This Journalist Turned Restaurateur Is The Genius Behind Chicago’s Most Talked About Soul Food Restaurant
Credit: Chef Kristen Harper

Chicago may be famous for its deep dish pizza, but did you know some of the nation’s most delicious soul food also resides within the city?

Thanks to Chef Kristen Ashley, the chef behind Cleo’s Southern Cuisine in Bronzeville, her Creole and southern-style food has drawn such acclaim throughout the city that it has been known to draw lines around the block. This is all from a chef who never even tastes her own food!

The former college basketball player worked as a sports journalist for several years before starting a catering business in 2014 at the suggestion of friends and family. 

As time went on, Chef Ashley began putting more of her own resources into it and was soon fully committed to opening a full-fledged restaurant in May of 2019, just a few blocks from the neighborhood she grew up in. Together with her aunt, Chef Ashley started Cleo’s Southern Cuisine, a contemporary Chicago based restaurant and catering company.

Almost seven years later, Cleo’s Southern Cuisine has found its footing with a second location in the West Loop, a solid menu, a devoted clientele, a sharp staff led by Chef Ashley and a robust carryout operation that has kept the restaurant going through the pandemic

“Initially when we first opened, we were Wednesday through Sunday. We were doing well. And then when COVID happened, we closed for two weeks and I was really trying to figure out: okay, how do I manage this? I had no prior restaurant experience to really go off of. So I said, “Okay, well, let me bring my overhead costs down and open up just on the weekends and hopefully create this demand for food.”

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And when she refers to demand — she’s far from lying. So much so that Chef Ashley has been hailed Chicago’s “Queen of Fried Chicken.”

She couldn’t do it alone, however. Ashley often refers to the staff as family, and she means that literally. Several of Ashley’s family members work with her at the restaurant, including her dad, her brother and her cousin. And because she doesn’t actually taste any of the food, they all serve as a good sounding board for determining what’s there to stay or go on the menu.

“I kind of just stay in my lane. And I feel for me personally, if I were to eat my food, I don’t want to become biased. I do it more off of just a feeling. I know it kind of sounds weird, but I just do it off of the feeling. And I don’t want to be like, since my palette is so simple, like, “Oh no, this is too much.” I just want to do what feels right, if that makes sense.”

The warm, friendly atmosphere of the restaurant will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a close-knit congregation. Staff dish up food behind the counter, and a chalkboard menu takes up a large part of one wall.

Starting a restaurant hasn’t been met without its challenges, but Chef Ashley describes what keeps her going. “I know this is going to sound faddish, but it’s important to really love what you’re doing.”

She continues, “I get up every day and I love coming here. I love everything that I do. So if your passion is not in making others happy through food, then you should pivot to something else. If you’re in it just for the media attention or the money, or anything like that, you’re going to have shortcomings, which is why the turnover is so fast. But as long as you stay true to who you are and what you love to do, the sky is literally the limit.”