Ashleigh Fleming had a brief stint as head chef of a restaurant near Raleigh, North Carolina, which opened in December 2019 but hit a COVID wall and closed in March 2020. At that point, she decided Decided to finish being a chef and start looking for a new job. She spent the summer of 2020 selling banh tet outside her home a few days a week.
She then found an interesting opportunity in Littleton, North Carolina, on LinkedIn and applied to be the general manager of the company that became the acclaimed Blue Jay Bistro. But she firmly resisted passing to interview for the position of head chef of the establishment. But — well, you know where this goes — she “absolutely loved the project” and ended up with two jobs, executive director and executive chef.
Fleming is a reluctant food star. She didn’t want to follow her parents and grandparents into the restaurant business and first went to college to study art. Happy for so many diners, she eventually fell in love with her job in the kitchen and graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. At school, she found a mentor, Ken Arnone, a Certified Master Chef, who brought her under his unyielding protection. “He was the most enduring influence in my professional life and someone I consider a father figure,” she said.
But it hasn’t always been easy for her. “When I go into the kitchen, a lot of guys don’t want to work with girls. One of my chefs made it clear to me that I needed to do it for myself, not slow everyone else down ‘because I need help.’
Fleming is from Houston. I told her my theory that food in the South was repeatedly and always the most enjoyable American food, and asked why she thought that way?
“The South has a lot to say. There are so many stories and chapters of history, it’s like an onion,” she said. “It continues to grow on top of those layers and things are still very much defined by territory. Collard greens are not the same in North Carolina or Mississippi or Texas or Louisiana. There are dishes and stories that remain undiscovered and untold. There are histories that are not told because they are not always pretty. There were crops that were wiped out because they weren’t the ones that made the most money. But that’s all changing, and people are paying more attention to the pulse of what’s happening and what we haven’t discovered yet.”
Here are her five all-time favorite meals.
I took a trip to Italy when I was in college with my brother and mother. While we were in Florence we took a day trip through some vineyards and stopped for noon with our tour guide at what looked like a random house on the hill. I can’t tell you where we were, but I can tell you it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. All the tables are outside under the trees, and looking in the kitchen window, there are about four female cooks working in a small kitchen. In the back there were cattle grazing and fresh herbs growing everywhere in the front. We had the most amazing steak grilled with rosemary and butter. I have never had anything taste or feel like this since.
Restaurants in Meadowood, Napa
I have never had, nor have I ever had, an experience quite like Meadowood. Exceptional food from start to finish. Having the corn pudding with huitlacoche was life changing. I will never forget the mignardise that came at the end of the meal, simulating a forest on the plate. I still keep a copy of the menu from that night, framed, on my dining room wall at home.
The whole experience, from stepping out of the car to stepping out at the end of a meal, is a study in the art of hospitality that I believe cannot be duplicated. All the serving steps, menu presentation, dish creation, service care, attention to detail – it’s all what we aspire to be able to deliver. I’ve been to great restaurants, but Meadowood masters the art of making each guest feel as though their personal presence matters. Can not forget.
The Taste of Texas is a dinner experience at a steakhouse in my hometown, Houston. The original location on Memorial Drive was an educational facility that my elementary school would host field trips there! (If you didn’t grow up in Texas, I feel bad for you. Yes, we dedicate an entire school history unit to the history of our state.)
My grandmother knew the Hundee family owned Taste of Texas and took them very seriously. When there’s a reason to celebrate something, or my grandmother wants to take us out for an experience, we go there. Guests choose their own steak from behind the glass and can enjoy a great salad bar with a giant block of cheddar cheese. Sometimes she and I go together and get the Gold Burger — a large cheeseburger drizzled with cheddar cheese. We will have the best times and conversations. I always love this time with her. When I get home, I still go to Taste of Texas and choose my steak.
It’s been a hit when I retire whether I want to run a tiki bar or a taco truck. The Tonga Room is a dream place made for people with tiki culture. I love rum, have a variety of tiki glasses and read a lot about tiki bars and cocktails. When I was in San Francisco, I wasn’t interested in anything but going to the Tonga Room. It was raining inside the restaurant! Good food – better drinks! And the atmosphere is indescribable. I’m sure I spent the night gaping like a kid on the most amazing amusement park ride they’ve ever seen.
Grilled Halibut with Basil Pesto . Crust
I come from a hospitable family, but all I wanted to do when I grew up was draw and paint. I never thought what my parents did was a career for me. I’m going to art school but my tuition fee has run out about a year later and I don’t know what to do but sit and wait. Around the age of 22, I decided I wanted to pursue a career in hospitality, but to attend the Culinary Institute of America, I needed six months of professional kitchen experience. My dad told me to research a recipe I wanted to make for dinner, and he would start teaching me how to cook it, so I could find a job. I don’t make it easy, so I chose roasted halibut with a basil pie crust. He and I worked hard to create this elaborate dinner. This was the first thing I did that interested me, and I started to see cooking differently. I remember making this with him, standing next to him in our little apartment, grilling fish and browning my crust and my whole thought process started to change.
My Five Favorite Meals showcases the dining experiences most loved by bartenders, chefs and celebrities.
The interview has been condensed and edited.