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Ashley Shelton
Ashley Shelton

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Ashley Shelton: Redefining What It Means To Be In Charge of the Kitchen

At Pastaria, the executive chef puts equal emphasis on team and menu

In the middle of her usual dinner rush, Ashley Shelton will take a brief second to look around the kitchen. She's dead focused, zoning in on bringing the flavors of her culinary love affair with Italian cuisine to life in her enticingly warm space in St. Louis, MO. Her team is in a frenzy around her, and she can't deny the stress of wanting to perform as well as she always does — remarkable success is in her crosshairs every day. It only takes a moment for her to make a quick decision on the spot to relieve stress: She sings.

Shelton begins to belt out a little tune about the dishes being prepared on the fly at Pastaria: sometimes it's the ever-popular crispy risotto balls laced with Grana Padano, or a margherita pie baking in their wood-fired oven, or a bowl of their Italian ramen. Even if for just a second, the flurry of activity becomes jovial, regardless of whatever challenge waits for the team when they come back down to earth, Shelton says. She's no vocalist, but the 27-year-old executive chef is certainly an artist to the large crowd of avid fans who pause in their meals to peer into the open kitchen from tables and the adjacent bar.

It's performance that keeps them coming back for more, and Shelton always remembers that. "I believe in the absolute perfection of every dish — why would you want to eat something that isn't perfect?" she says. But her relentlessness isn't something that blinds her from the bigger picture. "You have to give [the diners] something to smile about from time to time. It doesn't need to be so serious all the time. If you're angry, your food will taste angry," she says.

Her leadership is self-learned, Shelton says, in large part because she lost her mother at the young age of 14. Her mom was an inventive and well-accomplished home cook, a heritage that Shelton couldn't deny even as a teenager. While childhood dreams included things like marine biology, it wasn't long before she knew wholeheartedly that she wanted to take her mother's talent a step further.

"If you're angry, your food will taste angry."

A couple of home economics classes led to a part-time job on weekends and full-time summers at Annie Gunn's, a beloved American steakhouse in her home neighborhood of Chesterfield, MO. Shelton was just 17 years old when she undertook duties as a pantry chef — handling salads and desserts mostly — but she did everything with pride all the same.

She worked tirelessly for a year and a half in many of the positions at Annie Gunn's before fleeing Missouri to the Culinary Institute of America just outside of Poughkeepsie, New York, eventually earning her bachelor's degree in 2011.

"I loved being away from home — I thrived on that, actually," she says. "It's great being around people who share your interest and having people who are similar to you close to you."

Shelton didn't fully find her zest for the industry until she left for Florence in August of 2011. She continued her studies at the Apicius International School of Hospitality for nearly a year, enough time to become completely infatuated with Italian cuisine — once she tried her first dish of bucatini amatriciana the rest was history, she says.

Florence is also where long-time mentor, employer, and James Beard Award-winner Gerard Craft first met Shelton, an opportune moment in her career when destiny seems to have been calling. Craft was on a research trip, Shelton says, in search of inspiration for a new Italian restaurant he was opening in St. Louis. She jumped at the chance to work with him in November 2012, and quickly moved past her duties as pasta chef, eventually working her way up to sous chef  by the end of the year.

Only in her mid-20s at the time, Shelton learned a tough lesson when Craft didn't hand her the executive chef position at Pastaria outright. She left the Niche St. Louis group and headed back to Annie Gunn's as a sous chef in March of 2014.

"It was sad to leave Gerard initially, and I even ended up in the same position that I was in at Pastaria, but it took me leaving to realize how much I wanted it in the first place. I learned a lot in that year," she says, adding that the year was transformative.

And it gave her the experience she needed  to come back and lead the Pastaria team as executive chef in mid-2015, where she's now bringing bold Italian flavors to St. Louis in an approachable way. There's an intrinsic need to help people find simple happiness in food, Shelton says, and she's not satisfied until she's done so.

But of course there are challenges along the way, especially for women heading up a team in the kitchen. "You are judged as being more fragile and treated as if you're not able to handle the honest truth," she says, following a pause. "I have to ask people to tell me things straight up and not hold back — that's the only way I'll be able to learn and grow. I'm not going to scream or yell or throw things at you — as a female chef, you don't get feedback because people think you're going to break, or react emotionally."

Shelton sometimes feels like she has to walk a fine line between being friendly and leading her team, even though professionalism is always at the forefront of her methods. "I constantly battle being the employees' mother versus their actual boss," she says. "Every day I have to manage my reputation and what I'm saying, how I'm managing my team."

At the same time, Shelton says these challenges shouldn't bar anyone from finding their own passion in kitchens just like hers — and these challenges haven't stopped her, as Pastaria will soon be opening a second location in Nashville, where her influence will certainly be felt. "If you leave work every day and are happy, willing to do it all over again the next day, then you're in the right place. Dive into it!"

Find the full list of 2016 Young Guns here

Zee Krstic is an intern with Eater.
Ashley Shelton is the executive chef at Pastaria in St. Louis.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
See all Young Guns coverage here.


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