The Big Heart of Ashley Christensen
Though the toast of Raleigh is one of the hottest—and busiest—chefs in the South, it’s her work outside the kitchen that continues to define her
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Chef Ashley Christensen, who is thirty-six, has a unicorn app on her smartphone. “Check this out,” she says gleefully, flipping through photos of America’s celebrated cooks and sommeliers now adorned with spiraled horns and puffy wings amid backgrounds of heart-shaped balloons. Such impish playfulness is not what one expects of badass, empire-building chefs like Christensen, or chefs generally, as even casual viewers of cuisine competitions can attest. Chefs, like other artists, have temperaments. Egos that drive and consume and lead to fits of perfectionism or worse. They tip into caricature. They forget the food. They start worrying about their hair.
Not so Christensen, who, though she has faultlessly lovely hair, avoids narcissism like dysentery. Instead, she concerns herself almost exclusively with enjoying life, doing good, and enabling others to do the same. That she achieves this primarily through her cooking is gravy for us all.
Self-taught and the humbler for it, Christensen specializes in tweaking comfortable classics into something finer, as if sewing a sweatshirt from cashmere. She never condescends or preens. Nor does her food, which hits that perfect note of being better than seems possible without making you feel like an aristocratic prig for eating it. Her Raleigh, North Carolina, restaurants are the renowned Poole’s Downtown Diner, which is anything but; Chuck’s, a single-concept burger joint serving homemade shakes thick enough for Newt Gingrich to walk across; Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, a yard bird haven with biscuits so rich they make you feel dirty; and the Fox Liquor Bar, named after her father, a man of many passions, much like his daughter. Christensen opened all of these establishments in downtown Raleigh, which not long ago was so desolate tumbleweeds found it dull, because she believed in urban revitalization and that if she built it they would come.
Come they did. (The mac and cheese at Poole’s alone caused an avalanche of desire and longing not seen since Raquel Welch wore that cave girl bikini.) Lines now form on previously empty streets.
“What Ashley brings to the table is always with a greater good in mind,” says local philanthropist Eliza Kraft Olander. “She has a great deal of integrity. She is a rare bird.”
Christensen aims to elevate everything she touches, up to and including her customers, who feel in the moment that, yes, this is what food should taste like—loved, respected, realized. And this exquisite visceral contentment is about nothing so much as it is Christensen, who infuses every dish not just with impeccably balanced flavor but also her decency. If Gregory Peck were a comely blonde chef, he would be Ashley Christensen.
Said decency extends well beyond the kitchen. A zealous fund-raiser, Christensen puts her money where your mouth is, devoting half of her time to charitable causes. Not for her a line of fry pans at Walmart or a storefront in Times Square. “I want to give more than I take,” she says matter-of-factly over drinks at Fox’s, where she is sampling myriad cocktails for an upcoming event.
Christensen waves over the woman delivering the highballs.
“The mint is a good idea,” she says warmly. “But not this particular mint. It’s a little funky.” She swallows another swig. “Maybe rosemary?”
The philanthropic bug bit Christensen in 2003, when the then twenty-six-year-old volunteered for a 330-mile AIDS ride from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. She started with a modest goal of raising $26,000 and ended up collecting a record-breaking $56,000.
“On the ride,” she says, “folks would come up to me and thank me. I was completely unprepared for that. People in tears. I was so moved.”
The ride “secured my connection to this city,” she explains. Before then, she’d fantasized about uprooting to New York or San Francisco, locations with more to offer a nascent chef. “But the ride made me think of everything differently. I realized I had influence here.”