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It's debatable whether frequent tweeting counts as a smart business move, but if any restaurateur were made for social media, Ashley Christensen would be it. She seems comfortable with the form, and her @poolesdiner Twitter feed (with 2,700+ followers) is genuinely funny, in vivid contrast to most who get tweet-fright and go all hammy. She'd make a fine writer if she weren't such a fine chef.
"I'm full of those weird stretchy yawns today that force you to make baby pterodactyl noises."
"We're cooking fresh pink-eyed peas in whey from our raw milk curd project this morning. No way? WHEY. I adore my life."
"11 am tequila tasting canceled. This is probably a good thing."
There's a downside to Christensen's openness. Everybody thinks they know her. "About a year ago, I was tweeting at the time maybe too personally. I came up with this feeling that if I was really honest about my life, nobody had to make it up. So Twitter became really fun, something that drove me in my creative process. As someone who's tremendously ADD, I needed something to answer to. I needed to write about the tomatoes that morning so I'd finish the dish by 3 p.m.," Christensen explains. Twitter also allows some degree of image control.
"Having grown up here and feeling like some people sort of resented me for young success, which I'm certainly not ashamed of, there was a time when people would say things [that weren't true]. There are a couple of schools—there's Ben Barker and there's Scott Howell, and they produce pretty different cooks. I felt like I was sort of coming into an old club, and figuring out, Did you want to Belong or did you want to just Be?"
Last month, while working at the Poole's counter, Christensen saw a rare complaint come across Twitter. A man new to Poole's was scanning the menu, tweeting about the loss of the building's former restaurant, Vertigo.
"I looked around the dining room: That's him. I asked the server, What did he order? 'The tartare and mac and cheese.' So I watched the guy, waited a few minutes, and I write, 'How's the tartare?' [We tweet back and forth.] Finally I sent him some dessert. He ends up being a social media guy, and the next day he writes this piece that's like, 'This is how you make Twitter work.'"
On July 24, the night her Iron Chef episode aired, Christensen threw herself a bash at Kings.
Frank Thompson of AVMetro set up a big-screen projector. Designer Joshua Gajownik printed posters with an "Ashley" meat cleaver poised over a "Bobby Flay" rolling pin. The El Rey del Taco truck catered with suggested donations going to the Frankie Lemmon Foundation. Tecates were on the house, and Christensen moved through the tight crowd, grinning and hugging all her people gathered under one roof. Poole's sous Juan Esparza and Vin Rouge chef Matthew Kelly—her team for Iron Chef—were there propping her up, as were close friend Brad Cook of the band Megafaun; Christensen's girlfriend, national editor of "Tasting Table" Kaitlyn Goalen, who flew in from New York to surprise her; VarmintBites blogger Dean McCord and dozens of other food industry folk.
Only a few close friends and family who had joined her for the taping last summer in New York knew that she would lose to Flay. It takes a solid psyche and a few Tecates to stand amongst a hundred-plus people while watching yourself critiqued on national television. Asked for a pregame quote, Christensen throws back her head and laughs.
"How am I feeling? Tremendously honored by my friends. I'm beside myself for the fact that this feels like a wedding."
Moments later, the dark screen turns blue. Kitchen Stadium appears in all its kitsch and melodrama. Heads turn to the front, but the bar gets anything but quiet. While program host Alton Brown gives his intro, someone in Kings begins a round of "Let's Go Ashley!" to the tune of the Tar Heels sport chant. When Flay shows up, unprintable words stream forth from the crowd and middle fingers rise high like lighters during a power ballad.
The secret ingredient is announced: chum salmon.
"It's funny, so many varieties of salmon would have been a total dream ingredient to highlight," says Christensen, reflecting on the experience. "This particular salmon is really fatless and flavorless. It's my nature, when dealing with a less than stunning ingredient, to put it in the background and to celebrate other flavors of the season. Unfortunately [chuckling], it's not a characteristic that would make me an Iron Chef."
Onscreen, the cooking starts. Flay barks orders. His sous burns a pot of reducing Pinot, to great cheering at Kings. Flay is flailing. Christensen checks in calmly with her team. "Little more salt, little more acid," she tells Kelly for his shallot sauce. (As the onscreen Kelly lowers a vacuum baggie of frog legs into a water bath, one partygoer tips back her head and screams, "I love you, immersion circulator!")
Later, Esparza recalls the taping: "The [camera] guys came up and said, 'What about this? What about that?' I was like, 'Get out of my face! I don't want to talk to you. I'm just cooking.'"
Kitchen Stadium is designed to create havoc. Chefs and teams have their backs to one another; storage units are far from prep tables; lights are hot and disorienting. At 17 minutes left, Christensen remembers, she still hadn't plated anything.
Too soon, time's up. When judge Cady Huffman tells Christensen, "I haven't found a bite that I don't like," a roar erupts inside Kings. The judges are testy with Flay ("chewy," "dry") so it seems a shock when the scores flash up: 45 Flay, 35 Christensen.
The mood at Kings lowers for but an instant. Christensen's crowd considers having a meltdown and decides against it. They've done their own judging. Luke Miller Buchanan, who has bartended at Poole's since the day it opened, maintains perspective:
"I know what the rest of America doesn't know, and that is that for the next six months we're going to slay at Poole's. I can barely keep my head above water as it is, but I'm good. I'm ready for it. I'm just gonna drink a lot more coffee."
Flash back to mid-July, the hottest week on record. It's been a long day for Christensen, one meeting after another, and it's only noon. Beasley's, Chuck's and Fox still need furniture unpacked, kitchen stocked, glassware ordered, menus finalized, websites made live, staff trained. It's monumental. After giving a tour of the job site to three interested observers, Christensen and the group wander outside to Wilmington Street.
Talk moves to the neighborhood. An adjacent block on Martin has a perfect storefront begging for development, someone says. The group turns to look in that direction.
"A shake shop!" another suggests. Of course Chuck's five-dollar shake might compete.
"A really good coffee shop," Christensen throws in. "As much as Raleigh would like to believe it has a really good coffee shop, it needs a killer one."
She pauses, thinking, looking up the street.
"I also like the idea of Neapolitan pizza. Hmm. Five simple pizzas, maybe ..."