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Ask chef Ashbell McElveen who the best cooks are and he’ll tell you Black folks. “I grew up in Sumpter, South Carolina during segregation. And any big event that the White folks had, they had Black people cooking the food. That’s why you had Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben advertising food products because White people knew that food made by Black hands was the best quality of food you could have,” says McElveen.
The La Sorbonne graduate and owner of Ashbell’s Premium Meats and Seafood is proud to come from a family of great traditional cooks. “Where I grew up, good food was considered a birthright. I believe cooking is my God-given talent because I can make a good meal out of anything,” boasts McElveen.
Ashbell’s Generational Influences
His culinary influences include his mother, whose specialty was Carolina duck and seafood gumbo, and his Aunt Laura – known as Old Aunt Sissy – whose peach cobbler with an added middle crust was a family favorite. “She would put the middle crust on a sheet tray and bake it in the oven first and then she’d layer it into the peaches. It was all about the crust,” he shares.
However, it was his father who had the most influence on McElveen’s premium meats. “My father was a superb cook and he hunted and fished almost daily, so we had all kinds of fresh wild game. He shot a duck and roasted it to render the fat and made a duck fat pound cake. People don’t cook like that anymore,” he laments.
With that type of culinary heritage, it’s no surprise that McElveen honed his skills catering for the elite in destinations like Paris, Aix-en-Provence and the foie gras region of France and London.
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“In London, I lived by the Portobello Road Market, which had been there since the 14th century. It’s a market for daily consumption, so you have your favorite vegetable vendor, your favorite fishmonger and your favorite butcher right on the street. It’s a different way of life that Americans don’t appreciate, but that’s how we used to food shop in the Black community in the South.
Building a Business on Experience
After decades of living abroad, McElveen moved to Philadelphia in 2014 where his maternal ancestors have lived since 1893. Moreover, that’s where he started Ashbell’s Premium Meats and Seafood, selling at farmers markets in wealthy neighborhoods like Rittenhouse Square and Society Hill.
His Applewood smoked meats include duck breast, salmon, jerk-style salmon, lamb pastrami, jerk-style tuna, tuna pastrami, turkey thigh pastrami and jerk-style chicken breast. McElveen adds, “My pastrami has ten global spices. I learned about using spices while living with a Sikh family in London for four years. I’m also proud to have sold my lamb pastrami to Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s hotel restaurant in London.”
Clients include many American and Eastern European Jews who buy his premium meats and seafood for Passover. “That’s one of the reasons we started the hashtag, #AshbellsEveryday, to remind people our products are not just good for the holidays but for everyday cooking,” he says.
Ashbell’s is not a brick and mortar business, but products are sold all over the world via his website with the help of three full-time and 15 part-time workers. “We’re the only company selling jerk chicken or jerk fish on the internet. I make it the authentic way that I learned in Jamaica. But our duck breast is our biggest seller. We cook it like bacon which you can add to foods and salads. When you try my duck bacon, you’ll be speaking in tongues,” he laughs.
Carrying on African-American Traditions
McElveen says he’s proud to carry on an African-American culinary tradition and wants to educate the public more about the contributions of Black chefs to the food industry. Once after touring and doing a prayer to the ancestors at the excavation site of the slave kitchen on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, McElveen had a vision from James Hemings.
“He said to me, ‘how could you of all people forget about me?’ And that’s when I decided to start the James Hemings Society,” says McElveen. James was the brother of Sally Hemings and half-brother of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha. “And he was the first African-American trained as a chef in America.
We’ve had dinners to educate people on James’ heritage and contributions to the culinary world. People don’t realize that Black chefs created fine dining in America,” McElveen says.
McElveen is working on producing a documentary about Hemings, among other plans. “I’ve been invited to teach a culinary entrepreneurship program this summer at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. And this summer, our products will be in California stores and in Wegmans, which supports the James Hemings Society,” says McElveen.
He continues, “I’m also developing a hot and spicy chocolate filled with a spicy Indian fruit chutney and a line of smoked spices. And I’ll be bringing out my father’s recipe for rye whiskey and moonshine, which was so smooth that you could make it as a cocktail mixer. My watermelon moonshine martini was put on the cover of a men’s magazine in London.”
The multi-talented chef will also branch out into halal. “American Muslims spend $50 billion on food, and especially meats, so there’s a large opportunity there for new customers. Even China is interested in us opening a halal meat plant there,” says McElveen. He concludes, “I’m very blessed to be where I am. And I hope my products serve as an inspiration to other Black men and women who want to sell their own food products.”