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Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 12: Ashley Christensen, edited to just the interview, below. For more from Greg and Helen — including what makes a restaurant experience perfect in their books — you'll have to listen to the episode in full.
Ashley Christensen: Hi.
Helen: Ashley is the chef of — what is it now, seven? You have seven restaurants?
Ashley: Seven projects in downtown Raleigh.
Helen: You are the emperor of Raleigh, really, I think.
Ashley: It's a really interesting city. There's a lot of wonderful stuff happening. And we did have the good luck and fortune of being welcomed in during the early stages of a downtown revitalization.
Helen: Yeah. And one of your places is Poole's. Is it "Poole's Diner" or just "Poole's"?
Ashley: It's Poole's Diner.
Helen: Which is the namesake restaurant — or the cookbook — I'm not really sure how this namesake relationship works. The cookbook is also called Poole's.
Ashley: It's called Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner.
Helen: And it is full of recipes and stories from a modern diner. Which is such an alluring notion to me, the idea of a modern diner.
Helen: Are you a diner person?
Ashley: When I was a child, my father was a truck driver. And one of the things, as he traveled around the country — when you're doing that, you're usually alone or with one sidekick. And everywhere that you would go, you'd have a few days. So he would seek out places and areas he hadn't been to before. His experience with diners was always that when you didn't know where you were, you could count on a certain level of comfort via the diner. Because of that, I view diners the same way — and because of the experience of growing up, and starting to go to new cities and towns on my own. When I had the opportunity to purchase this old diner — it started off as a pie shop in the 40s, a pie shop that shared space with what became the luncheonette in the front—and years later, I was offered the opportunity to purchase the lease, and that was my first venture. So Poole's under our leadership will be nine years in December, which is very exciting.
Helen: Wow, congratulations.
Ashley: Thank you.
Greg Morabito: Yeah, that's like a lifetime.
Ashley: It really is.
Helen: Do you visit diners when you travel?
Ashley: Yeah. I definitely have a soft spot for them, for sure.
Helen: What's your go-to order?
Ashley: I think that's a cool thing about diners, much like our approach to it: They're so unique to each place. That sort of bottom line of comfort. But it depends on the time of day. I am a big fan of the different ways that the standard diner expresses something like corned beef hash, which seems to be a diner staple.
"My father was a truck driver, and his experience with diners was that you could count on them for a certain level of comfort."
Helen: Love corned beef hash.
Ashley: Yeah, sunny side up eggs on top.
Helen: I always ask for my corned beef hash really well done because I like it super crispy.
Ashley: Yeah, I like it crispy.
Helen: My rule of thumb with a diner — unless it's a special diner, a modern diner, for example — is that you're not allowed to look at the menu. I think that if you — Greg disagrees with a moan of disapproval.
Greg: No, that wasn't disapproval! I think that's a cool rule, that little move.
Ashley: So do you think at the guy in the paper hat and say, "What's good?" Or do you look at your neighbor's plate?
Helen: It's a combination of those two things. I think there are also certain rule of thumb dishes that you know a diner is going to be able to execute well, right?
Helen: You want to stay within the eggs family. Maybe you can stray into pancakes if it's a place that is clearly known for pancakes. Or if you want to do a burger. But maybe the move in a diner is not to go towards the beef stroganoff.
Ashley: Sure, sure.
Helen: Or the fettuccine alfredo, or the whole fish.
Greg: Or the shawarma.
Helen: I go on road trips a lot, and I obsessively stop at diners. I always stop at them even when I'm not hungry if it's an old diner car that I love, or whatever it is. And increasingly, I think it's hard to find a diner where they're actually making the stuff from scratch and not having the Sysco truck pull up.
Ashley: Yeah, that would be the example of not the modern diner, but the modernized diner.
Helen: Oh, that's a good distinction.
Ashley: At Poole's when you walk in — I love the idea of the old, shiny diner cars, but we're just a little nail building on an old block in Raleigh. And the outside of the building doesn't tell you much. But when you walk in, it's this shotgun space, and there's a double horseshoe counter, this beautiful, formica, green top from way back when. It's one of my favorite pieces of the restaurant. There are a bunch of rubs on the bar where you can see the outline of a coffee cup, or where someone ate with their elbows on that counter for 20 years. It's a really neat timeline.
Helen: That's beautiful. I love sitting at counters in diners, too. Especially with the big double U-shape, massive seating counters. It speaks so much to what I think is the most beautiful act in a diner, which is the refill of your coffee.
Helen: The counter is just — your guy in the white hat, or your old salty waitress, whoever it is, comes by, and they've got the pot. "You want more coffee?" It's beautiful.
Ashley: Absolutely. And isn't there something great about — we own a coffee shop and we're super proud of it, it's great, and they make all these incredible — once again, the modern coffee. But I still have such a soft spot for diner coffee, and that glass pot sitting on the warming pad. And I actually love gas station coffee. Again, something handed down — it's so symbolic of a late-night on the road. That's also something handed down from my dad.
