Leah & Louise fry basket as the golden brown catfish filets rose straight out of the fryer, curled and furled like the lakes the fish once swam, glistening for a brief moment before chefs Ashleigh Shanti and Greg Collier sprinkled them with flaky chunks of sea salt and tucked the fish into foil-lined boxes. Recently, the two North Carolina chefs worked side by side in Collier’s open kitchen at Camp North End during a recent Good Hot Fish pop-up event in Charlotte.
“I think now having her own name, her own space, her own canvas, and on top of Top Chef too, she’s one of the ones to watch,” says Collier, when speaking of Shanti, “There is no muffler on her. She gets to say what she wants to say, cook what she wants to cook, and tell her own stories how she wants to tell them. She’s about to get loud.”
Currently, Shanti is popping up around North Carolina sharing her food, her story, and her celebrity. Shanti’s cuisine is a study of Black Appalachian food, Southern food, and soul food. Her modern interpretations often incorporate West African, Japanese, and American cuisines. She creates dishes like country ham calas with hot chow chow; buttermilk biscuits with farmers’ cheese and salmon roe butter; killed lettuces with vegetable bottarga and cured egg yolk; and grilled halibut with ramp rice grits, chanterelle escovitch, and fish skin cracklin’.
She sees the region of southern Appalachia as a place where Blacks wanted to go to look for a sense of being while being connected to the land — being free to be tied to the land without being enslaved to it. Her cuisine and heritage highlight Black influence and preservation in the region.
Shanti is now the owner and chef of upcoming Good Hot Fish, a casual fish house in Asheville. “There is something to be said about working for yourself and wanting ownership of your stories. Falling in love with a community and pouring into it. I just want to replicate that business of a modern-day fish camp,” she says. Good Hot Fish is set to open in fall 2022 in the South Asheville area.
Shanti’s extensive culinary experience had led her all around the state of North Carolina from the coast to the mountains, as Vivian Howard’s assistant to the face of John Fleer’s Benne On Eagle in Asheville. After playing back-up singer to some of the region’s most highly lauded chefs, Top Chef producers approached Shanti in early 2020 to appear on season 18 in Portland.
After Benne On Eagle closed due to Covid in mid-March 2020 she said no. She was surprised they were filming but decided if they approached her again, she’d jump at the chance. And jump is exactly what she did.
“Life felt up in the air. Six months after leaving Benne, I had so many moments of self-reflection. I wanted to tell my own stories with my own food and have ownership. I knew that I wanted to own my own restaurant. And I wasn’t on the path to do that.”
She made it to the top six but was eliminated after a seafood challenge in an emotional episode titled, “Family Vacation.”
“I feel like I’ve accomplished a great deal, more than I have in years,” Shanti said in the episode talking about her time on the show. “I’ve been critiqued before unlike any time in my career and it’s something I’ve been yearning for. I feel very grateful.”