When Ashley Christensen was tasked with cooking a lunch for attendees at the Southern Food Alliance Symposium last October, she didn’t parade out the platters of barbecued pork and fixins that everyone expected. Instead, she prepared an all-vegetarian feast, complete with dishes like smoked tomato pie with whipped corn cream, and crispy okra dressed with benne-tahini dressing (the meal garnered a standing ovation).
It’s not that Christensen is on any sort of anti-meat crusade—on the contrary, she’s got one entire restaurant that’s an homage to her mom’s fried chicken—nor that she doesn’t enjoy some good BBQ (she’s on an all-star ‘cue team made up of some of the best pit masters in America). However, the Raleigh, NC-based chef has a knack for defying expectations, and as such she’s redefining what it means to pay tribute to ancestral cuisine below the Mason Dixon. “Comfort food is not fried food,” she says. “It is something that is connected to your soul. It is part of tradition, and history, and where a person is from.”
Being unafraid to ruffle the feathers with her own riffs on down-home classics has paid off, helping Christensen establish herself as a leading voice among the South’s new wave of chefs. It has also injected a burst of energy into the food scene of Raleigh, NC, where she runs a burgeoning mini empire which already includes the acclaimed Poole’s Diner (for which she is a James Beard semifinalist this year for Best Chef: Southeast), Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s, and subterranean cocktail den Fox Liquor Bar.
Like many southern chefs, Christensen draws inspiration from mom’s cooking during her childhood in Kernersville, NC, but her narrative is distinct from the yarn you’ve heard so many times before. Her mother—a child of the Air Force—traveled extensively between Tennessee and Japan, eating authentic cuisines of various cultures wherever she went, while her father toured the South as a truck driver and brought back tales (and tastes) of the food traditions of local communities along his routes. “I think my mom had a really refreshing take on what Southern food is because she grew up a Southerner and then had all these really amazing and inspiring environments. She took all that and returned with a new sensibility about what is home,” says Christensen.
Christensen is also a chef highly influenced and inspired by her peers, whom she has been able to connect with through her tireless activism within the Southern food scene. Her skills and creativity have been multiplied through her involvement in cooking think-tanks made up of other regional heavyweights including Sean Brock (Husk), Rodney Scott (Scott’s BBQ), Donald Link (Cochon), and fellow Beard-nominee Andrea Reusing (chef-owner at Lantern), whom she studied under. Her food has often been described as Southern with French inspirations, though Christensen’s own explanation seems more rooted in what food means rather than the labels: “The thing that we do as Southerners is—when people die, when we’re celebrating, when someone’s promoted, when there’s a birthday—we cook. No matter what it is, you deal with it by cooking. You deal with it by gathering around a meal.”
From a simple plate of backyard tomatoes with salt to baby eels sautéed over charcoal in Basque Country, Christensen’s defining food memories are a whirlwind of people, flavors, and techniques that all reflect her commitment to embracing outside influences while remaining true to her surroundings. Here, she takes us from Bloody Mary-fueled parties at John Currence’s house in Mississippi to crawfish boils in Memphis as she breaks down the 10 dishes that have defined her career so far.