Women Chefs Blazing Paths in Appalachia
by Candace Nelson
Women chefs across Appalachia preserve and elevate regional cuisine through traditional and modern techniques.
These chefs, sprinkled through North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, and other mountainous regions, are incorporating food rooted in place in the menus of their restaurants and encouraging others to appreciate the cuisine, as well.
Here are just a few women in the food industry helping tell stories through food throughout Appalachia.
Asheville, North Carolina
Katie Button has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, Food & Wine Magazine, and numerous other notable organizations championing the best of the best in food.
Button currently serves as the co-founder and CEO of Katie Button Restaurants, which includes Curate Bar de Tapas and La Bodega by Curate. The restaurant group also operated two additional restaurants in Asheville: Nightbell, which closed after five years, and Button and Co. Bagels, which opened in 2018 and transitioned to La Bodega by Cúrate during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to its website.
Button and Co. Bagels was known for incorporating Appalachian ingredients and traditions into its offerings. The bagels were made with locally milled wheat flour and sorghum syrup. Sumac, ramps, smoked mountain trout, and dried figs all made appearances within the dough or cream cheese topping.
Asheville, North Carolina
Ashleigh Shanti is a chef and owner of Good Hot Fish, a pop-up fish fry in Asheville, North Carolina. Shanti also recently appeared on Top Chef Season 19, a Bravo TV cooking competition show.
She specializes in Black Appalachian foodways, including southern and soul food, and "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'," according to Eater.com.
In 2019, Shanti was named one of "16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America" by The New York Times. And she is continuing to make a name for herself as she travels throughout the region, dishing out delicious, inspired meals that have folks traveling from miles away.
(Photo by Kelly Doyle) Ashleigh Shanti at Charleston Wine and Food Festival
Shelley Cooper joined the Dancing Bear Lodge & Bistro as the chef in Townsend, Tennessee, on Valentine’s Day in 2013. While she was at the helm, she had consistently blazed the path of creating incredible Appalachian food while embracing the region’s history. “Smoked meats, fish, corn, beans, and foraged vegetables like mushrooms, muscadines, ramps, poke, sumac, berries, ginseng, chestnuts, plantain, artichokes, and dandelions were all known to indigenous tribes from north Georgia to Pennsylvania. Dishes like poke sallet, succotash, and cornbread all have roots in Cherokee, Seneca, and Iroquois cooking. Even country ham’s time-honored place in Appalachian cuisine is rooted in trade between indigenous peoples and Spanish settlers, with hogs making their way up old Indian roads from Florida to New England,” according to the restaurant’s website. Dancing Bear has been featured on The Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise” and The South’s 38 Essential Restaurants – Eater.com.
Clarksburg, West Virginia
Chef Anne Hart's eponymous restaurant, Hart Kitchen, focuses on seasonal and local ingredients, emphasizing classic food and beverage in the heart of Appalachia.
Before opening her current restaurant, Hart operated Provence Market and Cafe in Bridgeport, which had been recognized for its French cuisine before suffering a devastating fire in 2019. Just one year after the beloved restaurant went up in flames, Hart was serving her community once again - this time just a town over.
Hart Kitchen features daily specials with a revolving seasonal menu. You might find the warmed pimento cheese dip with housemade crackers; a burger with bourbon mushrooms, tomato jam, and smoked bacon; or an oven-roasted chicken with pan sauce, herbs, and potatoes.
If you want to learn how to cook dishes like these directly from Hart, you can attend her cooking school, where she walks students through a meal during a private class or public workshop.
While beans and cornbread might come to mind when you think of Appalachian food, these chefs have gone to great lengths to pay homage to tradition and continue to elevate Appalachian cuisine to include diverse foods beyond the stereotypes.
As women, these chefs have faced unique challenges in their journeys to find success, yet they continue to pursue a larger mission of promoting Appalachian food.
Whether you're interested in trying a new food or want to gain a deeper understanding of the region, support these trailblazers who are creating works of art in edible form.