For Ashley Christensen, the James Beard top chef award ‘will forever change our path’

On a wild night in Chicago May 6, Ashley Christensen was crowned America’s best chef.

She won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country, beating out four other finalists from elsewhere in the country — bigger cities.

It’s her second James Beard Award, the first won in 2014 for Best Chef: Southeast. But this new award is a first for any chef in North Carolina, and Raleigh is the smallest city to represented in the national award.

It puts her in the upper echelon of chefs and restaurants, and places her at the forefront of the country’s culinary dialogue.

Her acceptance speech tracked her history in food, from the dinner table in her childhood home, to the kitchens of Triangle chefs Scott Howell and Andrea Reusing. She spoke of her first restaurant of Poole’s Diner, which she opened 11 years ago, and her restaurant group where she’s changed the culture of Raleigh dining.

Christensen has built up her company in downtown Raleigh. She owns four restaurants (Poole’s, Death & Taxes, Chuck’s and Beasley’s), a cocktail bar (Fox Liquor) and an event space (Bridge Club) and has a pizza restaurant (Poole’side Pies) in the works.

Christensen sat down for an interview Friday with The News & Observer at Fox Liquor, her cocktail bar.

In a wide-ranging interview, she spoke about the excitement of hearing her name called for the biggest award in her industry, the future of Raleigh’s dining scene and the danger of making hard work look easy.

And she joked about her plans for the engraved frying pan she received as part of her award; it has a picture of James Beard and the words “Outstanding Chef” etched on the bottom. After all, there’s aren’t many functional trophies.

“It’s apparently coming in the mail. Were you going to ask what I cooked in that frying pan?,” she quipped. “We’ll cook up ideas and confidence in that frying pan, how’s that?”

Ashley Christensen James Beard Awards 2.jpg
Chef Ashley Christensen, who owns Poole’s Diner and other Raleigh, NC, restaurants, wins the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef in the United States in Chicago, May 6, 2019. Huge Galdones/2019 Galdones Photography The James Beard Foundation

Q: Tom Colicchio put the award around your neck. Some of the other names to win Outstanding Chef include Alice Waters, David Chang, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Nancy Silverton. They’re a lot of the names that are responsible for where American food is today. What does it mean to join the American food canon?

A: I’m super excited, so thrilled to bring it home and have your team recognized for this. But to me, it’s something that will drive us more to work and make sure all the work we do within our company, that we share with the industry as a whole to really push the industry forward. I think that’s really one of the places where we can contribute is thinking about the future of the industry and ideas built around kindness and consideration for the future of the individuals, who define this industry right now and also the future of the industry as a whole. And the people who will tend to it as we move forward.

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Q: Beyond a lot of those names, you’re well-known for your restaurants, but also for your voice and leadership within the industry and here locally. I think some would see those as two jobs, but you’ve combined them. How do you see those as connected?

A: Food is something in the life of the restaurant, it gives us a connection to community, I think, unique from any other work, we get to be a part of so many of the things people experience. There’s a sense of trust in the idea of going somewhere and choosing to have a meal there. I think that allows us a platform that reaches far beyond our kitchens and dining rooms. It really becomes a part of the community in a really broad sense.

When we think about the ideas we want to share with this world, there are a lot of things that work to our advantage these days: having a really positive and strong social media platform and being sure to stand up for it and protect it. Because we believe it’s an opportunity to voice great ideas we practice in our company.

Also, be transparent in our challenges in hopes of making sure everyone knows everyone goes through these things, but there’s a path forward and sharing ideas and sharing information is part of helping folks out. The industry as a whole right now, I think, is so much more of a transparent place. There’s an incredible dialogue, not just in this community, not just in the South, but connecting us all over the country.

Q: You’re a self-taught chef, you grew up in a small town, you made a home in the city you moved to for college. When did this national level of a restaurant group become your ambition?

