Restaurant News & Reviews

Ashley Christensen's pastry chef is opening his own bakery Union Special

Andrew Ullom, executive pastry chef of Ashley Christensen's AC Restaurants, is leaving the group to open his own bakery, Union Special, by next year.
Andrew Ullom, executive pastry chef of Ashley Christensen's AC Restaurants, is leaving the group to open his own bakery, Union Special, by next year. Juli Leonard

The baker behind the bread at all of chef Ashley Christensen's restaurants is striking out on his own.

Andrew Ullom, the long executive pastry chef of Christensen's AC Restaurants, will open a new bakery in Raleigh next year called Union Special. It's the first project to publicly attach itself to the Gateway Plaza redevelopment off of Crabtree Boulevard in the Woodcrest neighborhood.

Union Special will be a 2,500-square-foot, full-service bake shop. Ullom said it will open serving breakfast and lunch and continue to serve meals into the afternoon and sell loaves of bread to take home for dinner. Later, a dinner service may be added.

Expect an open bakery, with the ovens and kitchen visible to much of the restaurant. The name Union Special sets a tone of commonality, Ullom said in an interview, as he wants to create a bake shop where everyone feels welcome.

"I wanted to create an environment where everyone feels like they have a place at the table," Ullom said. "I don't want folks to walk in with the expectation this is a fancy place. The design will be clean and simple, but the name grows out of this being a place for everyone."

Ullom joined the AC Restaurants group in 2011 as an assistant pastry chef and was promoted to executive pastry chef in 2014, overseeing the breads and desserts in all of Christensen's downtown Raleigh restaurants, which include Poole's Diner and Death and Taxes, as well as catered events. Christensen is a James Beard Award-winning chef who also owns Beasley's, Chuck's Fox Liquor and an event space.

In 2016, Ullom developed a baguette recipe at Poole's Diner that was good enough to replace parbaked loaves from New York City for the restaurant's mainstay bread and butter.

“I’m so excited for Andrew as he takes this next step in his career, and excited for the Raleigh community to experience his amazing food in a new environment and as part of a new experience,” Christensen said in a statement.

Ullom grew up the son of scientists in Ohio and initially set off on that path himself as a biochemistry major in college. It turned out he liked science more than school. After dropping out, he later enrolled in culinary school and became a scientist of sorts in his own right, taming yeasts and temperatures as a baker.

"My love of science is 100 percent realized in pastry," Ullom said.

Opening his own bakery is the dream Ullom didn't know he had until he and his wife, Jess, had their first child 18 months ago. He said he was excited to trade five front doors for one, but knew he was leaving a dream job.

"AC has been completely supportive in my decision," Ullom said. "I'm incredibly lucky to have her on my side and in my corner. I've learned so much here. I know it's silly to leave what would be a dream job for most folks. It certainly was for me."

Union Special will use only North Carolina milled grain, most also coming from the state. He said lunch would carry the vibe of a picnic, with sandwiches and vegetable salads. Wine and beer will be served, but Union Special stops short of spirits.

His mother-in-law insists on biscuits on the breakfast menu, joined by croissants, local grits and breakfast sandwiches. Ullom sounds particularly excited about creating cheese balls.

"We'll definitely have a cheese ball and some killer crackers," he said.

Look for Union Special pop-ups in late May or early June, starting with a couple per month and progressing to one or two a week from there.

Britny Stephenson, currently the assistant pastry chef of AC Restaurants, will become pastry manager, and Frank Smith will be head bread baker.

Ullom isn't the first of Christensen's longtime chefs to strike out on his own. Sunny Gerhart left Poole's Diner to open St. Roch Oyster Bar in 2017.

Here's the website for Union Special, unionspecialbread.com.

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
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