Raleigh’s Ashley Christensen takes home James Beard Award for best chef in the US

Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, whose cooking reinvigorated a city’s restaurant scene, is at the top of America’s culinary world.

Christensen won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country, taking home the top honors Monday night at the annual James Beard Foundation awards in Chicago.

“It’s incredible,” said Christensen, reached by phone Monday night, with the coveted award hanging from her neck.

This is the second James Beard chef award for Christensen, 42, who owns Poole’s Diner and several restaurants in downtown Raleigh. She previously won Best Chef: Southeast in 2014 and is the only North Carolina chef to ever win the top award, considered the Oscars of the food industry.

“You know there’s a name in the envelope,” she told The News & Observer Monday. “And you know the whole list are incredible chefs and leaders. This is an opportunity to amplify our voice and push our field to be the best it can possibly be.”

Past winners of the award include many of the most influential chefs of the last few decades: Alice Waters, David Chang, Wolfgang Puck, Jose Andres.

There were no New York chefs up for the award this year. Instead, nominees stretched coast to coast: David Kinch of Manresa and Corey Lee of Benu, each in California; Marc Vetri in Philadelphia; and Donald Link in New Orleans.

Christensen, who has used her influence to raise money and awareness for social justice causes, was nominated for the country’s top award last year, which went to New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune.

Monday, with a deep entourage of staff members and Raleigh chefs making the trip to Chicago, Christensen told The News & Observer her celebration would include Shake Shack burgers, caviar and bottles of Champagne.

Ashley Christensen acceptance speech

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, a 2010 Outstanding Chef winner and “Top Chef” judge, called Christensen’s name as the winner of the last award of the ceremony.

In her speech, Christensen recalled her childhood in Kernersville, filled with family dinners and her parents teaching her the value of eating together. When she came to Raleigh to attend NC State, she embraced the notion that food is better when it’s shared, and became famous for throwing dinner parties with her friends.

“To my parents Lynn and Fox, thank you for making sure we ate dinner together every night and teaching me that the best part of food is sharing it with others,” Christensen said in her speech Monday.

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Monday night, she singled out fellow nominee and Southern chef Link as a mentor.

“A lot of chefs make great chefs. You make leaders and owners,” Christensen said. “I share this award with you.”

She also thanked the investors and mentors who helped guide the “self-taught line cook,” namely chefs Andrea Reusing and Scott Howell, who Christensen worked for early on in her career. (Reusing won Best Chef: Southeast in 2011 for Chapel Hill’s Lantern.)

Christensen opened Poole’s Diner in 2007, and dedicated her flagship restaurant to the soul of American diner fare. It is famous for its take on macaroni and cheese, and a chalkboard menu that sings the songs of seasonality and sophistication with comfort and ease.

Poole’s routinely makes the country’s best-of lists for top restaurants and is often cited as one of the forces reinvigorating a belief in downtown Raleigh’s now-thriving restaurant community.

Within that growth, Christensen has built a restaurant empire, with casual spots Beasley’s Chicken + Honey and Chuck’s Burgers; basement cocktail bar Fox Liquor; and fine dining and wood-fired Death & Taxes. A pizzeria called Poole’side Pies is in the works to open next to Poole’s Diner on South McDowell Street.

“Life is rich and full,” Christensen said to close out her speech. “Don’t forget kindness. We’ll see you on the dance floor tonight.”

Ashley Christensen James Beard Awards 2.jpg
2019 Galdones Photography Huge Galdones/2019 Galdones Photography The James Beard Foundation

James Beard Awards recognize leaders

The James Beard Awards honor talented chefs and culinary pioneers, but the foundation also looks for chefs who are leaders in the community and industry.

Christensen’s influence has grown in recent years as she has taken to social media and written for national publications on issues within the kitchen, such as sexual harassment. The phrase “Don’t Forget Kindness” is on the windows of all her restaurants.

“We have over 50 directors and managers in our company working so hard every day to grow and to lead and to make sure we leave this industry better than we found it,” Christensen said in her speech.

“We’re not perfect, but each day we get back up and work with the intention to be better than we were the day before. We want to make this industry a place where you want your children to work. We invite you, all of you, to join us in this mission.”

In 2018, Time magazine named her one of the 31 people redefining the South. The year before, Eater, an online food publication, named Poole’s one of the country’s 38 “essential restaurants” and then named Christensen the Eater Chef of the Year, recognizing her activism.

Only four North Carolina chefs have won Beard Awards in the chef categories. 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 died earlier this year at age 61 and was recognized Monday in an “In Memoriam” segment.

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

Asheville chef Katie Button was the only North Carolina chef up for the Best Chef: Southeast category this year. The award was won by Mashama Bailey, of the The Grey in Savannah, Ga.

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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.