On a wild night in Chicago one month ago, Ashley Christensen was crowned America’s best chef.
She won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country, beating out four other finalists from elsewhere in the country — bigger cities.
It’s her second James Beard Award, the first won in 2014 for Best Chef: Southeast. But this new award is a first for any chef in North Carolina, and Raleigh is the smallest city to be represented in the national award.
It puts her in the upper echelon of chefs and restaurants, and places her at the forefront of the country’s culinary dialogue.
Her acceptance speech tracked her history in food, from the dinner table in her childhood home in Kernersville, to the kitchens of Triangle chefs Scott Howell and Andrea Reusing. She spoke of her first restaurant of Poole’s Diner, which she opened 11 years ago, and her restaurant group where she’s changed the culture of Raleigh dining.
Christensen has built up her company in downtown Raleigh. She owns four restaurants (Poole’s, Death & Taxes, Chuck’s and Beasley’s), a cocktail bar (Fox Liquor) and an event space (Bridge Club) and has a pizza restaurant (Poole’side Pies) in the works.
In a wide-ranging interview, Christensen spoke about the excitement of hearing her name called for the biggest award in her industry, the future of Raleigh’s dining scene and the danger of making hard work look easy.
And she joked about her plans for the engraved frying pan she received as part of her award; it has a picture of James Beard and the words “Outstanding Chef” etched on the bottom. After all, there aren’t many functional trophies.
“It’s apparently coming in the mail. Were you going to ask what I cooked in that frying pan?,” she quipped. “We’ll cook up ideas and confidence in that frying pan, how’s that?”
Tom Colicchio put the award around your neck. Some of the other names to win Outstanding Chef include Alice Waters, David Chang, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Nancy Silverton. They’re a lot of the names that are responsible for where American food is today. What does it mean to join the American food canon?
I’m super excited, so thrilled to bring it home and have my team recognized for this. But to me, it’s something that will drive us more to work and make sure all the work we do within our company, that we share with the industry as a whole to really push the industry forward. I think that’s really one of the places where we can contribute — thinking about the future of the industry and ideas built around kindness and consideration for the future of the individuals who define this industry right now and also the future of the industry as a whole. And the people who will tend to it as we move forward.
Beyond a lot of those names, you’re well-known for your restaurants, but also for your voice and leadership within the industry. I think some would see those as two jobs, but you’ve combined them. How do you see those as connected?
Food is something in the life of the restaurant, it gives us a connection to community, I think, unique from any other work. We get to be a part of so many of the things people experience. There’s a sense of trust in the idea of going somewhere and choosing to have a meal there. I think that allows us a platform that reaches far beyond our kitchens and dining rooms. It really becomes a part of the community in a really broad sense.
When we think about the ideas we want to share with this world, there are a lot of things that work to our advantage these days: having a really positive and strong social media platform and being sure to stand up for it and protect it. Because we believe it’s an opportunity to voice great ideas we practice in our company.
Also, be transparent in our challenges in hopes of making sure everyone knows everyone goes through these things, but there’s a path forward and sharing ideas and sharing information is part of helping folks out. The industry as a whole right now, I think, is so much more of a transparent place. There’s an incredible dialogue, not just in this community, not just in the South, but connecting us all over the country.
You’re a self-taught chef, you grew up in a small town, you made a home in the city you moved to for college. When did this national level of a restaurant group become your ambition?
I think my ambition is based on living in a city that I love and am honored to be of service to. When I think about one of the first things that motivated me to really do more than we were doing in one shop, was how the city was growing and watching how people feel when they come here. I think it’s a really unique place and that people feel a different kind of welcome in this place. I love contributing to that.
And, additionally, as we help to be a part of developing cooks and servers and leaders, you want to create a natural path for them, that you know they can continue their growing and have the opportunity to promote folks, which takes a long time, we learned. But it was definitely a part of what made us want to do more.
So many things have happened in our community, in our industry that called for the need to give a voice to the work we do. That naturally made a path beyond our city and our state lines. Because of my love for community work and working on behalf of a great cause, we started to find ourselves in exchange with the broader restaurant community, where we’d invite a chef or sommelier or leader of some sort to come and be part of what we’re doing here. Then the natural exchange of that is we go to a place and help them with a cause that they love.
Then we started to do more of that, and through that, we had the opportunity to tell our story in a lot of great places, often for great causes. And I think that has a reach. Our mission is one that I think a lot of folks are aligning with these days, centering on this incredible thriving work on the idea of kindness. And I think if there’s one thing that people walk away with from our food, either here or on the road, is we want to deliver this idea of comfort. That stems off of that word kindness.
Let’s go back to that night in Chicago, can you tell me about that moment when you heard your name called?
It was a different moment than any other in my career, for all the obvious reasons. It’s such a high level of recognition that will forever change our path and our reach moving forward.
But that day I got nervous, like, around lunchtime that day. I couldn’t quite process it, just something physical that I was feeling, and I was thinking through everything, taking a lot of deep breaths. Then about five minutes before they called my name, Poole’s Diner’s name, this sort of calm fell over me that I am so grateful for, that allowed me to feel really present in that moment.
I think sometimes there’s so much excitement that I think you have a little mini-blackout and you’re like, “What just happened?” And you’re high off of that excitement. But I felt so calm, and really, like, I was there with everyone in the room and the 33 people who were up front with us. And I’m so grateful to whatever in the universe allowed that to be so. I really remained very calm after, and it’s been fun to come back and process what it means to this place, what it meant to everyone in that room that night.
The other thing for me, I wrote a speech, I don’t always do that, and it was really important to me that were we to be recognized for the honor, to make sure we didn’t miss thanking any of the folks who really work on our teams and are part of what we do every day.
But I feel right now there’s such a presence.
I have this constant dialogue with all these amazing chefs, and we’re pushing each other and we’re all leaning on each other, too. And when I wrote that speech, it didn’t matter if I won. I was reminded in that day and centered and warmed by the feeling that these are things that are present in my life and in my work. And that is a true award.