Greg: At Poole's, you guys have a famous chalkboard menu. And I'm very curious as to whether or not there are any rules regarding that chalkboard menu. Are there only certain people who get to write it? How does it get changed? Who is like the keeper of the chalkboard?
Ashley: There are definitely only certain people who can write on the chalkboard, which we learned early. When you walk out of the kitchen and you look at the boards, and it's like, "Oh my god, who wrote that?" The people who are identified as having the skill to write on the chalkboard are quickly regretful that they showed us that skill, because then it's like, "We need you. Where are you?" The first person — this is kind of a fun story. The first person to write on the chalkboards was a guy who started off just bartending with us, working full time, helping us rebuild the diner. He's a local artist in Raleigh, his name is Luke Buchanan. He was the guy who wrote all the boards at first. And he still works with us, I think just out of feeling like we're part of his family and he's part of ours. So he works a night or two with us just to be around and be a part of things. Otherwise he makes paintings and teaches art. But he actually did — from the old days of him doing all the headers on the chalkboards and writing the boards — he did all the illustrations in the book.
Helen: Oh, that's so lovely.
Helen: What a really beautiful way to bring the whole world of the restaurant onto the pages.
Ashley: Absolutely. And that was something that was really important to us, too. Anything that we're representing about the space and the experience, instead of calling in an artist we'd never met to make chalkboard art, we wanted it to look and feel like the diner itself, and the real experience of being in the space.
Greg: So is the mac and cheese the most popular dish at Poole's?
Ashley: Hands down.
Helen: By orders of magnitude?
Ashley: Oh yeah.
Greg: How many people order it, what percentage?
Ashley: We sell a little over 15,000 of them a year.
Helen: Holy crap.
Greg: Oh my god.
Ashley: We're open seven days now, and it's our gauge. We talked about this in the book, looking back to when we first opened: We were poor. We had very few people actually working in the diner, we would come in at 7 AM to start prepping and be lucky to leave if we made it to our own bar by last call. The days were super long, and they were made up of things like grating all that cheese on a home box grater because we couldn't afford to buy a food processor.
Helen: Oh my god. 15,000 is tremendous.
Ashley: It's a lot. Yeah, it's a lot.
Helen: That's 5 percent of the population of Raleigh. I mean—
Ashley: It's that dish in any restaurant that, as soon as someone walks out of a kitchen in a bistro with a pile of pommes frites—
Helen: All the heads in the dining room turn.
Ashley: 40 percent of the people sitting there, who look up, are going to order that dish. It's one of those things that we feel is very representative of our food, the idea of taking something super simple and really caring about the details. So we're really happy. You could be haunted by those dishes where you put the lobster dish on the menu and then everybody orders the lobster dish. But the macaroni is such an amazing way — people love to talk about it. People who have never been in the restaurant walk in there, look around, and say, "We're not sure what we're going to have, but we know we have to have the macaroni au gratin."
Greg: Is there one station in the kitchen that just makes the macaroni?
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. And that guy hits a point of palate fatigue at the end of the night and has to take a break and drink some sparkling water. Because the big key — we talk about this in the headnote in the recipe — is that the most important ingredient of that dish is the tasting spoon. And they're made to order. So the cream, the three cheeses, and the al dente macaroni, all cooked together with a touch of sea salt, making sure it's perfect, and then the same three cheeses on top and into the broiler.
Helen: That sounds like one of those jobs — Professional Macaroni and Cheese Taster — where people would be like, That's a dream gig! And then you do it for a week, and you're like, This is a little overwhelming.
"We could advertise the macaroni taste tester job in High Times Magazine and just be overrun with resumes."
Ashley: Yeah. We could advertise the job in High Times magazine and just be overrun with resumes, hand-written resumes.
Helen: "Come taste mac and cheese all the time." It would be so beautiful. The food that you serve at Poole's — and it's so evident throughout the cookbook, and I imagine this is the case at your other restaurants as well —is so clearly an expression of the vernacular of the region of North Carolina and of the South in general. It has such clarity to it.
Ashley: So much of what defines our food and our food traditions is about what grows where we live, and there is so much of it, and there are so many incredible farmers and growers, just like all over the country. But to be in North Carolina — specifically where we are, three hours from the mountains and two hours from the coast — that's a fantastic place to be, and so much to work with. The thing that keeps us focused on what we're doing is the relationships, all the people we're representing through our work. It's not necessarily just food and traditional title. It's these ingredients, expressed through the experience of myself and all the folks who are part of our teams.
Helen: How did your awareness of that evolve?
