RALEIGH CHEF ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN USES
CULINARY PERSUASION FOR A GREATER GOOD
Ashley Christensen was sick for the super bowl. She was so sick that she was literally laid up in bed for seven days. As owner and executive chef of what many in the food-savvy region of the Triangle consider five of the hottest eateries in the area, or even the state of North Carolina (with a few more in the works, of course), this situation was the definition of inconvenient.
But perhaps more awful for Ashley was the fact that she had asked friends to come watch the big game, and she couldn’t participate. She is someone who threw dinner parties as a teenager, who revels rather than stresses in the anticipatory energy that builds just before guests arrive. So rather than cancel, an act that surely would have been deeply understood by her pals, many of them restaurant people, she insisted they still come. While she convalesced upstairs, they enjoyed the nacho bar she’d planned, complete with carne asada, corn tortillas, and just about every topping imaginable.
At one point Billy Cotter, an old friend and fellowchef/restaurateur in Durham, remarked to his wife, Kelli, “I’m really sad that Ashley’s sick, but I’m also glad to know she’s human.”
Everyone laughed—because it’s true.
Ashley can sometimes be mistaken for more machine than woman, though her heart makes that analogy terribly off-center. She is known for the way she values her community about as well as she is known for the macaroni and cheese au gratin she serves at Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant located in downtown Raleigh. (Poole’s will make some 17,000 servings of the mac and cheese this year.)
She is a key player in a movement of edible activism, a thoughtful and meaningful response to the connection she feels to her local community, which also enables her to strengthen her professional community as well. The experiences, stories, and ingredients that are shared at these events take on a life of their own.
She has personally invested in the revitalization of downtown Raleigh, both in terms of construction and taste buds. Ashley points to the economic slump as a possible catalyst for so many chefs making a real go of things in their hometowns, but when she talks about Raleigh (she’s lived here since she was eighteen and grew up less than two hours away in Kernersville) you get the sense she’d be rooted here regardless of what happened on Wall Street.
“With that connection to community, we find ourselves wanting to contribute, and one of the ways we contribute is by looking at all of these other interesting, talented folks who we love to work with,” she says. Note she says “we” instead of “I” most of the time she talks about her initiatives. She won’t for one second act as if she’s done any of this alone.
Through Stir the Pot, a fundraiser Ashley initiated over three years ago, she and her team have raised more than $60,000 for the Southern Foodways Alliance’s (SFA) documentary film initiative. The format for the event, in which a guest chef prepares a multi-course meal one night and she organizes a more casual potluck the second night, reflects the sense of community that is growing among a cadre of Southern chefs. This is somewhat unprecedented, chefs inviting one another to visit their kitchens or, better yet, not being afraid to be a guest in their own kitchens. Egos are checked at the door.
Her 2014 lineup is as dazzling as ever—the first visiting chef to Stir the Pot at Poole’s Diner was Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston. This year Ashley has arranged for Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, chef/owners of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis and authors of Collards & Carbonara, for the spring event and Chris Kostow of Meadowood, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Napa, come autumn.
Napa? As in not the South?
Ashley smiles. “That was always the goal, to have chefs from the South and beyond.”
Last spring, Ashley invited Chef Steven Satterfield, executive chef/owner of Miller Union in Atlanta, to cook at Poole’s for the tenth iteration of Stir the Pot, a two-part endeavor that kicked off with a $150-a-plate five-course dinner. As is his thing, Satterfield focused the meal around the vegetables, taking full advantage of the most glorious pea season he’d ever worked with. The fried softshell crab with ramps, chard, and a green garlic aioli was a special part of the meal, he says, but not as special as getting to help Ashley.
“We were instant friends,” he says of the first time they met. “There was no doubt about it.”
At the Satterfield dinner, Ashley not only addressed her buddy with deference in her own kitchen, calling him “Chef” as if she were a regular line cook, she also wore a T-shirt her pal Sean Brock had given her that read “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.”
The second part of the fundraiser takes place the next day. Originally she would host a potluck at her home and charge $35 for the pleasure of also viewing SFA films, but as the event has grown she now holds the potluck at CAM, Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum, of which she is a staunch supporter and board member. Last spring Ashley and her team made the main course, a deeply flavored seafood boil, and guests brought their early summer faves.
One man wore a shirt that declared “I put bacon on my bacon,” and as folks munched on everything from dilly beans to chocolate cake, a number of SFA documentaries by film wonder Joe York played, including pieces on the Skylight Inn (the world’s best barbeque joint in Ayden, North Carolina) and the poisonous poke plant that many a poor Southerner continues to cook…and cook…and cook…until it’s no longer deadly.
