Chef Ashley Christensen bets it all on downtown Raleigh | Food Feature | Indy Week

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Chef Ashley Christensen bets it all on downtown Raleigh

Countdown to opening day begins



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Next door to Beasley's, Chuck's has no sexy back story to its name, though the building's structural engineer, Chuck Lysaght, wishes it did. It's simple, says Christensen. The meat is "all from the chuck muscle. We're doing eight signature burgers, one really simple that I think we'll call Suburbia."

Pair that with the five-dollar shake for suburban swagger.

The kitchen is outfitted to create the perfect burger, Christensen explains. "We've been really careful with our equipment selections: We're doing CVap [controlled vapor oven] right to a really badass Keating Miraclean griddle. We're grinding in-house, of course, an 8-ounce burger, which is a pretty healthy burger. Everybody else is doing these little guys."

Expect to see a tarted-up "Dirty South Carolina Burger," topped with fried onions, slaw, mustard and house-smoked pork chili made with Sea Island red peas from Anson Mills. And the all-important frites are the twice-fried Belgian variety, with three aiolis.

"It's real simple but [we're treating it] much like the things that are classic at Poole's: taking it, controlling every element of it and tweaking it out as hard as we can," she says.

Christensen has 20 full-time employees running Poole's; the new project will add 60 more to the AC Restaurants family. She already relies heavily on Poole's General Manager Matt Fern. Derek Ryoti, who has worked in independent restaurants but most recently at Panera, will be GM of her new ventures. ("He had systems," says Christensen.) Scott Martin, coming from Four Square in Durham, will be kitchen manager.

The hiring of pastry chef Stephen Kennedy from Chapel Hill's Cypress on the Hill illustrates Christensen's executive style. "He was doing all this precious stuff," remembers Christensen. "It was prettier than it was great. But I could see how talented he was. So I called him and said 'Make me an apple pie. Not a tart. An apple pie that has nothing in it but apples, one other thing and some killer crust. Make me an apple pie.'

"So he [comes from Durham and] drops off an apple pie, and I'm like, 'That's all. Thanks. I'll call you. We'll get the pie pan back to you.'

"After he leaves, Matt [Fern] and I cut this pie open and eat a slice and just look at each other. I'm like, [singsongy] 'I told ya! I told ya!'"

"So Stephen comes to work the first day. I say, 'Make a kick-ass chocolate cake.' He and I are standing in front of a wooden table and looking at this invisible idea. He's looking at the table, and he's like, 'I want to make little chocolate cakes.' I'm looking at him and he says, 'But you want me to make ... ' and I'm like, 'Yes! Big. Big.'

"He makes this big chocolate cake and it's amazing. Then it gets this rich cocoa nib cream. Then he starts making angel food cake that will melt your mind. I make him work with three ingredients and then he starts adding little tweaks, and they're brilliant desserts."

The first guest to order a drink at Fox Liquor Bar's driftwood-gray bar might well be Fox himself. The namesake is Christensen's father, Robert, whose North Carolina friends call him Fox. Speaking from his home in Orient, Long Island, Mr. Christensen says he mixes mojitos when his daughter visits, "but I'm more of a bourbon man if I'm going to sit down and have some cocktails."

Bourbon and chicken, maybe?

"Sounds real good."

The elder Christensen is a natural storyteller, with a distinguished, gravelly Southern voice undiluted by Long Island. "As a child, Ashley would do anything she could possibly do to make money. Not just washing cars, she had to have a detail business. And an employee. She's always been an entrepreneur," he laughs.

"When she was growing up, we had the organic garden and all. Whatever came out of the garden is what we ate; you might buy something from the grocery store but the majority was from there. And there'd always be music playing and people coming over and enjoying themselves, having wine. She more or less grew up in that scene, and when she started doing it, she had to kick it up a notch."

Kicking it at Fox Liquor Bar will be craft cocktails with a small menu of bar food—cold plates like charcuterie, cheeses, cold fried chicken with bourbon and, when in season, oysters.

"The bar [was] the biggest question mark," Christensen admits. "I know how to make drinks. I know how to make drinks that I like. I'd been going up to New York a lot [on tasting junkets]. I met this girl and started going to bars that she's bartending at. She was just kind of blowing my mind [with her drinks] . . . So I brought her down here [to Raleigh] about a month ago. I knew she would be energized by the project, but ultimately she was really taken with it."

