A few hours after Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen won a James Beard award for best chef in the Southeast, she and her friends were celebrating in her room at the Ace Hotel in New York City. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they were devouring Shake Shack burgers, drinking champagne and taking turns making toasts.
Eventually, Christensen spoke and recounted what her father, Robert, said to her shortly after she won.
Before we get to that, let’s first describe what happened when Christensen was called to the stage to accept her medal, the Oscar of the culinary world. She skipped down the aisle, arm in arm with Matt Fern, her business partner in Poole’s Diner and beverage director of her restaurant group. Her acceptance speech was laden not with “I’s” but with “We’s” – “We go to work every day.” “We are so excited to do the thing that we love every day.” “We are so excited about doing more great things.”
Afterward, Christensen recalled her father remarking, “You keep saying, ‘We.’ What are you running? A NASCAR team?”
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Christensen says her team was key to winning. This was her second year as a finalist. (Chef Ben Barker of the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham was a finalist seven times before winning in 2000.) Christensen joins Barker and Chapel Hill chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern restaurant as fellow winners of the best chef in the Southeast award from the James Beard Foundation.
Christensen, 37, couldn’t have grown her restaurant empire so quickly without this team. She opened Poole’s Diner in 2007. She went on to open Chuck’s (burgers), Beasley’s Chicken + Honey (fried chicken), Joule (coffee bar and café) and Fox Liquor Bar (cocktails), all in downtown Raleigh. She plans to open a commissary kitchen this summer to support her restaurants and a fifth restaurant, Death & Taxes (wood-fired cooking) on Salisbury Street later this year.
So many of Christensen’s team were on hand that night: Fern; Juan Esparza, head chef of her restaurant group; Lara Spagnola, her assistant; Derek Ryoti, director of operations; Luke Buchanan, one of her first employees and a bartender she hired specifically because he never gave her free alcohol; Raleigh philanthropist Eliza Kraft Olander, who teams up with Christensen to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for good causes; and Matt Kelly, a Durham chef and restaurateur who owns Mateo Tapas and volunteered to cook with her at events, including her appearance on “Iron Chef,” before she could afford to take her staff.
Now more than ever Christensen is going to have to rely on that team, because business is only going to get busier.
Both Barker and Reusing report that after they won their awards, their business surged. Not only did they draw more local business but out-of-town visitors also sought out their restaurants. “We were so busy, it about killed our staff,” Ben Barker recalled. (Magnolia Grill got two waves of increased business from James Beard awards, after Ben Barker won in 2000 and after his wife, Karen Barker, won a national pastry chef award in 2003.)
“It’s hard to imagine Poole’s Diner could get busier,” Reusing said. “It was hard for us to imagine – but it did.”
This award will not just bring more attention to Christensen and her restaurants, but it will bring attention to Raleigh, a city whose food scene has been overshadowed by its neighbors to the west, Durham and Chapel Hill.
Maybe finally, Raleigh will develop a food reputation separate from its neighbors.
And when that happens, those other Raleigh restaurateurs will not only have Christensen to thank, but her team as well.