Ashley: This is probably true of a lot of cooks, but it took me a long time to really be confident in that. We spend so much time thinking about the place that we grew up. And regardless of how you feel about it, before you mature into what you're going to do, you have to get out into the world and ask for more. And I had a lot of those great experiences, but when it came time to like do what I wanted to do, it was a really wonderful thing to recognize that there was so much amazing stuff in our story, in the place that we call home. To be able to share with the world — the most genuine way to express my food was to really believe in our story, and to believe in the place that we live. I think you've been a part of the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium before?
Ashley: I had my first visit there about eight years ago. That opened me up to celebrating relationships and friendships with chefs all over the country. It was really fun to be so enamored with what other people were doing, and to go and experience it in the places where they cook, and to cook next to a lot of these great folks for charities or causes or celebrations of food. And then, as I'm asking them questions, they're all asking me questions too, about what I was doing with my food. We had moved towards the food that we make now, but I think with some reluctance, like, How can we be as great as everything else that's going on in the world? And the way that you do that is to be exactly who you are at home, and to share that with people everywhere. So one of the things I'm most grateful to the Southern Foodways Alliance for is teaching me about the importance of my voice, and of telling that story, and that who you feel like at home is really what makes you unique.
Greg: Is there anything that you think that the rest of the country doesn't understand about Southern food, and what you all are doing? Are there any big misconceptions about what's going on in Southern food right now?
Ashley: I think that's a thing of the past, because we've had so much air time in the last six or seven years, which has been a really wonderful thing. There were a lot of misconceptions previously about everything in the South being deep-fried and hopped up with sugar. And there are pieces of that, but there are pieces of that everywhere, and in a lot of cultures. It was really neat for me, just a little while back, when traveling around, to see how much the South is a part of Brooklyn, all these places all over the country where people are really embracing Southern cuisine, accurately or not. It's neat to see it permeate all these other areas, to see it finding a new voice, and that people really crave not just that food but an understanding of what makes it so.
Helen: The downside of something like that, though — not to take this to too dark a place — but whenever something becomes trendy, it runs the risk of falling out of fashion. The South is always the South in the South, but exactly what you're talking about — where you see fried chicken sandwiches are the coolest thing in the world right now, everywhere in the US. And everybody is starting to be awakened to the glories of pimento cheese and fried bologna and sorghum. I don't know. Do you worry that there's going to be a fall?
Ashley: I don't, because I think the thing that will happen if there's a fall is that the people who aren't truly connected to it will move on and do other things. That's not to say that the opportunity doesn't belong to everyone who has a passion for the the experience of something that they're drawn to, but it's like anything. Is Italy worried about people getting tired of Italian food? No. I think for us, with what we're doing, part of what makes a culture and food evolve is its past, present, and future. To really live in that — you have a unique advantage in being able to keep that culture alive. But it's so amazing to watch people celebrate Southern food based on their passion for experiences that they've had. And that also means a lot — I don't find that offensive in any way. I think it's a really wonderful thing to see. One of the reasons that there's Southern food in Brooklyn is because there are also so many Southerners in Brooklyn. All my friends when I was in college, when we graduated, either moved to Brooklyn, Portland, or San Francisco. That's where a lot of creative folks spread out. And then, as our community changed, people started to stay, which was a really amazing thing. But I think that has a little bit to do with where we see that food serving an audience — that was previously an audience to the South.
Helen: Do you find the knowledge base of your diners has changed over the years? Do people come in knowing their shit?
Ashley: Absolutely. That has a lot to do with food television and food media. For all the things that people have to say about programs on the Food Network, no matter how you feel about that, it changed how people care about food, and the things they want to know. No matter what is being shared with folks, it got people really fired up about having a working knowledge of food. So when that happened — aside from the fact that all of a sudden, the chef was the new superstar, which has had a major impact on kitchens and the workforce, slightly positive in some ways, but the negative of that is you end up with a bunch of young cooks who just don't want to work in kitchens. They want to work in in studios.
Helen: Yeah, in front of the camera.
Ashley: Which, great, but it makes it a little difficult for us to build up teams in the restaurant. We're not deeply affected by that, but you would hope that that would have driven our workforce a little more. We didn't necessarily get that advantage. But the flip side is you've got a bunch of people who come in and have all these great questions that I think allow them to care about food at a higher level. And when that happens, there's so much more of a natural appreciation for things like your growers, and the folks who are bringing fish from the coast, all the great makers out there. So by way of those conversations, it becomes easier to define the value of our food.
Helen: Let's talk a little bit about that idea of building the team and building the community of your restaurant itself, because with seven — what was the word you used, "projects"?
Ashley: Yeah, projects.
Helen: Projects. With seven projects, which includes the coffee shop and restaurants, you must have a massive staff.
