Food & Drink

A force of nature

Oyster knives and cans of Stroh's beer in hand, four chefs sneak out the back door of Poole's Diner, the funky, acclaimed 75-seat restaurant on Raleigh's McDowell Street. It's 6:50 p.m. on a Sunday night in January, almost showtime. In the dark parking lot, the chefs glow in their white jackets and aprons. They stab holes in the bottom of the cans, tilt their heads back and down the beers in one long swig.

"Wow! That is ice cold," says Ashley Christensen, Poole's executive chef and owner.

"Brain freeze!" cries chef Tandy Wilson.

"Smooth!" adds chef Tyler Brown.

Once the ritual, borrowed from Wilson's Nashville restaurant kitchen, is complete, the chefs are ready to crank out dinner for almost 50 people who have paid $150 each for the privilege. On this weekend, Christensen and friends will raise $8,000 for the Southern Foodways Alliance, one of the handful of causes she supports.

Christensen's friends describe her as a "whirling dervish" and "a bottomless pit of energy." They talk about her passion for life, cooking and doing good. Her two favorite causes: Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit at The University of Mississippi that celebrates and documents Southern food traditions, and Raleigh's Frankie Lemmon School, which serves children with developmental disabilities.

Since April, Christensen has raised almost $30,000 for the SFA, as it is called by members. And this month, she received an award at the Frankie Lemmon Foundation's annual gala for her innovative fundraising efforts. Christensen estimates that she and philanthropist Eliza Kraft Olander have raised close to $500,000 in the last 11 years for a variety of causes, primarily for the school and recently for SFA.

"She is a catalytic person," says John T. Edge, SFA's executive director. "She gets stuff done. She starts things and finishes things. She pulls people into the wake that follows her and does it pleasantly."

The businesswoman

At 34, Christensen is a foodie phenomenon who owns Poole's outright, having paid off her sole investor in December after three years in business.

In her kitchen, Christensen, blond hair always meticulously pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, is exacting. Before plates leave the kitchen, she wipes smears away with a damp paper towel. Waiters are expected to do the same behind her. Her obsessive tick: No kitchen towel within view is left unfolded.

In her uniform of T-shirts, slim corduroy pants and black Birkenstock clogs, she works 70 to 80 hours a week. She is single and has a large network of friends. Sometimes she texts employees so early in the morning after a long night at the restaurant that they wonder how she manages on so little sleep.

Christensen is ambitious: She plans to open three new eateries - a burger joint, a fried chicken and honey place and an underground bar - in a 4,000-square-foot-space in downtown Raleigh in late spring. She says the food will be "simple but with a lot of energy going into the details."

That could describe her entire approach to food.

Award-winning chef John Currence, who owns the City Grocery in Oxford, Miss., was a guest chef at an SFA fundraiser last year and dined at Poole's the night before. He recalls the first course of pimento cheese as "this cloud of deliciousness," curled into a perfect oval on the plate and so pure that he could taste each ingredient.

"That's the mark of a great chef, when you take something as pedestrian as pimento cheese and make it transcendent," Currence says.

Christensen's national profile is rising. She has been highlighted in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and the now-defunct Gourmet magazine. For two years in a row, she has been a semifinalist for a James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Southeast award - one of the highest honors for an American chef. She'll find out next month whether she's among this year's finalists.

It's about community

So much of Christensen's world involves creating community: at her restaurant, bringing people together for a meal; drinking a beer with fellow chefs before buckling down in the kitchen; rallying folks behind a cause.

Community inspired her to start a series of two-day fundraisers to benefit the SFA: the first night is the dinner at Poole's to celebrate guest chefs from out of town, the second a laidback potluck at her home that brings food industry folks together from across the Triangle.

"I really liked supporting a project that represents extended community," she says.

Her energy is a constant. At the potluck, Christensen stands in her home kitchen, with its restaurant gear, pointing out Portuguese rissoles, a breaded deep-fried pastry, that must be tasted. She dashes off to introduce someone to guest bartender Gary Crunkleton, who is making cocktails with rye, apple wine and homemade radish bitters. Moments later, she's strolling through her patio with a garbage bag picking up trash.

The community she has created makes it seem normal to strike up a conversation with a former engineering school dean about how he ended up as a lamb farmer in Virginia or with a guest chef's girlfriend about the red Holga camera dangling around her neck.

It started with parties

That easy welcome is the way it's always been at Christensen's parties.

In her second year at N.C. State University, Christensen, who had a full scholarship, moved into a large old house off Hillsborough Street and started throwing dinner parties. Always with a limited budget, she cooked for 4, then 12, then 30 people.

Regardless, Christensen says, "I would challenge myself to do something I hadn't done before."

Her friend Shaun Stripling recalls: "Maybe we'd be eating on paper plates. But it was about the conversation and the music. She's really great at pulling diverse people together. Her ability to foster community is amazing."

Those parties were based on what Christensen watched her parents do back home in Kernersville. Her father was a truck driver who raised bees and grew everything from okra to asparagus in a large organic garden. Her mother was a real estate agent and an accomplished Southern cook who had learned from her grandmother. They threw large parties, serving whatever was ripe in the garden.

Those taste memories and gatherings prepared Christensen for a future as a hostess and cook, then a catering business launched while she was in college. She asked her parents to pay for culinary school, but they couldn't afford it.

Instead, she took on restaurant jobs, first at Caffé Luna, then Humble Pie, then part time under chef Andrea Reusing at Enoteca Vin and chef Scott Howell at Nana's.

Seth Kingsbury, who owns Pazzo! in Chapel Hill, was the chef de cuisine at Nana's when Christensen came to learn. She was working with culinary school graduates who had been trained to cut an onion precisely and how to fillet fish. But Kingsbury says that didn't deter Christensen; she asked questions and showed a thirst for learning. "She was very green," he says, "but you could tell there was something there."

By 24, Christensen was executive chef at Enoteca Vin, a farm-to-table restaurant that was ahead of its time in Raleigh and closed in 2009. Eventually, she decided she wanted to pour her energy into her own business instead of working as hard as an owner but without the stake. That's why she opened Poole's Diner three years ago.

Giving and getting

It's a decision she has never regretted. Not only has the restaurant been embraced by critics and diners, but it gives her a way to give back. She says she loves the SFA dinners and is planning several more.

At Poole's on that cold Sunday night in January, the main course of Cheerwine-braised shortribs, fried catfish, collard greens and sorghum-glazed sweet potatoes has been served and only dessert remains. The cakes - a play on that classic Southern combination of cornbread and buttermilk, four layers of cornbread cake with buttermilk pastry cream, covered with buttermilk frosting - sit on the restaurant's bar. They have been admired all night.

"Do we have the plates out there?" Christensen asks.

"Yes," someone replies.

"Let's do it," she says.

She, Wilson and Brown head out to the bar. She cuts the tall cakes into 16 slices. Brown places each slice onto a plate. Wilson sets the plates on the double-horseshoe bar for the waiters to pick up. Wilson and Christensen high-five behind the bar. Their work is done.

Then the three clink glasses of Basil Hayden bourbon, tilt back their heads and swig.