Raleigh's Ashley Christensen deserves her seat at top chefs' table

May 6, 2014 

Ashley Christensen

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

The old Poole’s diner was a favorite spot for downtown Raleigh workers for years, offering blue plate specials and the like at a bargain. One former News & Observer editor became incensed one day when his lunch tab exceeded $4.

But the Poole’s of today is considerably changed under the leadership of owner-chef Ashley Christensen, who developed it into a spectacular and imaginative restaurant. And now Christensen has been recognized as the best chef in the Southeast by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

The honor is well-deserved, of course, but much appreciated not just by the Capital City’s foodies. Christensen, who owns several downtown restaurants, has long been a soft touch for charities, donating bottles of wine from her very nice cellar for auctions and good causes. She takes a special interest, for example, in the Frankie Lemmon School for kids with special needs.

Following her award this week, Christensen was thinking not just of her own recognition but how it might benefit those charities.

“We want to use our powers for good,” she said. “And I think we got a little more powerful today.”

The gala for the Beard nominees and honorees was held at Lincoln Center in New York City. Beard was, The News & Observer’s Andrea Weigl reports, one of the nation’s first “food celebrities.” He wrote a number of cookbooks and believed good food could be found in all areas of the country ... this country, not just France.

So it’s fitting that Christensen, raised in Kernersville and educated at N.C. State, would at 37 be honored for a career that began with dinner parties in college. She did catering, became a chef and opened Poole’s Downtown Diner in 2007. Her graciousness, friendly attitude toward her city and skills in the kitchen add up to her being one of the good folks in the food business. This time, somebody nice finished first.

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