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Chef Ashley Christensen bets it all on downtown Raleigh

Countdown to opening day begins

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If you persuade Ashley Christensen to slow down and sit for a spell, you'll learn the following: She has no middle name. She was a C-plus student but also student body president. She has a red handwritten tattoo on the inside of her left bicep that reads "... Life is rich and full ..." borrowed from artist Luke Miller Buchanan. Her father was a truck driver and an amateur beekeeper; her mother, a Realtor and a skilled cook. When the young family was at home in Kernersville, N.C., Christensen remembers idyllic days of gardening and entertaining. For this celebrated chef who never took a single culinary course, childhood itself was an apprenticeship for her chosen career.

This mid-July morning she has been delayed by a City of Raleigh building inspector's surprise visit to the triple-restaurant project she's developing at the corner of Wilmington and Martin streets. The 6,500-square-foot building, once a Piggly Wiggly, is now divided into three separate venues with one vast shared kitchen. The inspector has just identified a potential Massive Glitch, but Christensen decides, uncharacteristically, to step away and let the contractor deal with it. "I thought about having a meltdown and then decided against it," she says.

Christensen's piercing blue eyes stand out against a creamy '50s-style cardigan and a cherry red T-shirt silkscreened with the periodic table. Pale pink corduroy cut-offs come to the knee above steel-blue canvas Vans, no socks. Other than a watch and petite silver hoops, she wears little decoration. Oversize black Miu Miu sunglasses give a fashion-forward finishing touch.

Over dark iced coffee at the Wilmoore, and then grilled chicken salad at Busy Bee, she talks for nearly three hours about the past year and a half.

Everything's on the table, she says: the ambitious trifecta of new restaurants, sleep deprivation, compulsive jogging, an emotionally exhausting breakup, a life coach, a new long-distance relationship, making the semifinals for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southeast award, along with mentor Andrea Reusing, who won. Not to mention philanthropy, which she estimates takes 40 percent of her time; her new business moniker AC Restaurants, which includes her established restaurant, Poole's Downtown Diner; her upcoming 35th birthday; and financing three simultaneous ventures in a climate of tight-assed banking rules. Then, of course, there's her appearance July 24 on national television battling Bobby Flay on the Food Network series Iron Chef America.

By the time she returns to her construction site, the Massive Glitch is a memory and the city inspection has passed. Joy! Relief. Reality.

Countdown to opening day begins.

Sometime in the second fortnight of August at Beasley's Chicken + Honey—and "just days later" at Chuck's burger joint, then "very soon after" at Fox Liquor Bar—yards of brown butcher paper will be torn from street-front windows where for months it has impertinently shrouded all secrets inside. The only hint of restaurant life has been a black-and-white poster shouting "now hiring: all positions/badasses."

On opening day, as the very first guests file in and mill about, a low murmur will bubble up above the silence as The Curious begin noticing and evaluating the signifiers, puns and efficiencies Christensen has woven in. When they get their first good look at Beasley's, here's what they'll see: wide-plank pine floors, gorgeous, like poured honey with a matte beeswax finish. Seating for 70, including four 6-foot tables to make a communal space. Industrial-metal twirly stools. A bar with a red-stained oak front, clean lines, thin raw-metal top. Rough-touch brick walls, spans of glass, and—can it be?

A giggle of comprehension, a light scratch of fingernails: Beasley's entire left-hand wall is chalkboard, floor to ceiling. No paper wasted on daily menus. It's Poole's on steroids.

Then someone orders a beer. The next revelation? No PBR in a can, or rather, no can. "The whole building is draft," says Christensen. Whether you're standing in Beasley's, Chuck's or Fox, everything that can be tapped is, from keg cocktails to Saison to root beer. The result? Far less recycling material and no time lost restocking or refrigerating individual beers. Downstairs, one temperature-controlled keg room is linked by pipe chases and hoses to each bar, keeping taps flowing at all times: six at Beasley's, four at Chuck's and 12 at Fox.

When Chuck's opens next door to Beasley's, the first guests to enter will admire the cut-out ceiling with exposed rafters and lollipop-red Edison bulbs. They will perhaps laugh at the pâpier-maché bull's heads by the artist Jane Gray (a sassy reminder of what's on the grill) or notice that the sign outside resembles the sash over a prizewinning steer.

Even the loo is carefully considered. The first reveler to excuse himself will return to camp with news that the WCs are roomy and unisex. That silver curvy device hanging from the wall? NOT a urinal. Enjoy your paper-free personal Dyson Airblade hand dryer (retail price: $1,599, per Google), and never again emerge from the loo with a damp paper towel stuck to your heel.

After pointing out a 4-foot-wide futuristic ice machine ("Perfect individual squares, very clear, no dimple") Christensen acknowledges that her micromanagement of gadgetry has lengthened the project time. But she's adamant, too, that it will improve working conditions for her staff, not just physically but psychologically.

The kitchen interior, not just the part seen by the diners, is wrapped in expensive sparkle-white subway tile. The kitchen ceiling is high, with its own built-in speaker system. Soft fluorescent squares light each workspace, rather than long sick-green tubes. A night-light mode means the first worker entering each morning won't have to stumble around in the dark. And above the pastry corner, a circle of simulated natural sunlight shines down on a thick block of maple, inspiring pastry chef Stephen Kennedy to pinnacles of buttery perfection.

Perhaps it's a function of Christensen's bravado or her ability to read the economy, but signature dishes define her restaurants, not the other way around.

Chicken. Burgers. Cocktails. Meals for $8–$12. Christensen is hyper-aware that they are "single-note" in style, but she sees that as their strength. "I want to create a place where, for whatever percentage of people that wake up on Friday morning and go, 'I really want fried chicken today,' I want there to be one place that comes to mind."

Beasley's Chicken + Honey anchors the corner of Christensen's building and holds the most meaning for her. "As a little kid, you know you have those moments where you're very emotional and your parents just laugh at you and it drives you absolutely insane? When I would throw a fit my mom would say, 'You look just like a little old lady! We're going to call you Mrs. Beasley,'" a doll from the 1970s television show Family Affair.

Christensen actually owns a Mrs. Beasley doll, and her mother still uses the pet name, phoning at times for "Bease," perplexing new employees. Christensen smiles. "Finally you just grow up and embrace it a little bit."

Menus for all three venues are still being tweaked, but Christensen reveals some clues.

"The fried chicken and honey [at Beasley's] is a huge thing for me because my mother was from Memphis and my father was a beekeeper. That thing that it does to the palate is something special to me."

Beer seems the natural fit here, and Fullsteam in Durham is brewing a special Beasley's commission with gallberry honey and cracked pepper, but Christensen is also eager to push a Champagne/ fried chicken pairing. Don't think Champagne requires white meat. Demand all-white and Christensen might step out from the kitchen and whop you with a drumstick.

"I grew up knowing that when you sit down at a hot dinner, fried chicken is dark meat. White meat is picnic chicken! At Beasley's we're doing light meat and dark meat at the same price. We're [trying to] break down that perception [that light meat is privileged]."

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