I am just going to say it: Ashley Christensen is a badass. (And there are many who would agree with this sentiment.) I could say plenty of nice, lovely things about her and they would all be true. But, if I’m being honest, that’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of her: badass. How else could she open and operate five successful restaurants (with more on the way) AND walk away with the 2014 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Southeast award – all while still in her thirties. You have to wonder if Ashley operates at any speeds slower than an all-out sprint.
In today’s food-obsessed culture, five restaurants equates to a virtual culinary kingdom. And yet, somehow, Ashley still manages to seem real and relatable. Perhaps more importantly, the food is approachable and delicious. She is an actual presence in each of her North Carolina-based restaurants: Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s, Fox Liquor Bar, Joule Coffee, and the soon-to-be-opened Death and Taxes. Crowds have been known to line up around the block at Poole’s, a former pie shop turned diner, where the egalitarian approach does not allow for reservations; it’s first come, first served. I once heard the story of Ashley driving her car to the front of Poole’s and serving drinks from her opened trunk on a busy night with an especially long wait time. That’s what I mean: badass.
Five successful restaurants and a James Beard award warrant respect from even the most discerning diner. But, what rightly separates Ashley from most of her talented peers is her commitment to doing real, actual good. She doesn’t try to make the world a better place by spouting pageant-worthy speeches; she just does it by rolling up her sleeves and getting to work. Nearly half of Christensen’s time is devoted to charity work. She has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Frankie Lemmon School foundation, the Raleigh Contemporary Art Museum, and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge believes that Christensen (who founded their biannual “Stir the Pot” event) has a direct impact on the organization’s bottom line that cannot be overestimated. More than once, he has stated that the contributions she helps bring in cover one employee’s annual salary.
Voltaire (or Spiderman’s uncle, depending on your literary tastes) once said that with great power comes great responsibility. And while we won’t go so far as to suggest that chef Christensen is the Spiderman of the food world, we will say that we share and admire her desire to promote awareness—even enthusiasm—for food at the personal level. She wants to create connections between a person, a meal, a farmer, and a food culture that has long focused on speed and convenience. She often talks about taking simple, common recipes and breaking them apart to explore each individual ingredient and shape those ingredients to their highest possible expression. Then, she remarks, a simple dish “comes alive.”
Whether we are talking about the food or the fashion world, we share the same ideals and goals of sourcing openly and responsibly, elevating makers and creators, and creating a community where those ideals can be celebrated. The more Ashley succeeds in creating such a community, the more we believe that she may have actual culinary super powers.
Chef Christensen will be creating the menu for our next “Friends of the Café” Piggy Bank Dinner at The Factory on August 14, benefitting the Southern Foodways Alliance, and we really can’t wait.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit our online store or phone +1.256.760.1090. Very limited seating available.
Look for more on Ashley in the coming weeks and visit the The Factory Café for a menu based on a selection of her recipes.
Photos courtesy of Tony Pearce and Angie Mosier.