Karin Stanley is her name, and to say she's a cult figure in the cocktail world is an understatement. She is a partner at Dutch Kills and bartender at Little Branch, two of New York's hottest cocktail bars. Time Out New York writes, "Stanley is as swift, knowledgeable and obliging as any bartender, but she's also social, goofy and a little salty—an electric combo that makes her one of our favorites in town."

She has contracted with AC Restaurants to stay in Raleigh four days a week for the opening two months of Fox. After that she will fly down at least once a month to make sure it's to her specifications. Her Fox business cards read "Cocktail Culturalist, Assignment South."

Stanley is now in the throes of writing the liquor list and the beverage menu for Fox. Look for a Bacon Old Fashioned featuring Angostura bitters, maple syrup, house-smoked bacon-washed bourbon and an orange twist on the rocks; or a classic Tuxedo #2 (or Turf cocktail), a precursor to the martini as we know it today, made with orange bitters, Luxardo Maraschino, Dolin dry vermouth, gin and absinthe, served straight up with a lemon twist.

"We've given [Karin] permission to hire her whole staff here, her managers. She's known all over the country. This just became a national project." Christensen pauses to frame the rest of her idea.

"Sometimes I feel like things in the South, or anywhere outside of metropolitan places, if you popped it in the middle of a city, could it thrive and survive? The answer for me should be yes. I believe you could take Poole's and put it in the middle of Brooklyn and it would fucking slay. That's how I want things to be [at Fox]."

The neighborhood has filled in around South McDowell Street, but when Poole's opened in 2007, the convention center was unfinished, the Raleigh amphitheater only an idea and what's now a busy cross street with Capital Club 16 and Kings was deserted at night. Poole's was "98 percent destination," not an impulse stop, concedes Christensen. Though it turned debt-free in record time, Poole's could have been a risky move.

Beasley's, while not geographically remote, is on a grittier section of Wilmington Street than similar venues. The building was abandoned and condemned when it caught the eye of downtown developer David Meeker, who rents the space to AC Restaurants. For 50 years, the site was a series of community groceries, from Piggly Wiggly to Downtown IGA and Jimmie's Market, until it was converted to a rooming house and fell into disrepair more than a decade ago. Christensen and Meeker own matching, framed black-and-white prints of the building as Piggly Wiggly in the 1950s. She is attracted to the romance of a property's history and has become a one-woman social engineer, pioneering into areas that have languished. Some might call it urban planning. She calls it "activating."

"[Grand streets like] Fayetteville Street play a very important role. But for the things I want to do, Wilmington Street makes perfect sense. It's sort of the little sister who's being bad. We needed somebody to activate that corner. And to me the greatest nod to what we're doing [with Beasley's] will be when it's clear that someone had the confidence to venture into one of those buildings on the next block because of what we did."

Asked what Raleigh needs to continue on this trajectory, Christensen doesn't hesitate. "City government support for putting [more] independent retail downtown, four incredible tiny retail outlets. I feel like Durham has a lot of city support. This [Raleigh] amphitheater project, it's not booked nearly enough. They absolutely need to be doing a weekly community show. [But] I think Raleigh's doing a lot right.

"Ten years ago, downtown Raleigh was a ghost town, total tumbleweeds on the weekends. Now I see this huge network of people my age who are so invested in ownership of downtown. Raleigh Denim is going to make a few things for the new place, [like] our check presenters: 'Raleigh Denim for Fox Liquor Bar.' We want our friends like that to have some presence in these [restaurants]. Those are our homies."

The original 1945 cash register from Poole's glows in the sunlight beside a stark wall of windows in Christensen's living room. Her décor is unfussy, walls covered minimally with art and photography by Alex Harris, Luke Miller Buchanan and Paul Friedrich. Yellow and orange accents splash against the black cabinetry and slate floors of her working kitchen.

This modernist home clad in beige fondant-smooth stucco seems a mere extension of its new commercial cousins three miles to the east (all born of the same architect). Restaurant spore fills the house: boxes of freshly cut business cards stacked in Christensen's home office; oil-slick bull's heads destined for Chuck's napping on a guest bed. A cutting board custom-etched with the AC logo reclines on a stainless kitchen prep surface beside a stack of russet-and-cream Hatch prints of roosters and hens intended for Beasley's. Four Campbell's soup cans secure the prints' curled edges.

