Ashley Christensen has been here before.
Here, as in this building, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, but also here, the James Beard Awards, vying for the culinary world’s biggest prize on its biggest stage. On Monday night, for the second straight year, Raleigh’s best-known restaurateur—the proprietor of Poole’s Diner and Death & Taxes, among others—is one of five finalists for Outstanding Chef, her name among the likes of Marc Vetri of Philadelphia and Corey Lee of San Francisco.
By the time the award was announced—last, just after nine—the room is abuzz with nervous energy. When chef Tom Colicchio opens the envelope and calls out Christensen’s name, the opera house erupts with cheers, many emanating from the front rows, where Christensen’s entourage is seated.
“To my crew of badasses at AC Restaurants,” Christensen says in her acceptance speech, “I stand here because of you. I stand here with you. This is your award, all two hundred and seventy of you.” She singles out a few individuals for praise—mentors Andrea Reusing of Lantern and Scott Howell of Nana’s, as well as her fiancée, AC Restaurants executive director Kaitlyn Goalen—and then thanks her hometown. “I’m so proud to call Raleigh my home,” she says. “Thank you to all the amazing small businesses that, like us, took a chance on Raleigh. You truly define our city.”
Two days earlier, I’d caught up with Christensen in Chicago to ask about her thoughts on Raleigh’s restaurant scene, her highly anticipated Poole’side Pies, how she built on last year’s Outstanding Chef nomination, and what winning this year would mean to her and her city.
INDY: When you were nominated for Outstanding Chef last year, we talked about what it means to be recognized for your leadership. How have you built on that momentum?
ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN: I think the biggest thing that we do is make ourselves available for conversations. We have a network of chefs all over the country, very much so in the South. We talk to each other about things we’re challenged by. We’ve come out of an interesting year, where so many things were opened up about negative things that were happening in the industry. It’s a very longstanding, real part of the business. I am so in love with the fact that we are talking about things. If you’re tired of talking about it, you’re not pushing the conversation forward. And I think that’s what we’re willing to do. We’re willing to have uncomfortable conversations. We’re willing to be vulnerable about the fact that we make mistakes. We have to figure out how to solve issues and move forward and take into consideration all of the voices who are a part of what we do.
We’ve talked before about making sure everyone has a seat at the table. Do you think we’ve made progress?
To me, it’s not the theme of the year, it’s the theme of the future. When I talk to my team, I say, “I want to figure out how we can really change the tone of what has been acceptable in this industry for so long. What I need you to understand is that it’s going to be so hard. We’re asking you to sign up for a job that will never be done.” To do this properly, you can never say, “OK, we checked that box.”
The work is never done in any sense, but I imagine that’s also part of the appeal.
And the draw. We are not one of those companies that looks for perfection. We want to be great every day. If we use the word “perfect” or “the best,” I feel like that just implies a ceiling that I never want my people to be thinking about. One of the saddest things to me is going into a place that I’ve read about for years and feeling like nobody’s looked at it or touched it in a long time, or pushed themselves and asked, how can we be the best version of ourselves today? I love creating food. I love working with cooks on how to produce it. But walking into every space we have, I hold myself accountable now to look around and say, “What needs to change? What needs to evolve to make sure this team works with relevance, intention, and as a part of what pushes us forward?”
You mentioned the word “vulnerable,” and it made me think of the Food & Wine article based on the talk you gave at a Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. You said, “I had to accept the parts of me that felt weak, vulnerable, or offensive. That included embracing who I am as a woman—specifically, a gay woman—in a fuller, more realized way.” How has that changed the way that you run your restaurants?
I think that I’m just breathing a little deeper. It was a wonderful thing to be able to say that to the industry. What meant the most to me is that it meant so many different things to so many different people—from a friend who owns a bakery coming up and saying, “We just love that you’re a strong woman who gets to be a role model for our six-year-old daughter,” to a woman who said, “That young girl that you described is my thirteen-year-old daughter, and I now know what I need to do.”
I think [about] the business vulnerability, that from the outside, there’s so much perceived success to this industry. From the time that Poole’s Diner became a multi-unit, which was eight years ago, this year was the first time we made a profit. I would make twice as much money as an individual if I only had Poole’s right now. And when we made a profit, we made less than 1 percent of our sales.
Our big goal right now is engaging the folks who are working so wonderfully with us; we hope they can stay for as long as they want to stay. But we also want to put great restaurant owners, operators, and managers into the world who will take everything that we’re working on and make sure those things can be shared with the rest of the industry. We want to take our struggles, our challenges, our accomplishments, and we want to amplify it into the industry so that everybody can benefit from it.
We’re starting to see that in Raleigh too, with people who came up through your company who own or are opening their own places. Where do you think the downtown Raleigh restaurant scene is heading?
I think it’s exploding in a really beautiful way. One of my goals has always been to give people the confidence to take a chance on their dream. If they’ve got a thing they want to do and they love Raleigh, and they believe it’s the right thing to do, I want to be someone who is a steward of that community and helps people understand that they have a place there.
I think it’s become so much more diverse, which I’m so grateful for. We want to show people our restaurants, but now the first thing we do is take them to [Brewery] Bhavana or take them to eat at [Garland]. I’ve always believed that the way you can be most successful in the restaurant business is to extend something to your guests that makes them feel a sense of ownership of your place. I think as a community, we all feel that together. We all have a sense of pride in sharing what each of us are doing with each other’s guests.
Where does Poole’side Pies fit into the landscape?
We’re gleaning some of the sense of Poole’s into that place. But it’s a whole different space, for sure. I love the idea of doing a style—you know pizza, there are so many versions of it. Everyone’s like, “This is what pizza’s supposed to be like.” And that’s seventy versions of something. There’s not a lot of Napoli-style pizza in Raleigh. We’re doing something that’s inspired by that, based on ingredients that we love.
I just want it to be this big, welcoming space that is unique in design. “Poole’side” because it’s next to Poole’s, but we’re going with a swim-club theme to play off that. I want this kind of snack bar vibe to it, but I want it to also be very serious in the things that we’re focusing on and the ingredients.
When can we look forward to grabbing a pie?
We’re looking at our [certificate of occupancy] being sometime in August. Should be late summer—we’ll call it pre-fall.
What would it mean to you—and to Raleigh—to win Outstanding Chef?
It would mean so many things. I want to be one of the people who, should I have the pleasure of winning that award, to be someone who truly defines that that is a leadership award. That it’s about giving to more than just the places that you own and serve. I want to be a leader in this industry who inspires others to contribute to the future of the industry. And to really give us the opportunity to honor this work we do in a whole new light.
Last year was a very depressing year [in terms of] everything that came out, but it was necessary. It was the pivot point that would make this industry a place where people want their children to work. That, to me, is the pivot—is this a place where people are no longer saying, “Oh, you work in a restaurant? What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” I want this industry to be celebrated and respected for the amount of energy that we all put into it.
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