NC’s Ashley Christensen gets another shot at national James Beard Award

For the second year in a row, Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen will stand in the brightest spotlight of the food world.

Christensen is one of five finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef award, a national honor considered the food industry’s top annual prize.

Asheville chef Katie Button is the only North Carolina chef up for the Best Chef: Southeast category.

The James Beard Foundation announced its award finalists Wednesday morning in a live stream online. The awards often are called the Oscars of the restaurant industry.

Christensen owns several restaurants in downtown Raleigh, including Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes, Chuck’s, Beasley’s and Fox Liquor. She is expected to open a Neapolitan-style pizzeria, Pooleside Pies, next to Poole’s Diner later this year.

“We are thrilled, humbled and honored to announce that our fearless leader and founder, Ashley Christensen, has made the short list for the James Beard Award 2019 Outstanding Chef, Poole’s Diner,” the AC Restaurant Group said in an email newsletter. “To be placed alongside so many other powerhouse restaurateurs and chefs making strides in the hospitality community is an incredible honor.”

The other Best Chef nominees are:

David Kinch, Manresa, Los Gatos, Calif.

Corey Lee, Benu, San Francisco

Donald Link, Herbsaint, New Orleans

Marc Vetri, Vetri Cucina, Philadelphia

Christensen previously won Best Chef: Southeast for Poole’s Diner in downtown Raleigh, the flagship restaurant she opened 11 years ago, modernizing the soul of the classic American diner. Poole’s and Christensen helped establish today’s food scene in Raleigh, packing a downtown with nationally acclaimed restaurants and sparking the kind of development interest that’s currently remaking parts of the city.

Last year’s Outstanding Chef honor went to New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune. Historically, the top award has tended to favor the country’s major metropolitan centers and food destinations, the likes of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, placing Raleigh outside the mainstream.

But in the past few years, the Beard awards have emphasized the role chefs play in their community as well as their kitchens, and Christensen is known for her activism.

She has long been a player in the country’s food conversation, including being named Eater’s national Chef of the Year for 2017, a leader in the industry’s efforts to address kitchen harassment issues and earlier this month penning a personal essay for Food & Wine.

Meanwhile, the finalists for Best Chef: Southeast, which covers Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, are:

Mashama Bailey, The Grey, Savannah, Ga.

Katie Button, Cúrate, Asheville

Cassidee Dabney, The Barn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.

Ryan Smith, Staplehouse, Atlanta

Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Memphis, Tenn.

The initial list of 20 semifinalists had eight North Carolina names, including several from 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. Diaz was a first-time semifinalist.

Durham’s Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam Brewery had been a semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Spirits and Beer professional.

In the media awards, former Charlotte Observer food writer Kathleen Purvis is nominated in the Home Cooking category for a piece she wrote for Garden & Gun, “Five Secret Southern Ingredients,” highlighting the virtues of buttermilk, Bloody Mary mix and other superheroes of the Southern kitchen.

The media awards will be presented April 26 in New York City, 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 years later, his wife Karen Barker won Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2003, a national honor. Karen Barker passed away earlier this year at age 61.

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

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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.