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
In October, Christensen was invited to cook the signature lunch for four hundred guests at the Southern Foodways Alliance barbecue fete in Oxford, Mississippi. With elephantine brass, she chose to go vegetarian for the entire twelve-course meal. She brought the tables to their fatback-loving knees.
“It felt like the best meal we’ve ever cooked,” Christensen recalls, explaining that the choice to eschew animal protein was not about being deliberately contrary, but a gesture of respect to the many pit masters in attendance. It was also a tribute to her personal history, and the history of all Southerners whose memories of barbecue centered not on the food but on the gathering itself.
“I thought it would be really cool to put things in the middle of these forty-five tables where everyone would say, ‘I know that dish but that’s not how we do it.’ I wanted to stimulate dialogue about tradition and stories and do it in a way that no one would notice that the meat never hit the table.”
Her moxie (and her cooking) earned Christensen a four-minute standing ovation. “It was shattering,” she recalls. “When I spoke, I said, ‘What we wanted today more than anything else was for you to look at us the way you are looking at us right now.’”
The meal left diners weeping. Christensen was honored, but not surprised by the waterworks. “It wasn’t about me. It was about what food makes people recall. How it sparks so much.” She likens food to music. (It was Christensen’s intention to enter the music business, but after working as a rep for BMG while still in college and witnessing “the scaly underbelly,” she changed her mind.) For Christensen, music and food don’t lie. They cut to the quick of life, say the things you can’t, conjure sentiments you think you’ve forgotten.
“The way food makes me feel,” Christensen says, her eyes narrowed with delight, “is the one relationship I’ve never doubted.”
When Christensen was in kindergarten, the school called her mother in to talk about her daughter, whom they described as “overly logical for her age,” and perhaps a bit impertinent. Lynn thanked them for their concerns, then reassured Ashley she was going to be just fine. At home, Christensen’s older brother Zak offered another take.
“You know you’re retarded, right?”
Christensen laughs as she shares this story. “I do have ADD. I worry about myself a bit when I get racing, ‘Just get to tomorrow, just get to tomorrow.’ I want to be more appreciative of everything that happens each day.”
No sooner has she said this than she confesses she is about to start writing a cookbook—“maybe more than one book?”—and that she has been mulling over the prospect of a coffee shop. “One with incredible sandwiches. There is really no place to go
and spend eight dollars on a killer smoothie. And I can’t understand why that isn’t happening. Maybe have a sweet wine list...” She trails off.
That is the thing about Christensen. When she notices something missing in the world, she creates it.
It is Monday night and Christensen has invited twenty or so friends over to her house for dinner. Nothing fancy, just boiled prawns with drawn butter, sautéed mushrooms as fat as baby legs, chickens roasted outside over charcoal Christensen made herself in a cut-out barrel her uncle fashioned.
“The neighbors have called the fire department a few times,” she says, nodding toward the barrel’s flames, licking as high as kites toward the night sky. “But then they come, and see what we’re doing, and get excited about the barbecue.”
Around her, guests swirl, snacking on pan-fried fingerling potatoes and sampling a generous array of wines. Taking a break from the stove, Christensen retires to a corner of the living room and surveys the scene.
“I remember that feeling of being a kid at a grown-up party,” she says, eyes lit. “Overhearing folks say to my dad, ‘I don’t like eggplant,’ or ‘I don’t like okra,’ then watching him lean over and pop something in their mouths and they would sit back and sigh and go, ‘That’s amazing!’”
Christensen smiles, cheeks flush.
“When I was younger, I thought what I did was about the food. But what I came to realize was it was about watching people interact with each other when there is a comfort zone created over something shared.”
She looks around her house, brimming with people chatting, laughing, swooning over dishes she has cooked, their faces pink and greasy and satisfied. Soon enough, someone calls from the kitchen. Christensen wastes no time. She is needed there.