Ashley Christensen uses food to be an ambassador for Raleigh and the causes she loves

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.

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This Tar Heel of the Year profile of Ashley Christensen was published Dec. 14, 2017. She won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country May 6, 2019. This story has been updated.

In a large framed photo from a bygone era, waitresses Frieda and Dot peer out from the wall like two saints in the church of Poole’s Diner. The original double horseshoe bar at the South McDowell Street restaurant has had a front row seat to downtown Raleigh for decades, the etchings and rubs on its Formica marking the places people stopped for a moment on the way to live the rest of their lives.

Starting with this room and through reimagined takes on American comfort food, chef Ashley Christensen has connected the past and present, both for Raleigh and beyond. She helped foster a culture of community instead of competition among restaurants, and has been an ambassador for her adopted home through her restaurants and advocacy. This month, Eater, a national dining website, named her the country’s 2017 chef of the year, recognizing how she has used her position as a platform to advance conversations on sexual harassment and social justice.

Poole’s general manager Lesley Anderson, left, AC Restaurants brand director Kaitlyn Goalen, and chef Ashley Christensen look over the seating charts Oct. 29, 2017, at Poole’s Diner in downtown Raleigh as they prepare for their Stir the Pot event, which benefits the Southern Foodways Alliance. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Christensen, 41, owns four restaurants in downtown Raleigh, including her award-winning Poole’s Diner and Death & Taxes, plus a cocktail bar and an event space. A pizza restaurant is on the way next year next to Poole’s.

She won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014 – joining an exclusive group of North Carolina chefs to win what’s considered the Oscars of the culinary world – and has published a cookbook of personal stories and recipes made famous at Poole’s, including her must-order macaroni au gratin. In 2019, she won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country.

“Poole’s catalyzed the Raleigh dining revolution,” said John T. Edge, director of the Mississippi-based Southern Foodways Alliance and an author on Southern food and culture.

Before Christensen opened Poole’s Diner a decade ago on a lonely stretch of downtown, all Edge knew of Raleigh was the Mecca restaurant and the Roast Grill. Poole’s forced the food world to take another look.

“It was this black-box dinner space where anything could happen,” Edge said. “It brought a new reason to travel to Raleigh and leads directly to other restaurants like Bida Manda, Death & Taxes.”

Along with attention, Christensen has raised money, lots of it. She’s spoken up about social issues, including criticism of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, and called for an end to the bro-chef culture in kitchens following sexual misconduct allegations against a New Orleans chef.

“Ashley is motivated by everything: by her friends, the need to do good, an internal competitive element of her personality,” said John Currence, an award-winning Mississippi-based chef who is one of Christensen’s longtime friends. Christensen is the godmother of Currence’s daughter. “She wants every day to be better than the day before.”

Christensen bristles at the word competitive, but there’s a competitive spirit in her, certainly with herself, or perhaps with the forces of the world she feels able to change.

“I’ve always figured out how to be a leader in whatever I’m doing, being a student body president, captain of soccer team, head fundraiser, I was the kid who when you were fundraising for stuff, I always wanted to win,” Christensen said. “I didn’t want to win just to win, I wanted to win for that kind of thing.”

Gathering at the table

That kid grew up in Kernersville, a town of 24,000 about 100 miles west of Raleigh. For the family of Lynn and Robert “Fox” Christensen, food was an expression of love and discovery. Her parents cooked and danced in the kitchen as they prepared meals for Ashley and her older brother, Zak, recreating the meals her father ate on the road as a truck driver, tastes of New Orleans or the Midwest, or her mother’s Memphis-bred fried chicken.

Chef Ashley Christensen on the beach during a family vacation during Christensen’s first time crabbing. Courtesy of Christensen Family

“I was part of a family that put so much importance on not just gathering at the table, but gathering in the kitchen,” Christensen said, sitting at the Poole’s counter, her blonde hair pulled back in a signature bun.

Through one moment, she learned how food could be so much more than what’s on the plate.

One time when Zak tagged along on their father’s truck route through New Orleans, Robert and Zak were robbed at gunpoint in the French Quarter. Penniless and stranded, the father and son told their story to a shop owner and asked to use a phone. While making the call, the shopkeeper went next door to a restaurant, which fed them and gathered enough donations to get them to their next stop.

“The thing about food so often is not just how it tastes and how it makes you feel in that moment, but what it represents about how it got there in the first place, or how it brought the people there who are experiencing it,” Ashley Christensen said, taking an emotional pause in telling the story.

That feeling followed Christensen when she left home and came to Raleigh to attend NC State. She remained an undeclared major all four years, taking writing, business and design classes and chasing then-vague ideas of one day running a business, but leaving without a degree.

