When it comes to creativity, the art of cooking might be considered the most demanding profession to enter. Food not only needs to appeal to the palate, it also has to look good. As the saying goes, “We eat first with our eyes.”
Established chefs become artists with a taste bud who provide a sensory experience that is full of deliciousness and offer different attributes that help enhance the appeal of food.
Kenyatta Ashford, chef and owner of Neutral Ground, is one of those artists who not only knows the right ingredients needed to enhance the flavor of a recipe, but also demonstrates her culinary talents. When he presents his food, color and texture play an important role in the overall satisfaction of the finished product.
“We work hard to make our food look appealing and appetizing,” says Ashford, a New Orleans native. These factors, along with a desire to provide an authentic dining experience, help showcase Afro’s vibrant flavors of Creole cuisine.
“Growing up in New Orleans made it hard to exclude my love of food and cooking from my personal identity,” he says.
“Neutral ground” is the term used for road medians in Crescent City. A large space along the streetcars of the city where people of all races and backgrounds gather.
“My food, Neutral Ground’s menu, and the way we work are all connected,” adds Ashford.
Ashford moved to Chattanooga in 2003. Around this time, the city was beginning to establish itself as a food destination. Ashford likens the food scene at the time to a blank canvas, allowing chefs to create new and innovative concepts for everyone to enjoy.
“As far as chain restaurants go, not much has changed, but the landscape of independent restaurants has grown a lot in the last few years,” he says. “It’s been so exciting to see new chefs create and operate a concept that brings new cuisines to Chattanooga.”
To spur restaurant growth and give chefs a chance to try the water before opening a brick-and-mortar location, Ashford and a handful of other chefs opened the Proof Bar and Incubator on ML King Boulevard in 2020. A restaurant under his one roof that laid the foundation for his success in the restaurant industry.
“Proof has created a place where Neutral Ground can thrive by lowering the barrier to entry for restaurant startups,” he says.
Proof’s success as a startup venue led to the opening of Brainerd’s second food incubator, the Kitchen Incubator of Chattanooga.
“Relocating to KIC seemed like the most logical step given the fact that our goal is to open a physical store. We provide the space and equipment for that,” says Ashford.
Neutral Ground’s menu is best described as authentic Creole cuisine, with seasonal chef-driven specials and menu mainstays such as po’boys, gumbo, smoked brisket meatballs and yaka mains. .
“New Orleans is rich in culture. It’s vibrant, dynamic, and constantly evolving,” says Ashford.
In 2021, Ashford took a bold step in his career by entering and winning the Food Network’s food competition, Chopped. It was an experience that marked a new stepping stone in his career path.
“The Chopped win was a big change for me personally and professionally,” he says. “I’m still figuring out the big picture of ‘Celebrity Chef’ and I have to admit it’s a good way to help build a recognizable brand.”
5 ways to make beautiful plates
It’s important that your food tastes good, but it also has to look good. Here are five ways to add color and texture to your dishes using ingredients you already have in your pantry or fridge.
1. Add height. Instead of putting all the ingredients on a plate, layer them on top of each other. Stacking the food adds drama to the presentation. If you need support, use a ring mold or cookie cutters to create a base from which you can slowly lift.
2. Slice the meat horizontally at a 45 degree angle and unroll the slices to enhance the texture and color of perfectly grilled or roasted meat.
3. Do not overcook vegetables. Baked al dente to preserve color, each bite is slightly crunchy.
4. Choose the right plate size, color and style, as the plate becomes your culinary canvas.
5. Serve in small portions to avoid overcrowding the plate or stacking too many garnishes. If the dish is cooked correctly, it is worth bragging about. Perfectly grilled steak with watercress is an eye-catcher on its own.