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Asheville Chef Ashleigh Shanti on the Power of Play, From Foraging and Swimming to Hiking and More

What drives the culinary prowess of this award-winning, Asheville-based chef? We caught up with her to learn about the natural wonders she loves in the North Carolina destination she calls home.

Chef Ashleigh Shanti wading in a river and holding a she just caught while fly fishing.

Chef Ashleigh Shanti enjoys fly fishing amid Asheville’s natural beauty

Photo by Reggie Tidwell

Behind every recipe, dish, and entrée masterfully prepared by chef Ashleigh Shanti is an artistic flare that’s wholly her own. A big part of that creative inspiration is the beauty of the local Western North Carolina landscape and her connection to it. It’s an approach that works. Patrons of Good Hot Fish, Shanti’s longstanding pop-up in South Slope, will soon enjoy a highly anticipated permanent fixture in partnership with Burial Beer Co.’s newest taproom, Eulogy. Fresh on the heels of the announcement, we sat down with the American Culinary Corps member to talk about the power of play and how the natural surroundings of the Asheville area fuel what she does.

A photo of a cafeteria style tray of food from Good Hot Fish on a picnic table in Asheville

A meal from Good Hot Fish

Photo by Tim Robison

The James Beard Award nominee shared how the sense of awe, wonder, and adventure she found in nature as a child is still being served up on a plate wherever Good Hot Fish is found. Join us in this intimate conversation about some of Shanti’s most treasured memories of being outdoors in Asheville—including a few tips for adventure seekers too.

Wild roots and culinary trails

Asheville is renowned for its stunning landscapes, from rushing rivers to the majestic mountain views off the Blue Ridge Parkway. For Shanti, the mountains are more than scenic backdrops; they’re integral to her story and culinary journey. Growing up as an only child in Virginia, the woods near her parents’ rural home were her playground, a place where imagination ran wild and every tree, plant, or stream whispered tales of old. “The outdoors just brings out the child in me,” says Shanti.

The same childlike curiosity Shanti felt discovering the flora and fauna of the region eventually led her on travels to the kitchens of friends throughout the country where she would create Good Hot Fish pop-ups. It also continuously sets the tone for what makes it onto diners’ plates when they dig into one of the esteemed chef’s culinary creations.

Foraging, fishing, and crafting recipes

One of Shanti’s annual traditions is rooted in a practice she learned as a child from her grandmother. When ramps (also known as yard or wild onions) were in season and ripe for picking, they’d harvest and stuff them into jars that they’d then fill to the brim with local honey. The honey-onion mix creates a naturally antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory blend that’s been used for generations. When ramps make their way into a salad dressing or chicken glaze dreamed up by Shanti, they’re an ode to these memories with her grandmother, as well as the lush, vibrant outdoors of Asheville that serves as her muse.

It’s no wonder nature influences Shanti so much when she steps into the Pisgah National Forest, where she’s immediately embraced by a rich biodiversity that’s the envy of many regions across the county. The Asheville area boasts more than 2,500 species of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, making every hiking trail a mesmerizing journey through a botanical wonderland.

A close-up photograph of a cluster of brown colored mushrooms growing in dry leaves.

Asheville’s natural landscape is home to rich flora and fauna.

Photo by Andre Daugherty

For the avid mushroom foragers looking to visit Asheville, Shanti suggests areas off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. She notes that the foraging community tends to be reserved with sharing precise locations for mushroom foraging as a sustainability and preservation measure for our fungi friends, adding that she generally tends to think more inclusively because “nature is so healing, I feel like it is for everyone.” If you prefer a guided tour, No Taste Like Home offers excursions with local foraging experts.

The culinary wizard’s love for nature extends to Asheville’s local waterways too, which she says are great for catching brook trout. Fly-fishing on the Green River is one of her new favorite pastimes when she’s not out boating, swimming with her pup near Hominy Park, visiting a swimming hole near Catawba Falls, or floating down the French Broad River. (Thanks in part to organizations like RiverLink, these waterways continue to be preserved and protected for future generations.)

Leisurely drives and epic hikes

A photograph of a person walking Asheville's Mountains-to-Sea trail among autumn colors.

The Mountains-to-Sea trail is a favorite.

Photo by Andre Daugherty

When it comes to simply reveling in Asheville’s unending canvas of natural splendor, Shanti does plenty of that as well. “I never get tired of looking at these mountains…it’s so beautiful,” she says as she daydreams about the drive through the city and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Mountains-to-Sea trail ranks high on the chef’s list of top places to go for a hike and get outdoors. Other go-tos include Black Balsam and Max Patch.

Shanti is passionate about preserving the natural environment, too. Her top recommendation is to stick to marked trails and take note of guideposts along the way. She also encourages hikers to follow the Leave No Trace ethos, which emphasizes leaving nature undisturbed and minimizing your impact on the environment. Educate yourself on foraging and nature laws and ensure you’re certain about wild plant identification before consuming them.

There’s perhaps no better way to enjoy the Asheville area’s peaks and valleys, dense forests, and panoramic vistas than by venturing into its epic landscapes. Every inch of the region is a testament to nature’s grandeur, and traversing it makes it easy to understand the deep sway it holds over the people who call it home, including Shanti. Asheville isn’t just postcard-worthy scenery; it’s a living, breathing ecosystem that inspires, nurtures, and connects.

Explore Asheville and written by Cortina Jenelle Caldwell
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