Ashley Christensen, left, was offered the chef job at Humble Pie in 1998 after the owners of the restaurant stopped by one of Christensen’s dinner parties. Courtesy of Ashley Christensen

Her best moments were spent throwing dinner parties with her friends with the same joy she saw in her parents at home. At 22, one of those dinner parties landed Christensen her first chef gig, as the owners of the original Humble Pie in downtown Raleigh stopped by and asked her to run their kitchen.

Developing as a chef

In the mid- and late 1990s, downtown Raleigh still ran on courts and politics, turned its lights off at night and went to bed early; a “total ghost town,” Christensen said.

After two years at Humble Pie, Christensen started a catering company and cooked part-time at Enoteca Vin, an upscale wine bar on Glenwood Avenue before it became the corridor of bars and restaurants known as Glenwood South. She wanted to learn from a young chef named Andrea Reusing, Vin’s opening chef, who sourced ingredients from local farms and the seafood bounty of North Carolina waters, a dining prerequisite these days but uncommon at the time.

“I was crazy about what she was doing,” Christensen said of Reusing, who she calls a mentor. “Instead of paying me, she let me keep a tab so I could then come in and learn more about the incredible wines they were pouring there and have the chance to experience that food with friends and talk about how this was different.”

When Reusing left Vin to open the acclaimed Lantern in Chapel Hill – a restaurant that earned her a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2011 – Christensen left too. She spent some time at Nana’s in Durham working for Scott Howell, another mentor and an eight-time James Beard semifinalist.

Brian O’Hara, left, and Ashley Christensen plate dishes during Sunday brunch at Enoteca Vin in 2004. The downtown Raleigh restaurant was featured in Food & Wine magazine and included several of Christensen’s recipes. 2004 News & Observer File Photo newsobserver.com

A few months later, she returned to Vin, this time as executive chef. Writing a menu that was truly her own, Christensen began to grow into herself. And thanks to a 14-page spread in Food & Wine magazine’s 2004 wine issue, the culinary world began to take notice of Christensen’s ability to find the soul in simplicity.

“That story is very special to be me, because it was definitely a career changer,” Christensen said. “It was our first piece of national press, and from that I got my first invite to cook at the James Beard House.”

By late 2006, Christensen was ready to open her own restaurant, and could only imagine one place: Poole’s Luncheonette, a diner and pie shop from the 1940s that had become Vertigo Diner, a kitschy spot where Christensen used to work.

At Vin, Christensen met philanthropist and regular Eliza Kraft Olander, who, in seeing ambitions behind great cooking skills, offered to back her when she opened her own place.

“You’re drawn to her and understand immediately her passion for food,” Olander said. “My trust in her was complete. I don’t go into business with people willy-nilly. I knew the fabric of her being. Number one she’s kind, she’s trustworthy, she knew what she was doing.”

In Poole’s, Christensen found a way to bridge Old Raleigh with the new. She transformed the bones of the old Poole’s into a no-reservations, rock-and-roll dinner party serving idealized versions of comfort food.

“It was magical, that feeling where the ghost of a space is telling you it’s been part of this city for longer than you can imagine,” Christensen said.

Reusing adds, “Poole’s was very exciting, very radical, really sexy, yet informal. There were no reservations, which was super bold at the time and created a real spontaneity and party vibe.”

In the first days of Poole’s, Christensen spent time every day sweeping up the red dust that seeped in from nearby construction zones as the city rebuilt the convention center. Red Hat Amphitheater didn’t exist, and there was little reason to be in that part of town.

Poole’s owner Ashley Christensen, left, and cook, Sunny Gerhart, right, prepare for a busy night at the downtown Raleigh restaurant on their second night open Friday, December 14, 2007. 2007 News & Observer File Photo - Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Sunny Gerhart, Poole’s opening sous chef, remembers long days at Poole’s that started at 8 a.m. and finished late into the night.

“That was the spirit of a couple people trying to do rad food, work to the best of their ability,” said Gerhart, who now owns St. Roch Oyster Bar, with Christensen as an investor, in the one restaurant she’s closed – Joule Coffee + Table.

“We were just crushing it, busy all the time,” he said. “It’s not a situation that 99.9 percent of cooks will ever have, but it was something that was so great.”

From an ever-changing chalkboard menu, Poole’s serves food that is broadly American and often Southern, sometimes accented by faraway corners of the earth, connecting it all with a heart of comfort. Christensen resurrected the soul of the American diner and took it to new heights. Its most famous dish, mac and cheese, is a small perfection of cheese, cream, salt and pasta. They sell more than 15,000 orders of it a year to the restaurant’s guests. It’s not “customer” for Christensen, it’s “guest,” a word she has tattooed on her left forearm in the same typeface as Poole’s.

