Ashley Christensen is now officially America’s “Outstanding Chef.”
She won the honor Monday night at the annual James Beard Foundation awards in Chicago, becoming the first North Carolina chef to receive the title. The award is hardly a surprise to diners in Raleigh and the many visitors who come seeking Christensen’s acclaimed restaurant, Poole’s Diner, or the others she has opened in Raleigh ranging from the fine dining at Death & Taxes to the comfort food at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and Chuck’s Burgers.
But for people here the significance of Christensen being the nation’s outstanding chef is matched by her commitment to being an outstanding employer and an outstanding citizen. She locked up those titles by working against sexism and poor wages in an industry long marked by both. Inscribed on the windows of her restaurants is an everyday reminder: “Don’t forget kindness.”
In her acceptance speech, Christensen said, “I work every day to use my voice to better the practices of our industry and to better the world which it serves.”
Christensen, 42, also has been an advocate and a catalyst for downtown Raleigh’s renaissance and its emergence as a hotspot for rising chefs and ambitious and creative restaurants. She’s active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group that tells the story of Southern food in light of the South’s history and the New South’s changes. She supports charities and local institutions, such as Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum.
It is telling that Christensen’s restaurants are all in buildings that have been renovated. She doesn’t just create, she preserves. Her businesses, like her cooking, are infused with a respect for traditions and the past.
In her speech, Christensen generously thanked all who helped her rise in the culinary world. She came to Raleigh from Kernersville to study at N.C. State and stayed on to work at some of the Triangle’s best restaurants. She also singled out her employees, “I stand here because of you. I stand here with you. This is your award and thank you to all 270 of you.”
Christensen’s taste in food reflects her upbringing. Her family cooked often and ate together and with company. In 2017, she and Kinston chef, restaurant owner and TV celebrity Vivian Howard were named The News & Observer’s Tar Heels of The Year. In that profile, Christensen described an epiphany about her meals growing up and dining in general. She said, “I thought it was all about the food and a handful of years later, looking back, I realized so much was about sharing food with everybody who was in that room and watching how people felt when they shared time over a meal.”
Sharing matters to Christensen, not just sharing food, but sharing her success. She is a teacher, a mentor and an inspiration to others in the restaurant business. She told the N&O, “It can’t just be about how do I make my restaurant survive. It has to be about how do we make our community thrive.”
Ashley Christensen, winner of the the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, doesn’t only cook. She serves.
Congratulations to her and to her employees for an honor well deserved.