Amid all the buzz surrounding chef Ashleigh Shanti’s new Good Hot Fish eatery, we ask the celebrated local chef about three dishes she’s most excited about. Hint: Good Hot Fish’s signature dish is imbued with a lot of history and tradition.
Words by Kay West
Dating back to a time before World War II, fish camps are casual restaurants that serve fried seafood dishes alongside popular side dishes, often attracting a loyal fan base, particularly in North Carolina. Growing up in Virginia Beach, Shanti heard stories of women in her family selling hot fish in paper sacks from less structured set-ups in their yards.
Shanti’s take on this concept is an 18-seat counter-service setup, with a vibe she describes as simple and humble (sandwiches were served on frisbees when we attended the soft opening and full platters on molded trays), drawing on her experience working in fish shacks as a teenager and honoring her maternal heritage.
Shanti became well-known to Asheville food lovers during a two-year stint as chef de cuisine at Benne on Eagle, a restaurant located in a neighborhood known as “The Block,” a hub for business and cultural life for the Black community in the 20th century. There, she introduced diners to what she called Appalachian soul food.
During her two years at Benne on Eagle, Shanti earned national acclaim. The restaurant earned spots on Esquire and Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurants” roundups, while Shanti herself was showcased by the New York Times as one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America” and was a finalist for the 2020 James Beard award for “Rising Star Chef of the Year.”
In the three years since her departure from Benne in November 2020, Shanti has been busy. She competed on the 19th season of the TV cooking competition “Top Chef,” worked on a cookbook that will be published in October and got married in April 2023 to longtime partner Meaghan Goff (now Meaghan Shanti).
Between all of that, she spent time in Virginia Beach and re-visited the fish camps and fish shacks she was homesick for. That’s where the idea for her next step took shape in the form of regular Good Hot Fish popups she staged at Burial Beer’s South Slope.
While we’re eager to try every item on the The Good Hot Fish menu, we asked Shanti to tell us about three dishes she is particularly excited about — and why they are important to her. Here are her top three menu items in her own words:
SEA ISLAND RED PEAS
“Red Peas are a classic side at fish camps. We are very mindful of where we source. All our seafood comes from Carolina waters, our greens come from Jamie Swofford at Old North Farm, our corn meal from Farm & Sparrow and our peas from Anson Mills. I love the red peas. We use ham hocks for seasoning and then hit them with a little sorghum to kind of mimic baked beans so they have a little bit of sweet.”
TROUT BOLOGNA AND CHEESE SANDWICH
“This is kind of a nod to a fried bologna sandwich. We take steelhead trout and treat it like you would pork bologna. We cook the trout, mix it with bologna spices and form it into a chub. It’s sliced about ¼ inch thick, then seared on the flattop; we add American cheese so it melts, top it with hot yellow mustard and sliced raw white onion and put it on a potato roll.”
GOOD HOT FISH SANDWICH
“I worked in fish shacks starting at 15, my parents’ first date was at a little fish shack in Virginia Beach and a lot of women in my family had their own fish camps as a means of financial freedom. Historically the men caught and cleaned the fish, then the women would dredge it in their own secret recipe and fry it. Right now, we’re using straight North Carolina catfish, dredged in Farm & Sparrow’s Bloody Butcher cornmeal and their Cateto, which they mill and blend for us. It works beautifully with catfish. We serve the fried fish on white bread with buttermilk tartar sauce that adds a little tang. The sandwich comes with blue ribbon-winning refrigerator pickles.”
Good Hot Fish opened on Jan 20 as an homage to Southern fish camps.