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Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner on Raleigh, NC and the Madness of Expansion

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Photo: Poole's Diner

Over the last five years, Ashley Christensen has become Raleigh, North Carolina's most beloved chef. It's thanks to her work at Poole's Diner, the restaurant she opened in 2007 as a venue to put out Southern food that's simultaneously "comforting, clean, and light." And in the past year, her responsibilities have amped up considerably: she just opened up three new concepts — Beasley's, Chuck's, and Fox Liquor Bar — in her city's downtown. In the following interview, she talks about her career path, her mentor Andrea Reusing, and just how daunting it is to open three new projects at the same time.

How'd you get into cooking?
I grew up in a family where food was just very important. My dad was a truck driver and he'd be gone for extended periods of time, but when he was home, he would spend a lot of time at home. My mom was from Tennessee, an amazing Southern cook, and they'd always cook at home together and entertain. I was always around it.

So, I went off to college and threw some dinner parties and started reading a lot about food and getting interested in it and teaching myself. That's where the cooking started. The dinner parties would keep getting larger and larger, and I just kept at it. At a certain point, a lot of my friends were starting to get married, so I'd cater for them, as well.

Let's fast-forward and talk about the road to Poole's Diner.
I worked at Enoteca Vin for about seven years with Andrea Reusing. She opened it, and I worked for her, but when she left, I left, but then came back to become chef.

After that, I was working on a handful of projects and consulting and pretty much figured out that I wanted to do my own thing. Around the time I was 21, I had bartended for the people that had the lease on the space that was Poole's. I really fell in love with it. It was this old diner with a horseshoe bar. Every time I walked in there, it would hit me.

The people who had the lease ended up calling me and asking if I wanted to work something out. I thought it would take forever and that I'd have to deal with all the usual problems, but we had it in two days. I got really involved in construction and learned a lot, since it was my first place, and we ended up opening on December 13th, 2007. We're coming up on five years now.

You mention Andrea Reusing, whom so many people admire. What did you take away from the experience working with her?
She was really the first person I ever worked for, since I had been working on projects pretty much on my own until I got to Enoteca Vin. Raleigh was really a steakhouse town at that point, and Andrea was doing these amazing things — the connections with purveyors, the community.

People tend to think of the three cities — Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill — as separate, when actually that's not really the case. Andrea was really good and connecting purveyors from all three areas. I had grown up around the farming community, but this was the first time I saw a lot of that, where the guy who'd bring the rabbits to the restaurant he had killed the animal that morning and still had blood on his apron [laughs].

It was also really neat to see her engage with customers and talk to them about what the restaurant was doing, when I had been used to the separation between the kitchen and the dining room. And I only worked for her for ten months, since she went to open Lantern.

What kind of cooking appeals to you? What are you trying to do at Poole's?
Like a lot of folks, it's very ingredient-driven and seasonal. I've been here my entire life, and I had the privilege of being able to see how the seasons affected our cooking from a very young age.

What we make is Southern food, but it's a little lighter and cleaner, with a French influence, which you can see in a lot of food from this region. I like to provide comfort, but that doesn't mean it has to be heavy. Most of all, I want that one thing that you read on the menu — whether it's rabbit or something else — to shine through. I want that flavor to come out clearly.

I also don't want people to be overwhelmed, so the menu at Poole's is specifically designed for sharing. You can have a full-on meal or just sit at the bar by yourself and have a salad.

Not sure you can answer this, but what has Raleigh given you and your food that you may not have been able to get elsewhere?
That's a great question. I moved here the day after my eighteenth birthday and I thought that eventually I'd move to New York or go somewhere else. But one day I woke up and realized how much I had learned and benefited from having these connections with growers and people in the community — the energy of that community. It had enriched me, and I had an opportunity to add something to the community. It wasn't about being a big fish here and a small fish somewhere else. It was that I had hit my stride and learned about food and being a responsible manager and about how a restaurant can help a community. There was a lot left for me to do.

Raleigh was sleepy for a while, but it started changing and becoming vibrant. Now we've got farmers markets everywhere, for instance, which wasn't the case before. It's this incredibly rich community, and people are getting more and more interested in it.

The story wasn't widely publicized, but you recently made a big move: opening three new places, pretty much at the same time.
It was daunting in a huge way. I went from having 27 employees to 130 employees, pretty much overnight.

Nick Kokonas describes how weird the feeling was when they expanded and, for the first time, didn't know the names of everyone on staff.
The most bizarre feeling in the world. It was pretty serious shell shock, but we've gotten used to it and better at it.

Can you talk a bit about how the projects came about?
Even in a tough economy, Poole's didn't only survive. It thrived.

There was this building on Wilmington Street I was always attracted to. That street is pretty cool, in that you have some cool shops but also plenty of run-down places. I eventually ended up being able to lease the entire building and have this opportunity to add to that stretch even more.

I didn't have a preconceived idea that I would open these three separate concepts. I walked in the space and thought for a while about what the city needed and what fit there. I had been doing a lot of travel, and I really liked the places I encountered that were dedicated to one thing.

The fried chicken and honey concept, Beasley's, goes all the way back to my childhood, since my mom would make wonderful fried chicken and my father was a beekeeper. Though the city wasn't totally lacking in burgers, I thought it would be cool to have Chuck's, a place where that was the centerpiece. And the cocktail lounge, which is underground and has no natural light, was inspired by a lot of the places I love in other cities, but without the exclusivity. I brought down Karin Stanley from Dutch Kills and Little Branch, and it ended up being a really killer project.

How did the actual openings go?
I thought I'd open them all close together, at the same time, but after we opened Beasley, we ended up being too busy and realizing how big of a project it was. We opened the other two in September. It's been an incredible process. I had the opportunity to put something out there in the way I wanted it to be. I listened to a lot of the criticisms from the community, consider those thoughts, and address them and tweak and grow.

Chuck's started off a bit slow, but now it's a beast.

Finally, how do you look at Poole's now? Is it still your baby?
The new businesses have been an amazing opportunity to experience bringing an idea — or three — in food to fruition. It was an opportunity to make a contribution to the growth of our restaurant community. These were concepts that I wanted to see happen in this community, even if it wasn't me to do it.

Poole's is where I learned to be a chef and to be an owner. It's where I became really comfortable and secure in those roles, and where I began to grow and mature as a leader. Whether I'm the only person there cooking in the kitchen on a Saturday morning, or it's packed with 100 people on a busy Saturday night, it's my favorite place to be. It's home.

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Poole's Diner

426 South McDowell Street Raleigh, NC 27601