Ashley: We have 265 employees currently, and that's growing. Poole's is the first, Beasley's is our fried chicken joint, Chuck's is our burger joint, Fox is our cocktail lounge, Joule is our coffee shop that has a full-service kitchen. Death & Taxes is our most recent restaurant, a wood-fire grill. And above that, we've got a private event space called Bridge Club. And then outside of that, when we did the last two projects, we also built a commissary kitchen, basically to centralize the workhorse prep, so that we could be closer in touch with all the folks who were supporting the restaurants from a prep perspective, but also so that as we grew, we could stop building giant walk-ins in downtown real estate. We could have walk-ins just a little bit outside of town, so that would allow us to approach whole animals, and do a lot of the things that small restaurants sometimes are limited, space-wise, from doing.
Team wise, we've got incredible folks. I enjoy taking a lot of the blame, basically all of the blame, for the position that I've put us in by opening restaurants too fast. What we've done in last couple of years, which has been just amazing — we did our first expansion after three years of great success at Poole's Diner, just looked around the community and thought, "This is such a special place." People were so appreciative of the work that we were doing, it was such an incredible relationship And I'd been traveling, looking at all these great concepts all over the place, and got really fired up about what my city needed. The other piece was looking at our incredible staff at Poole's, all these wonderful folks doing all these great things, and thinking, "What am I going to do when they hit their ceiling with this little 2000-square-foot restaurant?" So that informed our growth. We grew with this great energy, people were so excited in the community, and we were growing this incredible staff of folks who wanted to work with us, which was so special and so exciting. You get high on all that, and then you look around and realize that you and two other people are the only common thread of all these folks. So we had a really brilliant GM at our second project, which was made up of Chuck's, Beasley's, and Fox. It was in an old Piggly Wiggly from the 40s.
Helen: Oh, that's so great.
Ashley: It had a small footprint, it's not an enormous building, but it allowed us to open three small concepts, which I'm a really big fan of: A space where you can walk in and look around and see everyone, and know what's going on, but they share a kitchen. We hired a guy who was very persistent about applying — he was just incredible. He had lot of experience in small mom-and-pop bars and restaurants in our area, but then, he's a couple years older than I am, and a handful of years back, he had gone to work for Panera, which is big —
Ashley: Yeah. So you look at that, and it's like, "How will this person's ideas align with what we want to do?" I think what he was happy to say was, "Look, I have experiences in a world that you don't, which as you're growing, could be really beneficial." He and I butted heads constantly. And I realized, that's the best thing in the world. You want someone who you can disagree with and then learn to work with, so that you can become something greater than you can be on your own.
Helen: So he came in with ideas about efficiency —
Helen: And scaling, and how to chop all the onions at the beginning of the week, that kind of of thing?
Ashley: Yeah, totally. He would be like, "How do you want to do this?" And I'm like, "Just do it great!" He's like, "What does that mean?"
Helen: The logistics are really fascinating, especially in cases like this when you have a chef who is the creative and business force behind a single restaurant. Scaling that to a multi-door enterprise is a totally different skill than working a line or hiring a good sous chef. That exact kind of thing, "How are we going to do it?" — you can't just say, "Make it good, and extend that out to seven restaurants."
Ashley: Sure. It's very different than just standing next to someone, and talking about a dish, and both of you tasting it together, growing the restaurant side by side with folks — you can do that really successfully. But when you expand, you figure out quickly that you can't be everywhere all the time. I have to say, when we opened up the second projects, it became a place that just terrified me to walk into, because I felt so different. I felt so different there than I did in the first place, which will always be home. It really rocked me for a little while there. And then we caught our steam, and Derek Ryoti — who is the gentleman who was hired as the GM — did a brilliant job training people to run things, as opposed to training them to work beside him. Being involved and working side by side with folks was a great strength of mine, but I didn't realize how it would feel when I couldn't do that. He is now the VP of the company, and had stepped up as our director of operations, and is very involved in what we realized we had to go back and do.
We had to build a whole executive department to oversee these restaurants, but also, looking back — you get so excited about giving people opportunities, the folks who want to be a part of what you're doing, so you promote folks, and then you realize that you've failed them in the aspect of providing mentorship. So he has done a beautiful job of working with me and a handful of other folks to go in and teach folks all the things they need, and not just to run our projects. One of my biggest goals is — we love for people stay with us for a long time, but it's inevitable that they're going to leave. We want to put people into the world who can really run restaurants.
Greg: What is an average night when you're working? How do you manage this kingdom of restaurants? Do you go to one place? Do you go to several places? How do you keep the quality up?
"Is Italy worried about people getting tired of Italian food? No."
