Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen is a semifinalist for national James Beard Award

The James Beard Foundation released its list of semifinalists Wednesday for the organization’s prestigious restaurant and chef awards, and it includes several North Carolina food and beverage leaders.

Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen is once again a semifinalist for the top James Beard award of Outstanding Chef in the country. Last year she was one of five nominees shortlisted for the honor, which ultimately went to New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune.

This is Christensen’s fourth year as a semifinalist for the award. She previously won Best Chef: Southeast for her Poole’s Diner in downtown Raleigh.

This year’s Best Chef: Southeast contenders — with eight of 20 from North Carolina — truly stretch from the state’s mountains to the sea.

In the Triangle, Cheetie Kumar of Garland in Raleigh; Steven Devereaux Greene of Herons at the Umstead Hotel in Cary; and Oscar Diaz of The Cortez in Raleigh are semifinalists.

Herons was named Restaurant of the Year last month by The News & Observer’s restaurant critic, Greg Cox.

Diaz is a first-time semifinalist. The Cortez, which opened in 2017, was of one Cox’s Honorable Mentions for his annual “best of” list in 2018.

The restaurant, from the same owners as Jose & Sons, and Diaz were featured in Time magazine’s “South Issue” in 2018, highlighting the restaurant’s blend of North Carolina ingredients in Mexican dishes, hailed in the story as advancing Southern dining.

Elsewhere in the state, the category’s semifinalists are:

Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani and Katie Button of Cúrate, both in Asheville

Joe Kindred of Kindred and Gregory Collier at Loft & Cellar, both in Charlotte

Dean Neff at Pinpoint in Wilmington.

In other awards, Durham’s Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam Brewery is a semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Spirits and Beer professional. In Asheville, barbecue restaurant Buxton Hall’s Ashley Capps is on the list for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Both are national awards.

The Stanley in Charlotte is up for the national award for Best New Restaurant.

The finalists will be named March 27 and will include media and cookbook awards. The media awards will be presented April 26 with the awards gala May 6 in Chicago.

In the history of the Beard Awards, four have come home to North Carolina. Chef Ben Barker of Magnolia Grill was the first to win one, earning Best Chef: Southeast in 2000 for Durham’s now-closed Magnolia Grill. Three year’s later, his wife Karen Barker won Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2003, a national honor. (Barker died earlier this month.)

In 2011, Andrea Reusing won Best Chef: Southeast for Chapel Hill’s Lantern, followed by Christensen in 2014.

The Southeast region remains highly competitive, encompassing some of the South’s higher profile dining cities, such as Charleston, Nashville and Atlanta. Last year’s Outstanding Chef: Southeast award went to South Carolina pitmaster Rodney Scott, who is only the second Beard winner ever to primarily cook barbecue. Scott’s two-year old Charleston restaurant Rodney Scott’s BBQ makes barbecue in the whole hog tradition most commonly associated with Eastern North Carolina.

The Beard awards emphasize the role chefs play in their community as well as their kitchens.

Christensen has become known for her activism as much as her macaroni and cheese. She regularly speaks out about causes she is passionate about; her restaurants all have “Don’t Forget Kindness” on their windows.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, several chefs, including Christensen, Kumar, Greene, Diaz, Raleigh’s Scott Crawford and other locals came together to stage benefit meals.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.