Raleigh’s Leader for All
A conversation with Chef Ashley Christensen.
By Connie Gentry / Photography by Darin Meyer
Ten days before her June wedding, the most notable chef in the country made time to sit down with us and talk about things of note in our city—the conversations we should be having, the opportunities and challenges on our plate.
We all know Ashley Christensen is the single biggest reason Raleigh is nationally known as a foodie town. But she’s also a genuine and down-to-earth individual who is intent on making this community the best it can be for everyone—all of us. And her emphasis is on all.
“I think we are a progressive city,” Christensen says, in response to the observation that she has done much to elevate the perception of Raleigh, not only as a culinary center but also as a city of increasing cultural awareness. “It’s up to everyone who lives in this community to make sure we select and elect council members who reflect those ideas of being a super welcoming community—a community that supports and cheers on small businesses. Because when this city tells its story to other cities, it’s the small businesses they’re talking about. And that’s what draws people in.”
An entrepreneur who’s turned her small business into a company that employs 270 people, Christensen gets that community is all about people. “When you look at the definition of a small business, it’s a person who chooses to live and invest in a place that they love.” And love Raleigh she does, ever since she moved here the day after her 18th birthday to attend N.C. State University.
She laughingly jokes of downtown Raleigh in 1994 as “a place where you found tumbleweeds,” but it was the opportunity to be in a place where so much revitalization was going on that made her choose to stay. That, and she simply fell in love with the community and its prevailing spirit of generosity and concern for one another.
“I feel a responsibility to help folks in this community understand the importance and power of their voice in holding our elected officials and public servants accountable to do the job of representing all of the voices and people who live in this place. All of them.” (Her word again.)
Part of representing—for anyone in a position of leadership—is to give back to the community, especially in areas of need or times of trouble. Christensen is first in line to do this for a number of causes, and her name is as synonymous with giving as it is with cooking.
“My No. 1 cause locally is The Frankie Lemmon School,” Christensen says. “Generally the thing that connects you to a specific line of community work is something personal. For me it was a person, Eliza Craft Olander, who was a mentor for me and is one of my best friends.”
Christensen served on the board of The Frankie Lemmon Foundation, a responsibility she says she really enjoyed, but she recognized her time was better spent pushing the auction experience forward and she became chairman of The Triangle Wine Experience. “I learned a lot on the board,” she says, “and Eliza taught me a lot about the real power of being at the center of the community, in the way that restaurants are [at the center], and how folks look to community leaders for what to get behind and what to support. Through Eliza, I began to understand the power that we held and the responsibility that comes along with that.”
Over the years, the Triangle Wine Experience (now the Triangle Wine & Food Experience) has raised significant funds for the school, enabling it to expand from the basement of Hayes Barton Baptist Church to its own facility, with room to grow. It’s an accomplishment that Christensen is thrilled to have been part of, and she relishes the work she does on behalf of the school and the foundation. “It really is one of the most epic food events in the state of North Carolina, but I think it leaves a mark on the national scene as well. This year we’re bringing in our first national chef for the event—Sarah Grueneberg, from Chicago. She’s one of my closest friends, and she loves the idea of the auction. We’ll start building to bring in more national chefs, and I think the local chefs will really enjoy that as well.”
And when natural disasters or unforeseen events occur, she’s all in—personally as well as professionally. After last year’s devastating hurricane season, she and her fiancé Kaitlyn Goalen (who serves as executive director of AC Restaurants) hosted a fundraising dinner and auction in their home. They pulled the event together in just one week, complete with bringing Chef Emeril Lagasse in to help cook. The event raised $125,000, and she adds: “I just love the idea of being able to dial in someone we haven’t really had a chance to work with, so I reached out to the Boulted Bread guys to ask if they’d be interested in baking the bread for the dinner; so they did. Since then we’ve gotten to know each other, and I just think of them as some of the finest people in this community.”
As spontaneous as she may be, the commitment to helping others is something she forecasts for in her company’s annual budgets, because as she explains, “We have to be prepared for that stuff, because the restaurant industry—aside from first responders—are the next to come to aid when things like that happen. It’s so unfortunate when those things happen, but it’s a really beautiful thing to see how our community gathers.”
Christensen has also made a practice of supporting the Share Our Strength campaign and its local focus on the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. Witness to her ability to inspire partnership giving at every turn, Counter Culture Coffee recently debuted its AC Celebration Blend in honor of her 2019 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, and proceeds will be donated to Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.
Her latest cause to embrace: The Shepherd’s Table. “The Monday after the awards, we brought a team to volunteer at The Shepherd’s Table, which was an amazing experience. Kait had started a conversation with those guys, and I want to really bring some muscle [to their cause] in the upcoming year.”
As for what she’s bringing next to the downtown dining scene: Neapolitan pizza, inspired by a trip she and Kait took to Italy. Look for Poole’side Pies to open next door to Poole’s Diner later this summer.