Ashley: Sure. I don't really — I shouldn't say I don't, but really, I don't work the line. With this many places, I get to work in a really fun spot working on company culture and the menu changes. And it varies shop to shop. My sous chefs and chef de cuisine at Poole's Diner have been with us for a very long time, so it's really easy to say, "Remember that dish we did? We're going to do it like this. Let's talk to this guy about something new he's growing, I'd like to put this on the menu this way." We speak a language where I can walk in after I've said that, and they've got round one of the dishes. We might make a small tweak or two, but they're really knocking it out of the park. The younger restaurants, I spend a lot of time with those folks, in communication and side by side, figuring out how to develop a new voice. It's interesting. As I said, I don't work service, but we're very involved in all of the restaurants. But I don't have to be there — nor am I there — every day. I'm somewhere every day, but I'm not in all of them every day. But they are so close together, it is easy to walk around and pay a visit or pop in. But they really are self-sufficient shops. I get to, I think, affect them at a higher level when it comes to always working on how their menus can be greater, and how to get each captain of each shop more involved in expressing things that they want to be a part of.
Helen: When you were a young cook starting out, I'm assuming you dreamed of your own restaurant, but did you dream of your own empire?
Ashley: Never. And when I opened Poole's, I had no idea. I get asked that question a lot, "Did you have any idea that it will be like this?"
Helen: Oh well, shit, never mind. I'm unasking the question.
Ashley: Well, no, no.
Helen: Only original questions from this podcast. What kind of dinosaur would you be?
Ashley: Yeah. A T-rex because their arms are so adorable. And I don't like to do push-ups, either.
Ashley: Perfect. But yeah, I had no idea. It had so much to do with the incredible folks who are working with us, and this community that was so ready for more. There were great things already happening there, our city was growing so fast, and it was a really important time to look at these great, old buildings that were anchoring quiet streets and — two of our buildings are on corners and we really enjoy that. Being able to go in and energize a part of town that gets other people excited about adding businesses. It also means that we can take buildings that we really want to see preserved, to continue to be a part of our city. So that's been really a fun piece as well.
Helen: And that urban planning facet of things is so interesting, and so often not part of the surface-level conversation about why to open certain restaurants in certain places.
Helen: You mentioned earlier that you and your restaurants have been part of the resurgence of Raleigh's downtown, that revitalization. I guess that's a loaded term in urban planning. But it's a really exciting thing that's happening right now in the restaurant world. I think cities that have had slightly depressed downtown areas have been using restaurants as the anchors to bring foot traffic back, and to bring culture back, and to bring nightlife back to streets and neighborhoods where maybe it was a bit of a ghost town.
Ashley: Yeah. And Raleigh — it's the capital of North Carolina, and it's a government town. When I moved there 22 years ago, if it was after 5 PM, it was tumbleweeds downtown. It's amazing to see the difference now. I think restaurants are a natural fit for that because of a few things. Everybody eats. And when you can create a concept that someone wants to experience, people start to imagine their lives and the places where they want to celebrate — you immediately see yourself and your friends being in these spots. One of my goals, immediately when we opened the restaurant, was to look at those experiences and create a space where someone could stop by after work and grab a glass of wine and a salad, or if they had a business dinner and the boss was paying. It was a place they wanted to take their crew, or if they had friends coming in town to see Raleigh for the first time. I wanted that to come out of the people's mouths, for them to say, "I have to show this place that I love that, that makes me feel great when I'm there." I think for all the things that we as restaurant owners and as chefs desire to create, those things work so well, hand-in-hand, with helping people to see what's great about a city.
Greg: When we were talking about the mac and cheese, you were saying there was a bit of a slow start at Poole's. What was the big moment, the thing that really set it off? Or was it this gradual build until it became a phenomenon?
Ashley: It was complete insanity when we opened, we were trying to figure out how to really run a restaurant. I'd been a part of a few restaurant programs, and I'd been a chef in the space, and had a really great time learning through that experience. But this was something — there is so much exciting energy, you go into your first project that you own saying, "I'm going to do it this way." A lot of that stuck around, and some of it evolved into something greater. We had a very small staff, and you want everybody working hard and working together, and then you figure out, "Hey, wait a minute. If we have one more backwait, that guy can be polishing glasses, instead of the bartender who should be making drinks." We matured enough to start to listen to our guests, which when you listen as opposed to having folks throw information at you that you don't want to hear — when you engage with folks in conversations — it's one of the first ways that I really felt like a part of the community. When people weren't just saying things because they were unhappy, they were saying things to us because they cared about our success. Myself and my crew really learned to enjoy that process. But also, as we looked at the ways to make the restaurant more efficient, we ultimately made better food. If we made food faster, we served people better. I think that was a big thing. We had a lot of buzz, and we got super busy. And then we just weren't as busy because we didn't take reservations, there was a mob all at one time. It was kind of a mess, but we were learning how to do this thing that we knew we wanted to create experience-wise, we just weren't 100 percent sure how to get there. We learned the old-fashioned way.
Helen: Are there any rules of thumb that have arisen as you've opened seven places? Like having a reservation line? Or did you walk in the door and have tricks or secrets that you knew already?