A: I think my ambition is based on living in a city that I love and am honored to be of service to. When I think about one of the first things that motivated me to really do more than we were doing in one shop, was how the city was growing and watching how people feel when they come here. I think it’s a really unique place and that people feel a different kind of welcome in this place. I love contributing to that.

And additionally as we help to be a part of developing cooks and servers and leaders, you want to create a natural path for them, that you know they can continue their growing and have the opportunity to promote folks, which takes a long time, we learned. But it was definitely a part of what made us want to do more.

So many things have happened in our community, in our industry that called for the need to give a voice to the work we do. That naturally made a path beyond our city and our state lines. Because of my love for community work and working on behalf of great cause, we started to find ourselves in exchange with the broader restaurant community, where we’d invite a chef or sommelier or leader of some sort to come and be part of what we’re doing here. Then the natural exchange of that is we go to a place and help them with a cause that they love.

Then we started to do more of that, and through that, we had the opportunity to tell our story in a lot of great places, often for great causes. And I think that has a reach. Our mission is one that I think a lot of folks are aligning with these days, centering on this incredible thriving work on the idea of kindness. And I think if there’s one thing people that people walk away with from our food, either here or on the road, is we want to deliver this idea of comfort. That stems off of that word kindness.

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Q: Let’s go back to Monday night in Chicago, can you tell me about that moment when you heard your name called?

A: It was a different moment than any other in my career, for all the obvious reasons. It’s such a high level of recognition that will forever change our path and our reach moving forward.

But that day I got nervous, like around lunchtime that day. I couldn’t quite process it, just something physical that I was feeling and I was thinking through everything, taking a lot of deep breaths. Then about five minutes before they called my name, Poole’s Diner’s name, this sort of calm fell over me that I am so grateful for, that allowed me to feel really present in that moment.

I think sometimes there’s so much excitement that I think you have a little mini-blackout and you’re like, “What just happened?” And you’re high off of that excitement. But I felt so calm, and really like I was there with everyone in the room and the 33 people who were up front with us. And I’m so grateful to whatever in the universe that allowed that to be so. I really remained very calm after, and it’s been fun to come back and process what it means to this place, what it meant to everyone in that room that night.

The other thing for me, I wrote a speech, I don’t always do that, and it was really important to me that were we to be recognized for the honor, to make sure we didn’t miss thanking any of the folks who really work on our teams and are part of what we do every day.

But I feel right now there’s such a presence. I have this constant dialogue with all these amazing chefs, and we’re pushing each other and we’re all leaning on each other, too. And when I wrote that speech it didn’t matter if I won. I was reminded in that day and centered and warmed by the feeling that these are things that are present in my life and in my work. And that is a true award.

Q: What do you think this award means for Raleigh?

A: It is recognition of so many small businesses that are investing and taking chances to make this place shine as the special place that it is. I think it’s different than anywhere else in America. When we’re hosting chefs who are flying in, sure I want to show them our places, but I can’t wait to first take them to Bida (Manda) or (Brewery) Bhavana or Garland or Angela’s places (Centro and Gallo Pelon Mezcaleria). It’s just a tremendous community. I think that for anyone who’s wondering if they can come to this place and have a great meal, I think there’s no doubt about it.

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Q: Is Raleigh a great food city?

A: Raleigh is absolutely a great food city, made up of so many small and incredible independent restaurants that are all telling a different version of a story that is now anchored in this place and minted in this place. I think that is really special, but I also think there is just a sense of community here, and I hope we’ve been a part of building it.

But everyone’s investing in it. When we have chefs here and walk them around town and introduce them to different people, they’re absolutely going to say, “This is different.” Well, there’s something really special happening here. I think you can feel that in the dining rooms and bars and the back door to the kitchen, wherever it might be.

I think one of the things we were lacking 10 years ago was diversity in the culture of our cuisine. We have this thing that connects it all but we needed more stories being intertwined with it. Now we have that and I really want to see that continue to grow.