The first few years the event was quarterly, but Ashley found that she was often hitting up the same group of generous people to attend each time. Moving forward she will Stir the Pot just twice a year—which will give her more time for philanthropic scheming.
Ashley was born and raised in Kernersville, near Greensboro, North Carolina, and she points to her parents for instilling a love of food from the beginning. Her father kept bees, her mother canned and jarred, and after one year at NC State University, Ashley left school to work in professional kitchens.
She never looked back.
Her success came early and comes often, ranging from her showdown with Bobby Flay on Iron Chef to her multiple James Beard nominations. She has a two-cookbook deal in the works and is constantly traveling to cook with friends, usually for charitable events.
But where many would stop and revel, or at least rest for a bit, Ashley not only looks around for the next food hole that needs to be filled in Raleigh (her musings over a dearth of café culture resulted in Joule Coffee, where gourmet sandwiches and small plates complement single-pour brews) she also looks to fill the non-edible disparities that cross her path.
Her interest in, literally, stepping up to the plate began about ten years ago with the Tour de Friends AIDS fundraiser, a 330-mile bike ride from Raleigh to Washington, DC. At the time she was working at Enoteca Vin, the area’s first serious wine bar and the first place Ashley was able to cut her teeth on the kind of food she really wanted people to experience—elevated Southern cuisine that didn’t elevate itself out of its diners’ comfort zone. The basic fee for the race was $2,500, but Christensen and her team hosted dinners and raised $55,000—a record.
Once bitten by the charitable bug, she was a goner. Among her most cherished charities is the Frankie Lemmon School, a preschool in Raleigh for children with disabilities. The first night she became functional again after her week in bed was the final evening of The Triangle Wine Experience, a school fundraiser she has played a major role in for years.
“Ashley is setting national standards for philanthropy, from a base in the South,” says John T. Edge, SFA director. “While most chefs have been reactive, responding, oftentimes generously, to requests that they cook at fundraisers or donate outright to charities, Ashley has proved proactive. She defines how she wants to serve the needs of her community and then exceeds all expectations.”
Collaboration and Community
For all her success, at the end of the day the last thing Ashley wants is to perpetuate the concept that restaurants, and restaurateurs, are vying for some finite space within a community’s resources. Part of what drove her from the beginning to foster a collaborative vibe was the fact that she became a target, of sorts, of gossip from those who had not achieved the success she’s had, especially at such a young age. She is just thirty-eight.
To that Ashley has said there’s plenty to go around, and by the way, she has worked damn hard. “There’s no such thing as a short day,” she says. She eschews the idea that the restaurant world needs to be wary of competition, instead fighting for the concept of “complementary businesses.”
“The goal was to get everybody a little friendlier,” she says.
That said, all that success isn’t enough to keep her sated. She estimates she spends about 40 percent of her time on philanthropic endeavors. “For how much we give and how many hours we focus on community work, it’s not based on the fact that, ok, we’re this amount of successful and can take that percentage and do this—we just do it,” she says. “We do it having in mind that these are things that are important to us. It wouldn’t be enough to just be in this business. I love cooking. I love hospitality. I love sharing that with folks. But I need something that makes my connection to my community a relationship that isn’t just an exchange of tender.”
Her friends are used to this about her.
“She will always be that person who does the right thing,” Kelli Cotter says. “She will always make that choice.”
Matt Fern, Ashley’s longtime beverage director and more recently her first partner in her restaurant group, AC Restaurants (as a boss, she’s known for properly compensating the people she values, investing in their careers the way she would want someone to invest in hers), says it’s common for Ashley to respond personally when customers experience a loss or life becomes more challenging than normal.
“The next thing you know we’re cooking dinner at their house,” he says. “Those stories are never ending.”
Take the snowstorm in February. When most places remained closed the day after the bulk of the storm blew through the Triangle, Ashley decided Poole’s would open for dinner—and it was about as full as it has ever been. People were thrilled to have a place to come, and though she ran the place short about five staffers, no one seemed to mind the slightly slower service.
“When you think about Ashley, and how much she enjoys feeding people, you know how much she’s full of love,” Satterfield says.
A few weeks after the Satterfield Stir the Pot, the Cotters hosted a Memorial Day cookout. The fête was a who’s who of Triangle culinary talent, these local restaurant types being pretty tight. As the party got underway, Kelli Cotter began looking for their propane tank. Ashley had called saying to put on some water to boil—she was bringing crawfish. No one was at all shocked that on her day off she would show up with a cooler big enough to fit a body in it laden with crawdads. She happily took the time to show those new to crawfish how to properly pop the heads and suck out the good stuff.