Vivian Howard and Ashley Christensen tapped as headliners for Raleigh food festival Thrive NC

2017 Tar Heels of the Year: Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard

The News & Observer honors chefs Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard as the 2017 Tar Heels of the Year for making their marks in Raleigh, Kinston and North Carolina.
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The News & Observer honors chefs Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard as the 2017 Tar Heels of the Year for making their marks in Raleigh, Kinston and North Carolina.

Local culinary leaders Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard have been tapped as headliners for the second year of downtown Raleigh food festival Thrive NC.

Last year’s inaugural event brought more than two dozen of the Triangle’s best restaurants together for a two-day tasting in Raleigh’s City Market, where hundreds were treated to sample bites and drinks. This year’s event will be May 9 and 10, with Howard leading a demo May 9 and Christensen May 10.

Howard is the acclaimed chef and star of the PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” which ended last year after five seasons of celebrating the food traditions of Eastern North Carolina. Christensen, a 2014 James Beard winner for best chef in the Southeast, owns five of Raleigh’s most popular restaurants and bars, including her flagship Poole’s Diner. Both chefs were named The News & Observer’s 2017 Tar Heels of the Year for the impact their food and activism have had on North Carolina.

This year Howard and Christensen will lead cooking demonstrations at Thrive NC. Like last year, the festival is committing proceeds to causes aimed at addressing food insecurity in North Carolina. The full lineup of participating chefs will be announced next month.

“The state of North Carolina is rich with culinary talent and I feel very fortunate to take part in Thrive NC again this year,” said Christensen in a release. “Thrive NC aligns with the goal of many chef activists in our area and together we are making a commitment to support our community.”

The chef demo stage at last year’s Thrive NC included Howard, Christensen, James Beard winning chef Andrea Reusing of Lantern and The Durham, Cheetie Kumar of Garland, Sam Jones of Sam Jones BBQ and Teddy Diggs of the forthcoming Coronato pizzeria.

Food festivals have become a national dining trend, a way to sample dishes and drinks from multiple restaurants and bars all in the same setting. In its first year, Thrive NC played largely to hometown strengths, putting its spotlight almost exclusively on Raleigh restaurant. This year, festival organizers say, it will be a mix of local and national chefs.

“Growing up in North Carolina, I can appreciate the need for a festival like this,” Howard said. “Food has the power to bring us together and the goal of Thrive NC is to do just that.”

The evening tastings were the most popular part of Thrive NC in 2018, packing the cobblestone streets around City Market with diners lined up for samples. But earlier in the day, there was also a seminar on childhood hunger in North Carolina and the way food has been an economic driver in the state’s urban and rural areas.

“Not only are Ashley and Vivian incredible chefs with local ties, they are also doing noteworthy things in the community and have made service a pillar of their lives,” said Reagan Greene Pruitt, vice president of marketing and community engagement at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, the festival’s sponsor. “We are excited to have these chefs return to Thrive NC and support the event and our mission to improve the health and well-being of our customers and communities.”

Tickets for this year’s festival are $30 each and will go on sale Thursday, Feb. 28.

Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.