It’s widely known that we believe Ashley Christensen is a total badass. We were giddy fans of her work, long before we ever really got to know her. Now that we know more about Ashley the person and are no longer admiring from afar, we find her even more impressive. Ashley may be a James Beard Award-winning chef, but she is also thoughtful and relatable—something that becomes obvious as you flip through the beautiful pages of her first cookbook, Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner.
Poole’s offers home cooks recipes that nourish and inspire. There are several of what Ashley calls “back pocket” recipes that can easily be folded into your regular dinner repertoire, and there are others that may take more time and preparation (and maybe aspiration). She uses simple ingredients to create sometimes complex flavors. Her red wine vinaigrette (now a forever kitchen staple) has 5 ingredients, but the instruction provided goes beyond anything I’ve found in other cookbooks; Ashley perfectly details how things should look, how they should smell, and draws attention to the stages of change as the ingredients transform into the final product.
The recipes offered here are reflections of what Ashley believes to be important: fresh seasonal ingredients from local purveyors (whenever possible), used thoughtfully to create dishes that make sense—because they are tied to the land, the region, the people, and her guests.
Even as Ashley details how the food is impeccably prepared from start to finish, she also weaves her personal story into the history of Poole’s Diner—one of Raleigh’s oldest restaurants and a place her father frequented as a young man. Almost immediately it became clear to Ashley that Poole’s history would play a part in her present. She writes, “In using the original name, Poole’s Diner, I knew that I was tapping into a collective memory, a fixture that could continue to act as an anchor for a city that was changing and evolving. Without even realizing it, opening Poole’s Diner turned me into a community organizer.”
Some of the most poignant moments in the book emerge when she writes about her parents and how they passed on a fervent love of food and the comfort found in making it. Her parents danced when they cooked, they laughed and enjoyed being together, in the moment. “Dinner was never a rote exercise; it was an occasion, an experience.” Her family did not sit down to eat a regimented dinner at the same time every night. “We ate when it was ready, which meant after my parents had enjoyed winding down the day with a glass of wine and some tunes, while cooking a meal that was as much about the process as the finished product.”
That same warm feeling is present in Ashley’s recipes, as is her impeccable technique. Pimento cheese is a Southern staple, but in her hands it becomes singular and a bit elevated. She admits to being most at ease when cooking vegetables—and there are plenty of options for those who want to serve fewer meat dishes at home. You can also find recipes for some of Poole’s signature plates, including their most requested dish: Macaroni Au Gratin. When Ashley participated in our Friends of the Café Dinner series, we were treated to the watermelon salad with Vidalia onion vinaigrette shown on the book’s cover. (There are instructions in the book on how to fan your avocado slices, which you will immediately want to try. It’s fun.)
Poole’s Diner and Ashley Christensen’s six other properties in the Raleigh area have helped revitalize the downtown and the regional food scene. In the book, Ashley explains that those who visit her restaurants are not “customers”—they are “guests”. You can feel the difference when you eat at one of her establishments and you get the same sensation flipping through this book.
*Originally published on October 26, 2016