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Q: Where do you see AC Restaurants in 10 years?

A: Hopefully out of debt. But definitely investing in our leaders to help them do things that they believe in. I’d love to grow this brand and become someone who’s a little more in the background as we celebrate all these creative and strongly committed folks, who I think will be a huge part of this food city.

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Q: Excluding Patrick O’Connell, you’re the winner from the smallest market. What is the significance of that to you and why do you think it’s so rare for small markets to get that kind of recognition? [Note: O’Connell won Outstanding Chef in 2001 for the Inn at Little Washington, located in a town of 133 people 90 minutes outside Washington, DC.]

A: One of the things that I think helps people to notice something is that it’s a city that people go to. You think of cities like New York and Chicago, San Francisco. Those are places that are destinations for so many reasons, so naturally you get to feed so many more people. I think that’s one way the story is told louder, and I think you naturally have a larger audience.

Raleigh has become a place that’s starting to reach so many more people, and I think this will be part of bringing people here to understand what’s so special about this place. It’s something that’s very important to me for people to understand the strength of the story here and what’s special and unique about it.

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Q: Do you think this recognition is the Beard committee’s expanded scope or an increased quality beyond the mainstream?

A: One of the things you find in smaller markets are a lot of people who are from there, who take a great deal of pride in celebrating the history of that place but also lifting up the story of its future. I think you see a lot of really intense investment at all levels.

From the energy we’re putting into our work, the way we’re going to build a place we want to be in forever, how we want to care about its future, not just as the place we’re working in but as a city. Not to say it doesn’t exist in other places, but I think you see a lot of that and get a real sense that people love to live and work here. And we love to feed the people here and pass through here.

I think that chefs, like Frank Stitt in Birmingham Ala., there’s no one in the world who doesn’t understand that man’s love for the place he serves and elevates. I think in a smaller city you have the opportunity to tell that story with a different intention, a different intensity as well.

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Q: Earlier this year, at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium and later in Food & Wine, you talked a bit about some unknown struggles within the restaurant group and talked more openly about yourself. Why did you feel like that was something you needed to do?

A: Strength is inspiring to people, but transparency, I think, is just as inspiring, and a little more healing. In an industry where many folks are working through a lot of the same challenges, there are a number of things that were really important to me for myself to really make sure that as there’s so much perceived success to what we do, it became really important to me to make sure none of this ever looked easy.

We want to welcome folks and have them walk in and not feel any of our struggles to work through to get to the point we are now. But I came to understand that we were inspiring a lot of business owners and a lot of people who would soon be business owners, and I felt like it would be somewhat reckless to just make it seem easy from the outside. Maybe that’s why we have dining rooms and then back areas where we do the work and get through the rush.

But I wanted to open up our kitchen and our dining room and our offices a little more so folks understand there are some real sacrifices to growing the way we’ve grown and to pushing for a lot of the things we’ve achieved or are pushing towards. I just felt that I had a responsibility as a leader.

There are so many things I’m feeling responsibility to. And I talked about the struggle of depression and hiding and trying to keep that under wraps so that I felt strong for everybody. But I never felt stronger than when I told the story of my struggles. As I value transparency so much, I wanted to make sure I was being transparent with with my industry.

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Q: In your speech, you mentioned your impending nuptials (to Kaitlyn Goalen, executive director for AC Restaurants) from the stage. Could you share your proposal story?

A: Well, Kait and I were sitting on a Friday afternoon after a long day, sitting at Player’s Retreat typing out emails and catching up on the day. And we got a cocktail and just started talking about the fact that was something we wanted to do.

So we just looked at each other and said “Yeah, this is something we want to do.” We couldn’t be more excited. She is just an unbelievable woman who I am just so happy to have in my life, both personally and in business. For a long time it’s been forever, but this feels like a really wonderful thing to celebrate with our friends and family.

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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.