Mouthful

Ashley Christensen talks about her cookbook, “Poole’s Diner”

I had the chance to interview Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen last week about her first cookbook, “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner.”

Today’s story in the paper had to cover not only Christensen’s cookbook but the new cookbooks by chefs Vivian Howard and Katie Button. Christensen’s sold-out book launch party is tonight (Sept. 21) in Raleigh and she will be signing copies of her cookbook Thursday at Durham’s Parker and Otis and Sunday at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books. (See information about those events below.)

For those more interested in Christensen’s book, I thought I’d share a bit more from our interview.

This is the first book to come out of a two-book deal that Christensen has signed with Ten Speed Press. The next book will focus on recipes based on all of her cooking experiences (beyond Poole’s) with an emphasis on entertaining.

Christensen said Poole’s was the natural focus of her first work as a cookbook author. It was her first restaurant. It was the place that put her name on the culinary map. It won her a James Beard award for best chef Southeast. The book was chance to share the story of how she and her employees built a business that was so successful that she paid off her investor within three years of opening.

To Christensen, the story of Poole’s has always been about comfort: comfort food, a comfortable dining experience, the comfort of eating at a diner. “Anyone in any city can crave those experiences,” Christensen said. “It’s the only place you can imagine going at the end of the day.”

In this 295-page book, Christensen weaves the stories of the restaurant: her father’s and others’ memories of it as a former pie shop and luncheonette, she and chef Sunny Gerhart’s long days in the beginning (ending at 3 a.m., starting at 7 a.m.), the community it helped Christensen create in Raleigh and the community it helped create for Christensen beyond Raleigh. Some of the most compelling reading is when Christensen writes about her parents and how they instilled a love of food, cooking and entertaining in her. Here is one of my favorite lines: “In that kitchen, where they cooked and danced, my emotional education in food was born.”

She also hopes the book will inspire entrepreneurs who can take lessons from how Christensen built her restaurant empire in Raleigh, now six restaurants and bars and counting. “There’s a lot to be taken from all the wild ways” we became who and what we are, Christensen says.

The book contains the recipes for signature Poole’s dishes: Macaroni Au Gratin, Pimento Cheese and Royale with Cheese. Beyond that there are typical restaurant kitchen recipes with subset recipes that many home cooks may never try. There are also easier recipes for warm broccoli salad with cheddar and bacon vinaigrette and beluga lentils with melted leeks plus a treatise on how to make vinaigrette to improve anyone’s salad dressing skills. There are snippets of kitchen wisdom that may help any home cook. (I’m going to try this the next time I have to make egg salad: prick the bottom of the egg with a straight pin before adding it to water to boil; it makes peeling easier.) “This is for people who want to cook my food,” she said.

Given her profile, Christensen’s book has garnered some national attention. Unfortunately for her, the first review was a negative one from Eater: “Why Restaurant Cookbooks Can’t Have It All.” The review makes the point that it is a challenge for a regionally-prominent chef to write a compelling cookbook for a national audience. The writer says the book’s failings include complicated recipes, how its organized and recipes that call for specific heirloom ingredients.

I understand the Eater critique and know that the criticisms could be leveled at most cookbooks written by chefs. (See former Los Angeles Times’ food editor Russ Parsons’ column about culling his cookbook collection.) It’s hard for a chef with a regional reputation to write a cookbook that draws in people unfamiliar with their work. However, the Eater audience is not the same as the Raleigh audience. People here may want to buy the book because they want to support Christensen and what she’s done to revitalize downtown. They may have to have the macaroni and cheese recipe. They may enjoy reading about the chefs, servers, bartenders and regulars at Poole’s. (I loved reading about regulars Dan and Rusty noticing that the fried soft shell crabs at Poole’s came out with one back leg missing; the line cook steals it to check the seasoning.)

Am I — a working mom with an almost-5-year-old— going to regularly cook from this cookbook? No. I’ll likely make the pimento cheese and the broccoli salad and try the macaroni au gratin on a date night or dinner party. My in-depth time with this cookbook will come later in life. Right now, my cookbook reading is more Pioneer Woman than Poole’s. When I got to read Christensen’s cookbook from cover to cover after the Eater critique came out, I realized the writer’s annoyance with the book’s organization likely stems from an out-of-towner not knowing the chapters are inspired by Poole’s chalkboard menus. (If the book did not have a good index, I’d gripe too. But it does.) Yes, Christensen highlights her favorite heirloom Rose Finn Apple potatoes but also urges home cooks to use their favorite instead. While the writer was complaining about not being able to find a recipe to take to a potluck, I hissed: Broccoli salad!

Christensen didn’t want to respond at length to the Eater review’s critique but did share some thoughts in a follow-up email: “My goal in focusing this cookbook on Poole’s Diner was first, to tell the story of a very special place that has reached a broad community well beyond our home here in N.C. And second, I wanted to use Poole’s to explore the emotions that diners and their special genre of comfort food seem to evoke. I did so by examining my own personal connection to these dishes, an approach that I’ve built my career on. So while the book is personal, I think it’s also deeply relatable, no matter where you live (or whether you’ve been to Poole’s or not).

“At the end of the day, a review is the opinion of one person. I’m excited to share this book with the very broad audience who will find both guidance and entertainment in its pages.”

Other reviews and mentions have come out since the Eater one. Washington Post deputy food editor Bonnie Benwick included one of Christensen’s recipes for scallops in a weekly Dinner in 20 minutes column. Garden & Gun included it in a roundup of “Cutting-Edge Cookbooks.” And apparently, the New York Times may include the book in an upcoming story and has asked for the broccoli salad recipe.

Weigl: 919-829-4848;

Twitter: @andreaweigl

Upcoming Book Events

▪ Sept. 22: Book signing from 5-6:30 p.m. at Parker & Otis in Durham and a 7 p.m. dinner at The Counting House at the 21c Hotel in Durham. A five-course meal with a cocktail and a copy of the book for $95 per person. Wine pairings can be added for $20. For a reservation, call 919-956-6760.

▪ 4 p.m. Sept. 25 at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books & Music at its new location at North Hills. You receive a signing line ticket with the purchase of the book. (If you miss this event, Christensen will return at 2 p.m. Dec. 11 for a signing-only event to personalize her book for holiday gifts.)

▪ Sept. 26: Book dinner at Kindred restaurant in Davidson. Chef/owner Joe Kindred will offer a five-course meal prepared by the Kindred staff featuring dishes from Christensen’s book, and guests will receive a copy of the book. Christensen will be on hand to sign books. Tickets are $125, and two seatings are available, at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Reservations: 980-231-5000 or email justin@kindreddavidson.com.

More events and details: http://ac-restaurants.com/pooles-diner/the-american-diner-tour/

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