The Big Heart of Ashley Christensen
Last year that influence (and quite a few unforgettable fund-raising dinners) raised $120,000 for the Frankie Lemmon School and Development Center, a tuition-free facility for developmentally disabled children. Christensen also collected upwards of $70,000 for Stir the Pot (STP), a charity she founded to unite chefs and funnel cash into the documentary arm of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA).
“STP events have helped knit together a community,” says the SFA’s director, John T. Edge, author and grand pooh-bah of all things culinarily Southern. “Ashley is introducing line cooks to farmers, citizen diners to historians.” Which is all part of Christensen’s modest plan to remind us of our immutable interconnectivity and our obligation not to act a fool just because modern times indulge it.
Christensen admits she has no tolerance for pettiness (hers or others’) and is perplexed when peers withhold wisdom or adopt ludicrous personas. She has eaten in restaurants where the chef was so aloof he pretended he wasn’t there. And she has found this approach lacking.
“With Stir the Pot, I wanted to unite more chefs in my area,” she explains, taking a long swallow of tequila. “Certain folks were talking s*** about each other. I felt like if we had the opportunity to get on the same side of things, we could work it out, start conversations.”
Her diplomacy succeeded. Now former rivals cook side by side, sharing recipes and advice minus the envy and smack talk.
“In the South, we want to take care of each other. To help each other grow,” says Christensen, who cites chefs such as Charleston’s Sean Brock and Atlanta’s Anne Quatrano as mentors. “Down here, no one is saying, ‘I can’t show you how to make that.’”
It is dinnertime at Poole’s, and Christensen is elucidating the blackboard-only menu, saying she designed it to allow diners to “eat the way chefs like to eat,” which is to say, indecisively and exuberantly. The notion is freedom of choice for the patron and the chef. Gluttony is optional, but hard to resist. The freestyle menu also means you never get weary of the same old selections. To eat at Poole’s is to be in a constant state of high romance, never a marriage.
“Southern chefs are less formal,” Christensen says of her approach. “My parents made incredible meals, but none of it was planned.” More to the point, she stresses, “I refuse to be disconnected from where I started.”
By this she means not only Raleigh, where she was a North Carolina State student with an undeclared major before she dropped out to cook full-time, but also her hometown near Greensboro, where she was raised by her parents, Robert and Lynn, avid organic gardeners, and where, family lore has it, little Ashley took her first steps toward a glass of sweet tea.
“Growing up, my understanding was you ate what grew in the Southern earth,” she recalls. “What grows together goes together.”
“Ashley’s cooking is vegetable driven,” observes Edge. “She comes out of the meat-and-three tradition and knows, in her bones, that the three end of that is what really matters.”