Ashley: Sure. I think investing in the training and preparation of your staff is huge. I think equipping a restaurant — things seem expensive, and opening your first projects, it's all worth it to not have to — you buy two towers for your Vitamix. You get all the glassware that you need. You get the right dishware. You get all the things, and not to say you go crazy, but when it comes to smart investing in how you equip a restaurant, if you can count on creating a great experience and being busy, it immediately translates to the experience of the guests. So that's a big thing. Also, it's so hard to do, but understanding that no matter how long it takes to build a restaurant and how frustrated you are and how out of money you are, to take a window of time to organize the restaurant and to have the proper amount time with your staff. It takes much longer than you think it will, and it's go time, and everybody just says, "Let's do it." And you go after it before you should. That has been a tremendous lesson. One of the things that we did with our most recent restaurant, Death & Taxes — it was very behind schedule, which when you ask someone when the restaurant is going to open, and they tell you, in your head, you're should be like, "Okay. I'll see you 6 months from then."
Helen: Greg and I are very familiar with that, as editors of Eater.
Ashley: Yeah. So we learn to have less heartbreak over that, the things that we don't have the ability to control. We learn how to be better at controlling them in the future. But with Death & Taxes, it was very behind, and I had this weird idea. It's wood-fire grill, we had this beautiful grill built in Texas and had it shipped down, and it was incredible. We'd done a lot of social cooking, outdoor cooking by means of hard-wood cooking, but it was something that I hadn't done in a restaurant before. And I thought about the experience of traveling around and cooking with folks, how every time I cook with someone I learn something. Especially when we have guest chefs in, it even changes the way that I approach my own food. So with this being a new way to cook for us within a restaurant, we decided to do a series called the Fire Starter Series. We invited chefs from all over the country who we respect — it's actually quite focused in the South — but we invited folks to come in, and paid them to be there. Because we intended to sell the experience, and for ourselves to be the charity. We were the cause. We had a lot of ideas about what we wanted to do, but it was really important to me to think about the valuable piece of traveling and cooking with other folks, this great education of seeing how people approach things that I might have approached differently. So we invited a series of chefs, Tandy Wilson from City House in Nashville, Sean Brock from Husk, Minero, and McCrady's.
Helen: Was this to open the restaurant?
Ashley: We ran the series of dinners for a handful of weeks. We did two nights of service with each chef visiting, just asking them to make sure that fire, cooking with the grill, was an element in all of their dishes. Jason Stanhope was one of our guest chefs as well. So we got to watch folks that we respect work in our space and approach not just the grill, but the entire space differently than we would have.
Helen: This is brilliant.
Ashley: It was incredible. It allowed us to invite folks from the community into the space, and have a soft opening.
Helen: They beta-tested your kitchen for you!
Ashley: They beta-tested the kitchen.
Helen: This is genius. This is blowing my mind.
Ashley: And we all had a great time doing it. It was tremendous. I look at that and I'm like, "I want to find a way to do that in every restaurant that I open." Because we had this great communal experience.
Helen: It was a barn-raising.
Ashley: Yeah. It was incredible.
Helen: This is beautiful.
Ashley: The other thing that was really cool, we worked with a local potter called Haand. They're about 35 miles away from us, doing all this beautiful pottery work. We met with them about designing plates specifically for Death & Taxes. We have a private events department, so we used all their plain white china while the all the chefs were coming through for Fire Starter, and saved all the ashes from them cooking in the grill and collected them. And the guys who were making the pottery came through, took all the ashes, and glazed —
Greg: Oh, how cool.
Ashley: They glazed all the plates with this collection of ashes from this great community experience cooking with all these great chefs. Yeah.
Helen: That's so cool. Oh my god. The layers of cool for that series of dinners. I'm blown away by this idea of beta-testing the kitchen. I think it's just so brilliant.
Helen: Because you don't know how a space flows until you actually really spend time in it.
Helen: And because it's your space — I'm projecting everything onto you here — but because it's your space, you know what went into the design, you know what went into it. But if you throw other chefs and their teams in there blind, you can see naturally where they flow and where they find bottlenecks and what works really well and what you might need to fiddle with.
Helen: It's freaking genius.
Ashley: It's great. It is something that I want to figure out how to fit in to every program we do moving forward. They were basically our pal consultants who came in. And also I just love any chance that we get to have our friends in to cook, to share an experience with our direct community. It's almost like they're traveling to those restaurants.
Helen: There was a really beautiful piece that Kim Severson wrote about you for the New York Times a couple of years ago that painted you as the sun in the center of the solar system of extraordinary women cooks and people in the food world — in your region, but also everywhere. That's incredible.
