The crisp air of the Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains has attracted generations of people to “The Land of the Sky.” At the center of Western North Carolina’s outdoorsy wonderland sits Asheville, usually characterized as a sleepy tourist destination for the flatlanders (aka non-mountain dwellers) visiting from Atlanta, driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway, or jumping over from the Tennessee Valley. But it’s not just visitors who have found rejuvenation in Asheville. The city has long been a bohemian haven for creatives, musicians, and other artists, including culinary artists, who lately have been forming a rising underbelly on the verge of redefining the quiet mountain town. At the same time, the city is riding high on two big James Beard Foundation Award wins: Chai Pani for Outstanding Restaurant and Cúrate for Outstanding Hospitality.
A lot of local pride rests on a strong showing from Asheville resident Ashleigh Shanti on Season 19 of Bravo TV’s Top Chef. Shanti is one of many voices shaping the culinary arts scene in the city while promoting Appalachian foodways, and her star turn came following her spot among the 2019 Eater Young Guns and 2020 finalists for the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef of the Year award. These days she is playing part-time nomad, putting on pop-ups across the Piedmont and Mountain regions to promote her soon-to-open fish camp-style restaurant, Good Hot Fish. In some ways, Shanti is like Asheville itself: soft-spoken, private, foregoing a juggernaut PR team to send out glossy 8-by-10s of her radiant smile and shiny locked hair.
Reflecting on her Top Chef moment, she says, “It was great being part of a thing with all of these talented chefs. I wanted to tell my own stories with my own food and have ownership. I felt like I could be my best self, but televised.” At the same time, the show didn’t bring her immediate media stardom. “Before the show, nobody was checking for me. And still to this day, they aren’t,” she adds. Instead, the chef and the city have to be constant promoters for each other.
Shanti explains that the needle is moving outside downtown Asheville to other parts of town, as young chefs set up shop outside of the purview of tourists, especially in West Asheville, where Shanti has also made her home. That’s where veteran chef Steven Goff revamped a beloved greasy spoon, Tastee Diner, into a high-lowbrow cafe, where Elliott Moss, formerly of Buxton Hall, is set to open the diner-come-dinnerly spot Regina’s and where rising star Silver Iocovozzi has wowed diners at Neng Jr.’s. Though she’s a self-proclaimed homebody, Shanti does have a handful of Asheville haunts where she likes to take visiting guests, along with a few chefs she loves shouting out.
Eater: Do you consider Asheville a restaurant town?
Ashleigh Shanti: I feel like if you want to call it a college town, you can. I think that it’s clear we are a creative town, and food is definitely a part of that creativity. The restaurants, makers, and independent businesses are what make this town what it is. That being said, the restaurants here are hidden gems. You have to dig around to find them.
Is Asheville able to support a larger diversity of new chefs and cuisine than we are seeing in other cities in the region?
Do I think that we have structure and support? Yeah. The chefs here that are doing cool and new things aren’t giving people a choice to not see that. We can go to so many cities where the food is amazing, but what about the places that are complex and dynamic?
Can Asheville residents support the growing scene, or do they need visitors to buy in?
Yes to both. Support local, but also tourism is a major industry here, and visitors are vital.
What role does the media play in Asheville today?
Media holds on to three to five restaurants and forgets to look at anything else. They have no choice but to look outside of downtown now. I’m hopeful that major media will look at the smaller guys. There are so many chefs and owners that have a commitment to making this city great. It feels good to be a part of this.
Where in Asheville do you take guests when they come to visit?
Usually I ask people what they’re in the mood for because there are so many places I could take them. But if I had to pick my favorite spots, where I always go, I’d say Different Wrld — [where they might host] a movie, a drag show, a pop-up, always something — Golden Pineapple, and Leo’s House of Thirst, which is an eclectic wine bar situation.
Who do you think are the next new culinary stars in Asheville? Who’s hot right now?
Silver Iocovozzi of Neng Jr.’s, for sure. Their Filipinx American menu is inspiring. Eric Morris at Cultura is playing a major role in culinary. And in the brewing industries, it’s Wicked Weed, Burial Beer Co., and Plebe Urban Winery leading the pack.
Look for Shanti’s restaurant, Good Hot Fish, to open in Asheville in 2023.
Nikki Miller-Ka is a freelance food and travel writer based in North Carolina.