Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen wins James Beard award

Raleigh chef and restauranteur Ashley Christensen in a 2011 portrait at Poole's Downtown Diner in Raleigh, NC.
Raleigh chef and restauranteur Ashley Christensen in a 2011 portrait at Poole's Downtown Diner in Raleigh, NC. 2011 News & Observer file photo

Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen took home an Oscar of the culinary world Monday night by winning best chef in the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation.

Christensen, who owns Poole’s Downtown Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and several other downtown Raleigh restaurants, joined a small club of chefs in North Carolina who have won regional best chef awards from the James Beard Foundation. This was only the second year that Christensen was a finalist.

Her competition included Kathy Cary of Lilly’s Bistro in Louisville, Ky.; Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia, also in Louisville, Ky.; Tandy Wilson of City House in Nashville, Tenn.; and Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta.

“We’re taking this home to Raleigh, N.C., for the first time,” Christensen said moments after getting the award. “I know it won’t be the last. Many people in that zip code are going to walk that stage.”

The other North Carolina chefs who have previously won James Beard awards include Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill and Ben Barker of the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham, who also have won best chef Southeast, as well as Barker’s wife, Karen, who won a national award as outstanding pastry chef.

Christensen, 37, grew up in Kernersville and attended N.C. State University, where dinner parties for friends turned into a catering business. She got her big break in the Raleigh restaurant scene when she became chef at the now-closed Enoteca Vin. In 2007, she opened her own restaurant, Poole’s Downtown Diner, and has gone on to open three more downtown Raleigh restaurants, Beasley’s, Chuck’s and Joule, as well as a cocktail bar called Fox Liquor Bar. She has another restaurant, Death & Taxes, on the horizon to open at the corner of Salisbury and Hargett streets in downtown Raleigh.

Christensen and Raleigh philanthropist Eliza Kraft Olander also regularly team up to raise money for various charitable causes. Christensen uses her cooking ability while Olander freely donates bottles from her wine cellar for charitable events. Together, they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various charitable causes, especially the Raleigh-based Frankie Lemmon School for children with special needs and the Southern Foodways Alliance.

“We want to use our powers for good. And I think we got a little more powerful today,” Christensen said.

Olander and about 20 other people traveled to New York this weekend to cheer on Christensen at Monday night’s James Beard gala at Lincoln Center.

In other James Beard award news, “A Chef’s Life,” a PBS show starring Kinston chef Vivian Howard and produced by Durham filmmaker Cynthia Hill, did not take home a broadcast prize at the Friday awards ceremony. “A Chef’s Life,” lost to the show, “The Mind of a Chef,” a show produced and narrated by Anthony Bourdain, a chef, author and television personality.

The University of North Carolina Press also got good news at Friday’s books, broadcast and journalism awards. One of its authors won a James Beard book award in the reference and scholarship category: “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time,” by Denver food writer Adrian Miller.

James Beard was one of the earliest food celebrities. He was a food writer and cookbook author who championed regional American cuisine. The foundation was created after his death to honor excellence in all areas related to the culinary world: chefs, beverage professionals, cookbook authors, broadcasters, journalists, even restaurants designers.

Andrea Weigl serves as chair of the James Beard Foundation’s book awards subcommittee.