Last week, we introduced you to Ashley Christensen: chef, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and badass. She is August’s featured chef in our café (and collaborator for our upcoming Piggy Bank Dinner). Ashley recently spoke to us about good food, sustainability, community, and what she has planned next.
AC: Congratulations on your recent James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. How did you celebrate? (We hope you took time to celebrate…)
We had a total of 22 folks sitting with us at the ceremony, so we kind of brought the party with us, which was really fun. After the awards, we decided to make the party about simply having a good time with our crew. We called in a pile of to-go Shake Shack burgers, ordered a bunch of champagne and crowded about 40 friends into our little room at the Ace Hotel. We followed this celebration by attending Jamie Bissonnette’s victory party at Toro, and then the Nomad’s epic party at the Highline Ballroom. It was more perfect than I could ever find the words to describe.
AC: You currently operate five restaurants in the Raleigh, North Carolina area – with more on the way. Do you have a different role at each establishment? How do you balance your roles at each? And how have those roles changed as you continue to grow?
In addition to being the proprietor, I’m the Executive Chef for the company, but I consider my most important role at this point to be “lead catalyst”. I have lots of ideas for new projects, and for refining existing projects. My job is to make sure that we ask of ourselves to improve each day, and to see the opportunity in studying the details that guide us to do so. We have an amazing crew of folks who make it happen every day, on every level. It is also my job to provide the tools and support that make them feel competent, empowered, and appreciated.
AC: Philanthropy is clearly important in your life. How do you determine which causes to devote your time to? Have you ever thought of founding your own charity or foundation?
I’m drawn mostly to causes that are truly human issues… child hunger, accessible education for children with developmental disabilities, the importance of support for the arts in our communities, and documentation and celebration of what defines our culture. I tend to get involved in things which I feel I can have the biggest impact, both financially and through exposure on behalf of the charity. I’m going to make an effort to expand our focus in 2015 to address homelessness in my community. Additionally, I’m going to do a little work with pit bull rescues. I have a rescued pit bull, and man, has that sweet little girl changed my life for the better. As for my own foundation, I kick this idea around with my pal and philanthropy mentor, Eliza Kraft Olander. We are working to find a way to make it as efficient and impactful as possible. Once we figure this out, we are likely to make that move.
AC: You participated in the Makeshift 2014 conversation, which explored how sustainable practices can be shared among different disciplines. What do you think the sustainable food movement has to offer from a cultural perspective? How do you think it is (and will) influence how we create and consume?
I think the challenges and victories of the sustainable food movement can provide inspiration for a lot of industries. It’s a great example of challenges of scale, and what it takes to educate a culture of people on value. Its fruits are tangible, and they provide an experience that supports the importance of the movement.
AC: What is your earliest food-related memory?
Taking my first steps to a glass of iced tea as a child, literally. From there it’s just a general feeling of my folks always growing food, preserving food, and cooking food. I guess the blanket memory of this is how the house sounded and smelled. It’s still a memory of comfort for me.
AC: Do you remember the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I used to love to fry beignets when my folks were at work. I used the Café du Monde box mix, and fired up a deep pan of oil. They always smelled it when they got home, and I always got in trouble. It was also always worth it.
AC: What is your most reliable go-to ingredient? What do you always keep on-hand in your home kitchen?
Good mustard. You can do so much with it. It adds acid, it binds things, and it’s delicious just on its own. I also love honey and good sea salt. I am somewhat addicted to tomatoes. I would, without question, choose a proper roast chicken as my last meal, and I consider field peas to be my spirit vegetable.
AC: Do you have seasonal favorites? How do you incorporate seasonal foods into your menus?
I have seasonal favorites, every season. We don’t have to incorporate them into our menu, as they are the center of our menu. I approach menus with consideration for a balance of texture, brightness, earthiness, canvas (which I think of as the detail that quietly ties ingredients together).
AC: When was your last truly great meal/dining experience?
Chef Michael Anthony cooked a celebratory meal for my crew and me at Gramercy Tavern the day after the Beard Awards. He has this way of achieving total technical accuracy in food, while still making it feel warm and welcoming. I think that’s a tough thing to do. Every plate, every bite, made us feel loved and considered. It was one for the books.
AC: In a culture where fast and easy solutions often prevail, what do you think is most important for home cooks to focus on? And what should they avoid buying when pre-packaged, if at all possible?
I think patience and freedom are important in getting comfy in the kitchen. Make a mess and make a mistake. I’ve made a ton of serendipitous discoveries based on going off of the rails and having a little fun. As for pre-packaged, just know how to read labels. Look out for words that you don’t know. If there are too many consonants in a row… you should probably look it up before buying it.
AC: At Alabama Chanin, you can often find music influencing the mood and the workflow in the studio. What is your favorite music to cook by?
Oh, man… so many answers to this! I love almost everything. If I had to choose a soundtrack today to cook to, it would be Gram Parsons, Dr. Dog, Pavement, old Rolling Stones, RL Burnside, a few tracks off of REM “Document”, Rilo Kiley, and maybe a little Aretha Franklin.
AC: We share a love of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Why are you so drawn to this organization? And how do you support your common beliefs and incorporate them into your approach to cooking?
I was most drawn to this idea of great minds gathering and exchanging ideas, and bettering each other. It taught me so much about the importance of generosity of knowledge and experience. I want to be better. I want to be transparent. I want to learn from my neighbors, and share all that I can with them. This approach is heavily informing our practices and growth as a company.
AC: Do you have plans for (gasp) any more restaurants or ventures?
As you could probably guess, yes we do. We are a handful of months away from Bridge Club, which is our private event space. I’m excited to offer this experience to folks, and even more so to not have to close our restaurants for private events. We’re seven days at all locations, and I sure do hate to miss out on the opportunity to feed the folks who count on us to be open to them. That will be followed by the opening of Death & Taxes (its name pays homage to the building’s original uses… a funeral home, and then a bank), our wood-fire grill joint. AUX, our commissary kitchen, will open its doors any day now. It will be the home to our prep teams, our butchering program, our pastry team, and our admin teams. It assures that as we grow, we grow together.
And, we just might have one more project kicking around. I’ll keep you posted.
Our “Friends of the Café” dinner, a Piggy Bank fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance, with Ashley sold out quickly. Stay tuned for our upcoming dinners and events by subscribing to our newsletter.
Photo courtesy of Angie Mosier.