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Star of the South

Ashley Christensen

Photo courtesy of AC Restaurants.

Meet Andrew Zimmern’s new favorite chef, Ashley Christensen.

Last year at the Southern Foodways Alliance barbecue symposium in Oxford, Mississippi, the big talk wasn’t about the brisket or pork shoulder. It was all about the vegetable side dishes from a young chef from North Carolina—in particular, her smoked tomato pie with a golden mantle of Silver Queen corn bread crust served with a gauzy splash of sweet corn whipped cream. That a tomato pie was the most talked-about dish at a celebration of meat is yet another reason why I think Ashley Christensen is the next big thing.

In the past five years, Christensen has launched several successful dining concepts at breakneck speed, almost single-handedly transforming Raleigh into a must-visit food town and earning her place as an icon within the chef community with simple, well-crafted food that speaks to just about everyone. Born and raised in a small town in North Carolina’s Piedmont region, Christensen enrolled at N.C. State, reading about food and cooking when she wasn’t studying for exams. “I began throwing a lot of dinner parties, pushing myself to learn new things, incentivized by the opportunity to share them,” she explains. “I ultimately fell just as hard for hosting as cooking, which is probably a definitive characteristic of a restaurant owner.”

After graduating and a seven-year stint at Raleigh’s heralded Enoteca Vin (which was shuttered in 2009), Christensen made her first big solo move, reopening the legendary Poole’s Diner in December 2007. The spirit of the place, formerly a circa-1940s pie shop, spoke to Christensen; during its makeover, she left many original elements untouched, such as the double-horseshoe counter.

But Christensen also infused Poole’s with a new energy, starting with the menu, which shows off her love of deconstructing simple dishes and “obsessing on improvement of their simple details.” Expect to see savory treats such as lapsang-brined chicken thighs, brown butter-roasted scallops and rabbit confit.

In the fall of 2010, Christensen opened three more concepts, all under the same roof. An 8,500-square-foot former Piggly Wiggly now houses Chuck’s (a burger joint), Beasley’s Chicken + Honey—think fried chicken, pimento mac and cheese and other comfort foods—and Fox Liquor Bar, which pours craft cocktails.

Christensen purchased a coffee shop in the first week of 2013 and traveled to Paris with four staff members to research yet another business she hopes to unveil in late summer. It’s a full plate, but Christensen knows what she’s doing. She understands what diners look for in a restaurant experience and has the confidence to keep things simple and good. That’s the toughest kind of cooking to get right because there’s nothing to hide behind.

It’s not just the Tar Heel State that’s taking notice of this rising star. Two years ago, Christensen competed on Iron Chef America and also was named a James Beard semi-finalist. And many nights, you can follow world-class chefs tweeting pictures while eating their way through Christensen’s menu. Jamie Bissonnette of Boston’s Toro and Coppa excitedly messaged me one night from Poole’s: “Dude, no one is cooking like Ashley right now, she is ‘it’.” //

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