Ashleigh Shanti steps down from Benne on Eagle with plans to create restaurant group

Mackensy Lunsford
Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE - When Ashleigh Shanti became the first chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, she signed her name on the kitchen wall before the metal fireproofing panels were affixed over the top.

Beside her name, she wrote "sankofa," a word borrowed from the Akan tribe in Ghana. Typically illustrated by a bird plucking a seed or egg from its back, it means "go back and get it," Shanti explained then. 

Though Shanti's mark will long linger at Benne, the chef has stepped down after two years.

More:Malcolm McMillian, new chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, takes over from Ashleigh Shanti

It's gutsy to shift gears in the middle of a pandemic. But this year has been a time of reflection for many, Shanti said. 

Ashleigh Shanti at Benne on Eagle in downtown Asheville August 30, 2019. The chef has received attention from big name publications, including Time magazine, which named Benne one of its "Top 100 Places in the World" for 2019.

"With some of those reflections, I got a bird's eye view of my future trajectory and what that looks like," she said. "And as a Black chef who's a woman and queer, it's vital to have some representation when it comes to restaurant ownership."

More:New chef de cuisine makes mark at Benne on Eagle, new John Fleer restaurant in Asheville

To that end, Shanti plans to create an Asheville-based restaurant group, overseeing multiple venues. She hopes to provide more opportunities for employment where workers feel empowered. She also hopes to be able to create workforce housing. 

"I'm taking a pause to recharge and make sure the next move I make benefits the community, whether that's the restaurant staff or the marginalized community in Asheville," she said. "I want to make sure I create a space where the staff can feel heard and experience opportunities for growth."

'We need to dig deeper'

In June, Shanti spoke about how the conversations surrounding restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis often failed to consider service industry workers, particularly the minority workers in the most essential and thankless positions in the food industry.  

The rate of restaurant ownership in the Black community is low, Shanti pointed out then. 

"We need to dig deeper and realize that yes, restaurants need to be saved, but work also needs to be done (to save) the people who do the work and put in the sweat equity," she said. "We need to allow those people to have voices, to be heard as well, and make sure they're working in a fair and safe environment."

More:Eagle Street Juneteenth celebration honors holiday, supports Black community

Shanti will partner with people and investors whose visions align with her own, she said. "I'm doing my best to have the best hospitality group in Asheville."

Ashleigh Shanti, chef at Benne on Eagle, stands in the sun in front of The Block during the Juneteenth celebration.

As Shanti has reflected on what she wants to do with her career, she's also had time to reflect on what being a chef really means.

"And I've realized that being a chef is not one-dimensional," she said. "We're kidding ourselves if we think our role is just to cook in a restaurant morning to night. There's so much more we should feel tasked with."

She acknowledged achieving her goals would require an enormous effort. "It will take a lot, but I'm up for the task."

More:Asheville chef Hanan Shabazz honored for work preserving foodways, feeding community

Volunteering, cooking and creating

As she hones her plans, Shanti will volunteer her time with efforts like the Utopian Seed Project, a locally based group committed to Southeastern crop diversity, farming and food security. 

She's working on cooking demos and busily recording recipes. 

"Restaurant openings take time, and I want to be so intentional and strategic with everything I do," she said. 

Shanti's credits include Minibar, José Andrés's vaunted D.C. restaurant, a stage at Blue Hill at Stone Barns under chef Dan Barber and Culinary Assistant for Chef & the Farmer co-owner Vivian Howard. She also taught fermentation classes at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans and has a deep knowledge of the craft.

Since joining Benne, Shanti was nominated for a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef.

Shanti told the Citizen Times in early 2018 she'd been looking for her purpose while honing her culinary identity.

More:Planting seeds of revolution: Asheville chefs, farmers unite behind accessible fresh food

"I was kind of at a lull in my career," she said, then 28. "I had been cooking food for so long that wasn't mine, or I didn't feel connected to. So it was really important that my next position was meaningful."

Benne earned its fair share of attention during Shanti's tenure, not only for its star chef, but also for the cause behind the menu: highlighting the African traditions and history behind Southern-Appalachian food.

Reflecting on her time at Benne, Shanti said she was thankful to be able to tell her own story, too.

"And it makes sense that I own those stories and control my own narrative," she said. 

John Fleer, chef-owner of Benne on Eagle, who has already promoted sous chef Malcolm McMillian to chef de cuisine, is a champion of Shanti, whom he promised early on would be a star.

Malcolm McMillian is now the chef de cuisine at downtown's Benne on Eagle after being promoted from his role as sous chef.

"Ashleigh said something right before she left which has kind of resonated with me in that Benne had the potential to be an incubator of sorts for Black chefs," Fleer said Nov. 18. 

He said encouraging Black restaurant ownership has been on his mind since the restaurant was in its planning stages, stationed as it is in a formerly thriving Black business district. 

Meanwhile, while he's sad to see Shanti go, Fleer is excited to introduce chef McMillian to Asheville. "He brings so much to the table ... it's fortuitous that we had someone like Malcolm already on board."

Read more about Malcolm McMillian here.


Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years, and has been a staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times since 2012. Lunsford is a former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.

Reach me:

Read more: Subscribe to the Citizen Times here. Subscribe to my newsletter here