Ashley: The impression that we've been able to make, with our presence locally and nationally, is about food, but it's also about — I focus on positivity, and how our work can be so much more than just making food or drinks. We are absolutely in love with getting to provide the experience of the hustle and bustle of a restaurant. It was amazing to figure out what we had the ability to affect, and it's also a great responsibility. I think every chef in every community feels it: A restaurant is a center of community. So when we realized the things that we were able to affect by leading people towards great causes — we do a lot of work with Share Our Strength, we do a lot of work with a number of local causes. Even just being a positive voice for anything in our community — and when I say community, it's not the idea of a specific zip code. It's everything that our work and our friendship touches. I think of it as a really broad term. Just approaching challenging situations with positivity, and looking at our clientele in our community and being able to say, "Hey, folks, here's something that we're really excited about, and we believe we can make a big difference in this work. Can you join us in this?" That's been really incredible, and a way that I can imagine myself to be in the restaurant industry for as long as I'm living. I realize that a part of my calling will be to work for great causes and to figure out how restaurants can play a bigger role in making a difference.
"We want to put people into the world who can really run restaurants."
Helen: The Times article focuses particularly on your relationships and your friendships with women. Is that an intentional thing that you've cultivated, in terms of bringing these communities together?
Ashley: We're looking at a time where a lot of women were being celebrated in the kitchen, finally. I never felt held back or challenged by the perception of women in the restaurant workforce or the restaurant world, but I absolutely recognize that it's a very real thing. So it's been tremendous in a place like North Carolina, where there's so many talented people across the board. The conversation that I have so often is how important — in leadership, in kitchen teams, and staffing and presence in general — balance is so important. I think North Carolina is a place where women are really celebrated. It's a great thing, and I'm really proud to work among such talented women in our area. We just wrote a cookbook, and it's amazing that Vivian Howard in Kinston is putting out a cookbook at the same time. It's going to be incredible, about her stories and experiences from Kinston to New York to Kinston again. And then Katie Button at Cúrate in Asheville is putting out a book at the same time. What a neat experience to celebrate three points of our great state.
Helen: Is there something special about North Carolina, something in the water that makes that state respect women?
Ashley: Maybe it's us. Maybe it's everybody.
Helen: Maybe the state makes good women.
Ashley: Yeah. Maybe the state just makes great women.
Greg: Isn't that the state's motto or something? I don't know.
Ashley: Yeah, "We Make Great Women.:
Helen: It's on the license plates. It's the Great Women State, North Carolina. I would wear that t-shirt. I would totally wear a t-shirt with, "North Carolina: The Great Women State."
Ashley: We should make that shirt. I love it. I love it.
Helen: Let's do it. We can buy it a bundled set copy of the Poole's cookbook and a "Great Women" t-shirt.
Ashley: I love it.
Helen: It's totally perfect. Well, Ashley, we have reached the part of our show that we like to call the lightning round, but you can call it whatever you want.
Ashley: Awesome. I'm excited.
Helen: For today's lightning round, we have a special guest question-asker.
Ashley: All right.
Helen: It will not be me or Greg. It is Eater's very own restaurant editor, Bill Addison.
Greg: Hi, Bill!
Helen: He has a handful of questions for you, and you can say whatever you want. This is the lightning round, it's chill.
Ashley: Awesome. Okay.
Bill Addison: Hey, Ashley. It's Bill Addison, restaurant editor and national critic for Eater. Hope you're well. Here are some questions for you. What's the one dish served in any of your restaurants that you most crave?
Helen: She's making such a face right now.
Ashley: Oh, wow. Roast chicken.
Helen: From which one?
Ashley: Poole's Diner.
Helen: What's special about the roast chicken?
Ashley: I just love roast chicken.
Helen: It's so good.
Ashley: It's just some crushed garlic cloves with the side of a knife and fresh herbs, cooked skin side down and roasted. I think it's simple and delicious.
Helen: Half chicken?
Ashley: Yeah, it can be a half chicken from time to time. Usually just the breast.
Helen: Oh, wow, really, chicken breast.
Helen: That's not what I expected you to say.
Ashley: Well, you know, with skin on and bone on.
Helen: Oh, good. All right. So like a legit breast. Not like a tragic egg white-style chicken breast.
Greg: All right, next question from Bill.
Bill: If you couldn't live in the South anymore, where would you move?
Ashley: These are such great questions. I would live in Portland, Oregon.
Ashley: It's just a great community. I've got a ton of friends who live there. There's so much food. There's so many great restaurants, and so much incredible stuff growing there.
Helen: It's a good answer. All right. Let's hop with the next one, Bill.
Bill: What's your favorite show on television ever?
Ashley: Law & Order.
Helen: SVU or classic?
Helen: SVU. I just assumed, because SVU is the correct answer.
Helen: Obviously, good.
Ashley: As someone who doesn't sleep well, and it's always on in the middle of the night, it's so great.