This late afternoon in July, Christensen wears a Roman Candle band T-shirt and the same off-white cardigan as last week. A skeletal cat appears from nowhere. The 6-pound, full-size, non-shedding Cornish Rex named Luci turns from lamb to lion and back again with no provocation, other than possibly the cheese platter Christensen has set out. It's a feline mystery how two smallish humans will get through the Humboldt Fog, Sottocenere and aged Gouda without Luci's assistance.

Christensen points out the half-enclosed patio and monstrous pig cooker where she entertains and holds fundraisers. Fundraising has become her surprise passion. In 2003, as the 26-year-old chef at Enoteca Vin, she was neither a fundraiser nor a bicyclist, yet decided to do the Ride for AIDS from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. Gab Smith, whom Christensen calls her "life coach" ("That's really ridiculous. We just inspire each other!" laughs Smith) recalls the first significant fundraising of Christensen's life:

"At the time, AIDS Rides [were] all over the country. That ride for her was kind of a physical, mental, intellectual, emotional way to give 100 percent. She pretty much broke not every barrier she set, but every barrier that the event set."

In that particular race series, each rider raised an average of $2,700. By race day, Christensen had raised more than $56,000, 20 times the average.

"Every huge decision I've made, personal and career-wise, I have sat down 80 percent of the time with Gab Smith," says Christensen. "In the past year and a half, I've lost 26 pounds [after ending] a relationship that lasted two years. It was one of those rock-bottom experiences. I went to work [at Poole's] completely destroyed, and my team was like, 'Nah, go home.' I spent about a month just wrecked.

"But it was the most amazing thing in the world because I realized, they don't need me! It's time to figure out what I can do with [this] fact ... I just sort of took my life back. I started figuring out how to be more powerful for myself."

Though dressed like a hipster in her 20s, Christensen has the demeanor of a woman years older: kind, yet crisp and businesslike, pointedly moving conversations in the right direction. Her time really is money. This decisive style likely reassures investors following her lead. Current fundraising, often in conjunction with friend Eliza Kraft Olander, a philanthropist, is focused on two nonprofits: Share Our Strength, aimed at eradicating childhood hunger, and the Frankie Lemmon Foundation to educate children with special needs. To date, the Christensen-Olander duo has raised more than $500,000 for their lead causes.

Christensen also opens her home—and pig cooker—for Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) potlucks four times each year.

Southern scholar and New York Times columnist John T. Edge is director of the thousand-member SFA, which documents and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the American South. Though based at Ole Miss, SFA now has its largest membership in North Carolina and Georgia. Edge marvels at Christensen's $150-a-plate Stir the Pot dinner series: "She's had a big impact on our bottom line. This last year, $30,000 of the $100,000 film budget came straight from Stir the Pot events," the next two of which will be at Poole's Aug. 14, with guest chef Ed Lee, and Sept. 18 with guest chef John Fleer.

"If you set out to build a restaurant that brings a wide range of people together," Edge believes, "as opposed to a restaurant that seeks to stratify and exclude, then [it] can be a real community-building force. I hear that in quite a few chefs of her generation who think of their work in terms of social responsibility and also flat-out joy. It's not only about how good the stuff is on the plate, it's about what are the possibilities for a progressive South."

Consciously or not, Christensen's homegrown work for a progressive South may be what secures the national recognition she admits seeking: a James Beard Foundation Best Chef award. She cooked at The Beard House in New York in 2005, but she hopes to return soon, to revive that connection. Ben Barker of Durham's Magnolia Grill, a past winner of the award, thinks that may be overkill.

"[The Beard award is] an industry acknowledgment; it's your peers suggesting that you've done the requisite work to be recognized . . . Those people [at SFA] are powerful food people in the United States. She can achieve the same or greater success by continued involvement with SFA and not do another thing for the Beard Foundation," says Barker.

"John Currence [of Oxford, Mississippi's City Grocery] and John T. are both fans of Ashley Christensen," Barker notes. "I'm not suggesting—this is not to say she's conniving. I just think she's making some smart moves that enable her to keep her profile up. It makes her a good businessperson because that's how you stay busy in a sketchy economic climate for restaurants."


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