Ashley Christensen (horizontal for web)

Chef Ashley Christensen, who grew up in Kernersville, owns seven restaurants in Raleigh and is the author of “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Dinner.”

Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, whose cooking reinvigorated a city, is at the top of America's culinary world.

Christensen won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country, taking home the top honors Monday night at the annual James Beard Foundation awards in Chicago.

"It's incredible," said Christensen, reached by phone Monday night, with the coveted award hanging from her neck.

This is the second James Beard chef award for Christensen, 42, who owns Poole's Diner and several restaurants in downtown Raleigh. She previously won Best Chef: Southeast in 2014 and is the only North Carolina chef to ever win the top award, considered the Oscars of the food industry.

"You know there's a name in the envelope," she told The News & Observer Monday. "And you know the whole list are incredible chefs and leaders. This is an opportunity to amplify our voice and push our field to be the best it can possibly be."

Past winners of the award include many of the most influential chefs of the last few decades: Alice Waters, David Chang, Jose Andres.

Now, Ashley Christensen.

There were no New York chefs up for the award this year. Instead, nominees stretched coast to coast: David Kinch of Manresa and Corey Lee of Benu, each in California; Marc Vetri in Philadelphia; and Donald Link in New Orleans.

Christensen, who has used her influence raise money and awareness for social-justice causes, was nominated for the country's top award last year, which went to New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune.

Monday, with a deep entourage of staff members and Raleigh chefs making the trip to Chicago, Christensen told The News & Observer her celebration would include Shake Shack burgers, caviar and bottles of Champagne.

Christensen acceptance speech

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a 2010 Outstanding Chef winner and "Top Chef" judge, called Christensen's name as the winner of the last award of the ceremony.

In her speech, Christensen recalled her childhood in Kernersville, filled with family dinners and her parents teaching her the value of eating together. When she went to Raleigh to attend N.C. State, she embraced the notion that food is better when it's shared, becoming famous for throwing dinner parties with her friends.

"To my parents Lynn and Fox, thank you for making sure we ate dinner together every night and teaching me that the best part of food is sharing it with others," Christensen said in her speech.

Monday night, she singled out fellow nominee and Southern chef Link as a mentor.

"A lot of chefs make great chefs, you make leaders and owners," Christensen said. "I share this award with you."

She also thanked the investors and mentors who helped guide the "self-taught line cook" into the top chef in the country, namely chefs Andrea Reusing and Scott Howell, who Christensen worked for early on in her career. (Reusing won Best Chef: Southeast in 2011 for Chapel Hill's Lantern.)

Christensen opened Poole's Diner in 2007, her flagship restaurant dedicated to the soul of American diner fare. It is famous for its take on macaroni and cheese, hitting every high note of crispy, rich and creamy. But with a chalkboard menu, Poole's sings the songs of seasonality and sophistication with comfort and ease.

Poole's routinely makes the country's best-of lists for top restaurants and is often cited as one of the forces reinvigorating a belief in downtown Raleigh, which now a decade later, boasts a thriving restaurant community.

Within that growth, Christensen has built a restaurant empire, with casual spots Beasley's Chicken + Honey and Chuck's Burgers; basement cocktail bar Fox Liquor; and fine dining and wood-fired Death & Taxes. A pizzeria called Poole'side Pies is in the works to open next to Poole's Diner on South McDowell Street.

"Life is rich and full," Christensen said to close out her speech. "Don't forget kindness. We'll see you on the dance floor tonight.

Honoring leaders

The James Beard Awards honor talented chefs and culinary pioneers, but the foundation also looks for chefs who are leaders in the community and industry.

Christensen's influence has grown in recent years as she has taken to social media and penned op-eds for national publications on issues within the kitchen, such as sexual harassment. The phrase "Don't Forget Kindness" is on the windows of all her restaurants.

"We have over 50 directors and managers in our company working so hard every day to grow and to lead and to make sure we leave this industry better than we found it," Christensen said in her speech.

"We're not perfect, but each day we get back up and work with the intention to be better than we were the day before. We want to make this industry a place where you want your children to work. We invite you, all of you, to join us in this mission."

In 2018, Time magazine named her one of the 31 people redefining the South. The year before, Eater, an online food publication, named Poole's one of the country's 38 "essential restaurants" and then named Christensen the Eater Chef of the Year, recognizing her activism.

Only four North Carolina chefs have won Beard Awards in the chef categories. Chef Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill was the first to win one, earning Best Chef: Southeast in 2000 for Durham's now-closed Magnolia Grill. Three years later, his wife Karen Barker won Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2003, a national honor. Karen Barker passed away earlier this year at age 61 and was recognized Monday in an "In Memoriam" segment.

Then Reusing and Christensen.

Asheville chef Katie Button was the only North Carolina chef up for the Best Chef: Southeast category this year. The award was won by Mashama Bailey, of the The Grey in Savannah, Ga.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

Load comments