“I think what Ashley does so well is really trying to understand the core, the soul, heart of a dish and express it in a way that’s truthful to her voice and memory of home,” said Vansana Nolintha, who co-owns Bida Manda and Raleigh’s latest hit restaurant, Brewery Bhavana.

‘Don’t forget kindness’

From an early age, Christensen knew she wanted to be part of making things better, whatever they might be. At 26, she set a goal of raising $26,000 for an AIDS bike ride, and she more than doubled it. When Olander first asked Christensen to cook a charity dinner for the Frankie Lemmon Foundation, which helps educate children with developmental disabilities, she balked and asked if people would actually pay. It raised $30,000.

Over the years, Christensen and Olander have raised millions for various causes, including the Southern Foodways Alliance, No Kid Hungry and the Frankie Lemmon Foundation.

“She’s someone who fills voids,” said Kaitlyn Goalen, Christensen’s partner of six years, the co-author of Christensen’s 2016 cookbook and the brand director for AC Restaurants. “She sees something in need or a group in pain, or a corner of downtown she wanted to bring life to. That’s a starting place for her and she’s inspired by filling those needs.”

Christensen tends to avoid politics, but North Carolina’s HB2, or so-called “bathroom bill,” pushed her to speak up. At the height of HB2 fervor, with the state losing projects and good will, Christensen changed the bathroom signs at most of her restaurants to “People Rooms.” She got some backlash on social media but brushed it off.

“The HB2 issue was something that changed my thoughts on speaking up against something publicly,” Christensen said. “It was a violation against what it means to create a place for all people.”

After last year’s election, Christensen replaced a temporary “Don’t forget to vote” sign on the windows of her restaurants with a permanent one reading “Don’t forget kindness.” She said it seemed like a good thing to remind people of at the time.

Christensen frequently invites chefs to Raleigh, not only to cook for fundraisers but as a way to bring Raleigh’s story to their respective homes.

“It’s like taking a community from another city to a restaurant,” Christensen said. “Once I became a restaurant owner, it was one thing to affect a community, it was a whole other thing to figure out you could affect a body of people, who then as 200 people could then affect the community.”

Poole’s turns 10

On a late October night, Christensen is a host in constant motion. Her life has been a series of dinner parties – and dinners as parties. On this night she’s throwing a potluck for the Triangle’s most exciting generation of chefs at the West Raleigh home she shares with Goalen, the culmination of a weekend fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

RAL_ AC9-THY-103017-JEL
Chef Ashley Christensen, second from left, eats from a low country boil alongside guests at her Raleigh home Oct. 30, 2017, during an industry mixer. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

When it comes time for Christensen to make a speech, the kitchen is crowded and silent, the room filled with the cooks, bartenders, hosts and managers behind some of the most buzzy restaurants in the Triangle.

They listen as Christensen talks of a time years ago when she formed bonds with other chefs around the country, but didn’t find the same type of dialogue back at home.

But now, that community is here and thriving, and Christensen is at the center of it.

“I had grown into this food community, and it wasn’t the community where I lived,” she told the room. “I wanted to change that. I thought there’s got to be a way to get ourselves together.”

Raleigh today is filled with independent eateries spanning price points and cuisines. There are oyster bars and bottle shops, those in the national spotlight and beloved local nooks, all part of a desire to be in the center of the city. There are plans for food halls and grocery stores, the end result of a bet that began with Poole’s and other downtown projects.

Christensen has done her part, opening three more spots in 2011: the fried chicken-centric Beasley’s Chicken & Honey, the burger joint Chuck’s and the underground cocktail lounge Fox Liquor Bar. She opened Joule Coffee + Table in 2013 and wood-fired Death & Taxes in 2015, her first unabashed fine dining restaurant. Pooleside Pie, the pizza restaurant, will arrive some time next year.

As Christensen’s company has taken off, she seldom cooks in the Poole’s kitchen, or in any of her restaurants’ kitchens. She spends most of her time moving between her restaurants or working at her company prep kitchen, and is frequently asked to cook at chef events and fundraisers around the country.

This week, though, she is home, the one she’s made both personally and professionally. Poole’s is turning 10 years old, and Christensen is celebrating with a 10-course feast. After two decades in Raleigh – and a decade of Poole’s – Christensen remains in love with the city.

“We all grow up somewhere, but home is really where we choose to be,” she said. “Ultimately, Raleigh is that for me. For every moment I spend with my foot on soil somewhere else, all I can think about when I’m in those places is what I’m going to take home and how it’s going to make me a better person home in Raleigh or a better contributor to the place that we call home.”

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson

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