Being a great chef in 2017 is about more than making great food — though of course Ashley Christensen delivers on that front. She has spent the past 10 years remaking Raleigh, North Carolina’s restaurant scene in her image, beginning with her elevated diner Poole’s, an Eater “hall of fame” restaurant for its inclusion every year on the 38 Essential Restaurants list. From there came Beasley’s, a fried chicken restaurant before the great fast-casual chicken boom. There’s Chuck’s, a burger shop, and Fox Liquor Bar, a cocktail den. Death & Taxes, her blockbuster opening from 2015, was way ahead of the wood-fired cooking trend that has since swept the country.
“I love being able to tell these stories of this place where we live, and the dishes we grew up on, through this idea of simple food done as well as we can do it each day, and hopefully a little better the day after,” Christensen says of her culinary philosophy. Take the macaroni au gratin at Poole’s — she sells some 15,000 per year. “People have this wonderful, nostalgic, and comforting connection to that dish, but they keep ordering it because of how it is uniquely ours — which is just caring about these simple ingredients and how they’re introduced.”
But when she thinks about what makes a restaurant an “Ashley Christensen restaurant,” her answer is the people: Her staff, her guests, and how her restaurants can play a role in the community. She herself sets a strong example. “I love to cook food,” she says. “I love to entertain. I love that that sits at the center of my life’s work. I think to be a chef is a huge responsibility, but it’s also a tremendous privilege to do something that you love that much. For that, I feel a very pleasant responsibility to give something back.” Christensen — and her group — are regulars on the fundraising circuit. But Christensen also puts her community values into practice when it comes to running her restaurants.
Last year, Christensen wrote an Eater op-ed explaining how she took a stand against North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” by making her restaurants’ single-occupancy bathrooms gender neutral, and how she planned on speaking up more about the issues that impact her community and her staff. This year, she tackled sexual harassment and misogyny in the restaurant industry, taking to social media to make public her team’s own policies: “I promised to make sure anyone I invite to work with us will know about these heightened expectations before they step foot in our restaurants,” she wrote in a post with over 1,800 likes.
Christensen now sends explicit expectations to every guest chef, sommelier, or other collaborator that comes into her restaurants. “When you come in our kitchen or our dining room, we expect you to respect the things that we respect,” she says, “because we believe that you will be an influential figure in the lives of our cooks and our servers." She also suspects that anyone who receives such an email from her will likely think about it and tell their own staff about it. She believes it can help keep her staff safe — and she hopes that it will have a ripple effect outside her own group.
It’s somewhere in this mix of helping her staff grow and her industry move forward — all while serving food with a deep and earnest sense of place — that Christensen raised the bar for what it means to be a chef. It’s why she’s this year’s Chef of the Year.