Christensen reflects on NC roots, looks ahead to Pooleside Pies
When Ashley Christensen was 8-years-old, she got in trouble for making beignets in her family kitchen.
“I grew up around food and got to witness my parents cooking all the time. When they were out, I would always find myself in the kitchen deciding what I could cook,” the Raleigh chef told WRAL last year.
“My dad was a truck driver and went to New Orleans often, and he came home from one route with beignet mix -- and I got in deep trouble for deep frying in the kitchen as an eight-year-old. The box was so intriguing. I remember that was one of the first things that sent me down the cooking rabbit hole.”
That rabbit hole has led her to the ultimate honor - the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. The awards, which are often referred to as the “Oscars of Food,” were presented May 6 in Chicago.
“This was our fifth time being in the room with the potential of getting an award,” Christensen said Friday.
Christensen previously won the best chef in the southeast award in 2014. Two years later, her restaurant, Death and Taxes, was a finalist for best new restaurant in the country. Last year, Christensen was a finalist for Outstanding Chef.
“It’s funny because last year I didn’t write a speech,” she said. “Part of that, I think, I don’t know if I would have been ready to win this award last year or be celebrated under that title.”
This year, Christensen wrote a speech. “No matter how it worked out, writing that speech reminded me of all of the things I get to be proud of,” she said.
Christensen said she got a little nervous in the afternoon, just hours before the awards, thinking about the exciting night ahead.
“It’s not about whether you think you are going to take it home or not,” she said. “It’s about like, ‘Hey, I’m here. We’re here. I’m surrounded by 33 people who have joined us on the road.’”
Vansana Nolintha, co-owner of Brewery Bhavana and Bida Manda, was one of those friends who made the trip to Chicago to support Christensen.
“The momentum was just tremendous,” Nolintha said. “We knew we wanted to be the loudest (at the awards).”
Although Christensen remained nervous though the awards ceremony, she started to relax just before her award was announced.
“About five minutes before they announced it, I just had this pure calm fall over me. I don’t know what in the universe made that happen, but I am so tremendously grateful for it because it allowed me to process every second of that experience,” she said.
“We freaked out. I think everybody in Raleigh freaked out too,” Nolintha said.
When Christensen won the award for best chef in the southeast, the awards were still being held in New York City.
“The lights in the room, you couldn’t see anything,” she said.
When Christensen walked up on stage in Chicago, she expected to see the same blinding lights. Instead she was able to see everyone’s faces.
“I was so grateful for it,” she said.
While Christensen wore the medal the night of the awards, don’t expect to see her wearing it around downtown Raleigh. When Christensen won the best chef in the southeast award, she said her friend, John Currence, a James Beard Award winning chef in Oxford, Miss., gave her some advice.
“He gave me a big hug and said, ‘If you wake up tomorrow and you aren’t wearing this thing, something is wrong with you. If you wake up the next day and you’re still wearing it, something’s also wrong with you,’” she recalled.
For now, the outstanding chef medal will reside at Poole’s, hanging next to her 2014 best chef in the southeast medal.
Christensen hopes the award will help encourage people to look into what North Carolina has to offer.
“This is a place where we have the mountains and the coast. I grew up in the Piedmont,” she said. “This is a very special place that experiences the seasons and all the agricultural gifts of those seasons. The inspiration is constant.”
Christensen also praised the mix of culturally and ethnically diverse restaurants in the area. “I love seeing how we all have a tie here and we express it through a different lens but we do it out of being anchored to what grows in the earth here and what happens on our coast and what happens in the mountains,” she said. “It’s a very special place to be cooking.”
In addition to Poole’s, Beasley’s Chicken and Honey, Chuck’s and Foundation bar, Christensen is planning to open Pooleside Pies, a pizza restaurant, in late summer.
She is committing to giving her team a month to train in the space before doors open.