By Paul Mehaffey
43 | owner, Ashley Christensen Restaurants
It’s nearly impossible to walk along a downtown Raleigh street without passing a business where Ashley Christensen has made her mark. After all, the award-winning chef has six eateries and bars under the belt of her 300-employee company, each with a different vibe. Beasley’s Chicken + Honey boasts a variety of Southern comfort food; Chuck’s has sliders that make diners salivate; Fox Liquor Bar is known for its cozy atmosphere and highbrow cocktails; Death and Taxes has a reputation for fine dining — and a cheeky name honoring its location’s past lives as a bank and funeral home; and Poole’s Diner sticks to a retro-chic diner feel. Her latest venture, Poole’side Pies, is Christensen’s take on Neapolitan-inspired pizza.
In 2019, Christensen also became a household name for chefs nationally, winning the James Beard Award in the Outstanding Chef category. It’s the first time that a chef from North Carolina has received the honor. The James Beard awards are considered the “Oscars of food” by many.
“It felt incredible,” Christensen says. “I was very proud of my team. I was also really excited to bring such a prestigious award back to North Carolina. … I think it really adds to the chance of people coming to Raleigh or North Carolina. There’s so much great food happening in downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham and Chapel Hill.”
It’s certainly not her first time at the table. Christensen’s merits include the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014 and Chef of the Year by Eater.com in 2017. She’s appeared in publications such as Bon Appétit, Gourmet, The New York Times, Southern Living and Garden & Gun and was featured on Food Network’s popular series Iron Chef America and MSNBC’s Your Business. Her cookbook, Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner, was named one of the top cookbooks of fall 2016 by The New York Times.
Born in Greensboro and raised in Kernersville, Christensen moved to Raleigh 25 years ago to study at N.C. State University. Growing up, her parents “were really into food and entertaining and were just always cooking.” Those memories provided comfort in her new college town, pushing her to experiment with food and scour through cookbooks, feeding her mind as well as her friends.
“I started throwing dinner parties,” Christensen says. “All my roommates would chip in money, and I would make all the food and learn to make something new.”
She gained experience in the professional culinary world first as a server, then through a catering company. She eventually climbed the ladder to work under a number of high-profile chefs, including Andrea Reusing at Enoteca Vin in Raleigh and Scott Howell at Nana’s in Durham. She opened her first restaurant, Poole’s Diner, in 2007 — at what was once John Poole’s Pie Shop and then Poole’s Luncheonette — featuring Southern comfort foods such as macaroni au gratin and fried okra made with locally sourced ingredients. When she was a kid, her dad was a truck driver, and he always loved diners “for the fact you can roll into a town you don’t know and feel very welcome.
“The concept was really hinged on how we wanted to make people feel. … I also loved the idea of a chalkboard menu … that people would be standing around them together thinking about what they were going to eat when they sat down. And that very organically fuels conversation among strangers.”
Even when she’s not wearing an apron, Christensen still has her hands in the pot. She has served on the boards of the Frankie Lemmon foundation, which benefits a school and development center for children with and without disabilities, Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. She also is an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and founded its biannual fundraising event Stir the Pot.
This year, Christensen will team with Raleigh investor Michael Olander Jr. to open three fast-casual fried chicken restaurants in Raleigh, Cary and Durham. That’s as far as she plans to venture outside downtown Raleigh for now.
“I think the Raleigh area is just different from anywhere else,” Christensen says. “People are always blown away by not just the things that are here, but the people that operate their own concepts and the way the community gathers around. … You open a new restaurant and feel like the community is really pulling for you.”
— Taylor Wanbaugh