Helen: Yeah. When I moved to New York, I was really excited. I was like, "I know this city. I've seen 17 episodes of SVU. I know exactly what's going to happen." It was great.
Ashley: I'll go with The Simpsons right behind that.
Helen: Oh, yeah. I like your commitment to long-running TV shows. Very strong.
Greg: All right. More from Bill.
Bill: If you had to do one basic kitchen job over and over again for the rest of your working life, which task would you choose?
Ashley: I would baste roasting chicken on the sauté station.
Helen: Do you use a baster or do you use a spoon?
Ashley: Just a spoon.
Ashley: I feel like it's such a relaxing task.
Helen: Have you ever used a baster?
Ashley: No. I've seen them.
Helen: They are the most useless devices.
Ashley: And they just look so gross to clean.
Helen: They're so weird. And they fall apart immediately if you have — they're so dumb. The greatest tip anyone can ever get is baste with a freaking spoon.
Helen: Don't buy into Big Baster's propaganda. Next question, Bill.
Bill: What's the most overrated seasonal vegetable?
Ashley: You know what? Can I give the answer that I just don't believe in vegetables being overrated?
Helen: That's so diplomatic.
Ashley: It's one of those things, it's how we use it. I have a really hard time with this argument of everyone being tired of kale. It's a vegetable, don't eat it if you don't want it.
Helen: What is the most recent new vegetable that you tried? Or have you worked through all the world's vegetables?
Ashley: I feel pretty strong on my vegetable game. A vegetable that I'm really happy to see celebrated would be kohlrabi.
Helen: Oh, yeah.
Ashley: Yeah. My father grew it when I was a kid. And I loved the way the name sounded. And now I just love eating it.
Helen: It's a cool vegetable.
Ashley: It's delicious raw. It's delicious cooked.
Greg: Cool name, yeah.
Helen: It's fun. And the greens are good. I mean, it's really great vegetable.
Ashley: It's great. It's a wonderful vegetable.
Helen: All right.
Greg: All around.
Helen: All hail kohlrabi. That's also a t-shirt I would wear.
Helen: All right. Next question, Bill.
Bill: If you could only eat your meals at one fast food chain for the rest of your life, which one would you pick?
Ashley: Would you count Waffle House?
Helen: I don't think that's fast food.
Ashley: That's not fast food, okay. One fast food chain. Would Shake Shack count as — it's not really fast food either, is it?
Helen: Shake Shack?
Ashley: Yeah. Is that fast food?
Greg: It's a gray area, but I'll accept that.
Ashley: Okay, I'm going to take it back. I know my answer.
Helen: All right.
Helen: Oh, yeah.
Greg: Oh, yeah.
Helen: What's your order at Bojangles'?
Greg: I've heard good things about this Bojangles'. I never been to one.
Ashley: The Cajun chicken biscuit, and they refer to their iced tea as "legendary." And I just think that's so rad, that they call their own iced tea legendary.
Helen: I wonder what the legend of their iced tea is. It's got to be something.
Greg: It's haunted. Its haunted.
Helen: Their chicken biscuits are really spectacular.
Ashley: They are fantastic.
Helen: God, chicken biscuits are so good.
Ashley: It's just great. Can you imagine a Bojangles' in Brooklyn?
Helen: It would be mobbed.
Ashley: It would be insane.
Greg: I could imagine an upscale riff on a Bojangles' where all the food is $17 or something.
Helen: That already exists in Brooklyn in 14 locations.
Greg: Yeah, that's true actually.
Helen: If you want to spend $23 on a chicken biscuit —
Ashley: It can be done.
Helen: I can tell you where to make that happen. I think we have one question left in our lighting round. Hit us with it.
Bill: What's the food you miss most from your childhood?
Ashley: The food I miss most from childhood would be pastina. You know, the little tiny — my father used to make that for me when he was just cooking for me. The little tiny pasta with a touch of butter and parmesan.
Helen: Do you ever make it for yourself?
Ashley: I don't. It's one of those things when you have an experience and you don't want to recreate it because it means so much to you as it stands.
Helen: Oh, that's lovely. And that's admirable self restraint, too, working to preserve that. I would have given in and destroyed the memory.
Greg: Ashley Christensen, thank you so much for stopping by the Eater Upsell studios.
Ashley: Such a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Helen: Folks can check out your various restaurants, coffee shops, cocktail bars, private dining operations, etc., if they're in the Raleigh-Durham area.
Ashley: Please come see us.
Greg: And where can we find you on social media, Ashley?
Helen: And you can pick up a copy of Poole's, the beautiful cookbook, wherever fine books are sold, or probably any books really, not just fine ones, though it is a fine book.
Ashley: Yeah. Well, thank you.
Helen: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming by the Upsell, it's been great to talk to you.
Ashley: Thank you both, and Bill.
Helen: Thanks Bill!
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin