2017 Tar Heels of the Year: renowned chef and restaurateur, Ashley Christensen
Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner is up for one of the biggest honors in the culinary world: the James Beard Award for the country's Outstanding Chef.
The James Beard nominations were announced Wednesday morning via a Twitter broadcast, whittling a much longer list of who's who in food and beverage down to a few dozen potential honorees.
Christensen won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014. She owns four restaurants in downtown Raleigh, including her award-winning Poole’s Diner and Death & Taxes, plus a cocktail bar and an event space. A pizza restaurant is on the way next year next to Poole’s.
This time, she'll be one of five chefs vying for a national award that's given to "a working chef in America whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals."
Other chefs in the category are: Gabrielle Hamilton, Prune (New York City); David Kinch, Manresa (Los Gatos, Calif.); Christopher Kostow, The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena, Calif.); and Donald Link, Herbsaint (New Orleans).
Meanwhile, Vivian Howard of Kinston is nominated again for Outstanding Television Host/Personality for "A Chef's Life," an award she previously won in 2016. She is also nominated for Best Webcast, Fixed Location/Instructional for a recipe of black bean glazed salmon for pannacooking.com.
There are several other North Carolina nominees, or nominations with North Carolina connections.
▪ Asheville's Katie Button is nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. She is the only chef from North Carolina in this category. She owns two Asheville restaurants: Curate and Nightbell.
North Carolina, and the Triangle especially, often populate the Best Chef: Southeast semifinalist category, but are sometimes left out of the ultimate nominees, running up against the equally booming food scenes in Atlanta, Charleston and Nashville.
Alongside Button, the other nominees for Best Chef: Southeast include Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Rodney Scott of Rodney Scott's BBQ in Charleston and Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis.
▪ Victoria Bouloubasis, former food editor for Indy Week, is nominated for a James Beard Local Impact journalism award for these stories: “What Do Lakewood Residents Think of Their Neighborhood’s Newest High-End Restaurant?”; “ ‘La Comida’ Makes for a Big Family Meal at Mothers & Sons”; and “The Restaurant Industry Depends on Immigrants. What Happens If We Lose Them?”
▪ Hunter Lewis, a Chapel Hill native and UNC graduate, is nominated in the Food and Health Media category for "What Healthy Means Now," which appeared in Cooking Light magazine. Lewis, who got his start in journalism at the Durham Herald-Sun, is editor of Cooking Light and Food & Wine magazines.
▪ Roads & Kingdoms, a travel food website, is nominated for best Food Section. One of its founders, Matt Goulding, is from Cary.
As the Beard Foundation moves to acknowledge the work chefs do outside the kitchen as much as their cooking, Christensen appears more poised than ever to vie for the honor. She has been a leader on issues of equality and harassment, both in her community and in her restaurants.
Jose Andres was named the James Beard Humanitarian of the Year for his work feeding thousands in Puerto Rico.
A dozen North Carolina chefs, brewers, bakers and restauranteurs were among the semifinalists announced last month, showcasing the state's beer and barbecue cultures and chef-driven restaurants. Most of the mentions were for the long list of Best Chef: Southeast semifinalists, but North Carolina folks were also nominated for beverage professional awards, best new restaurant and rising star.
Brewery Bhavana, the Raleigh darling of 2017, was up for best new restaurant in the country.
Many of North Carolina’s semifinalists were nominated before. This is the sixth year in the Best Chef: Southeast category for Howard and the second for Cheetie Kumar of Garland. It was the third for Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, who was nominated for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional.
Eastern North Carolina pitmaster Sam Jones of Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ was a first-time semifinalist.
In addition to Christensen, three James Beard Awards have been won by chefs in the Triangle: Ben Barker of the former Magnolia Grill and Andrea Reusing of Lantern for Best Chef: Southeast. Magnolia Grill's Karen Barker won outstanding pastry chef, a national award.
Gabe Barker of Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro, son of the Ben and Karen Barker, has twice been a Rising Star semifinalist for best young chef in the country.
The winners will be announced at a gala in Chicago May 7.
Winners of the 2018 James Beard Media Awards will be announced April 27.