Chef Ashley Christensen talks about bringing home the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the country
As Ashley Christensen stood on stage Monday night in Chicago, the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in America draped around her neck, the center of the food world had never been so close to home.
Christensen is America’s top chef, and that means everything in 2019.
Winning the award — considered the food universe’s mountaintop — is no longer just about what’s on the plate or menu. It’s a measure of impact and influence.
Christensen’s impact is well-established. She is credited with founding Raleigh’s modern dining community, starting with Poole’s Diner 11 years ago. What’s grown up around that, her restaurants and others, put the city among the most diverse and ambitious in the South. As her restaurant company has grown, so has her voice, and she has become a national leader in the restaurant industry.
Her award — typically given to chefs in major metropolitan areas — makes Raleigh the smallest city to ever claim the national prize. She beat out four other chefs from California, Philadelphia and New Orleans. It’s the clearest validation yet for Raleigh as one of the South’s great food destinations.
“Ashley’s win is as much a coup d’etat for the culinary scene in the South as it is for us in Raleigh,” said Scott Peacock, public relations director for Visit Raleigh, the city’s tourism bureau. He spoke to The News & Observer Tuesday by phone from the Chicago airport, having attended the Beard Awards gala the night before.
“This award could take it to another level,” Peacock said. “That could be what we become known for on a national level. Our Eiffel Tower.”
Long called the Oscars of food, the James Beard Foundation started giving out its annual awards in 1990, growing from an industry pat on the back to a true piece of pop culture. The medals honor the country’s best chefs and restaurants, attempting to elevate the talented people and special dining rooms defining American cuisine at that moment.
Over the years, the top two awards, Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurant, have gone restaurants in New York by and large, with the rest scattered among the food temples of California, Chicago and a few other major cities. The Outstanding Chef prize has gone to the likes of Thomas Keller, David Chang, Alice Waters, Nancy Silverton, among others within America’s food canon, many frequently on television, magazine and cookbook covers, and other avenues of culinary celebrity.
Christensen owns four restaurants, a cocktail bar and an event space in downtown Raleigh, with another restaurant on the way. With numerous distinctions to her name, she already was at the top of the state’s culinary world, part of an elite group of North Carolina chefs to bring home a James Beard Award. She won the James Beard for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014, the third North Carolina chef to do so. The other national award was claimed in 2003 when the late Karen Barker won Outstanding Pastry Chef in the country.
“Raleigh is really helping to redefine the South,” Peacock said. “Having Ashley recognized the last couple years in the national spotlight has done nothing but put a spotlight on Raleigh.”
Christensen is the chef of this moment. She’s at the front of a generation of culinary professionals redefining the platform of a chef, now in response to the darkest age in the industry’s history. Like many industries, the culinary world experienced a #MeToo reckoning, after revelations surfaced of sexual misconduct and harassment within some of the country’s most famous restaurant groups.
“Beyond being a good cook, she’s a fine, fine soul,” said Ben Barker, who was the first North Carolina chef to win a James Beard Award for the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham. “She’s chosen to use the medium of her restaurants to give back to the community and make her feelings known about class and equality and gender.
Christensen has spoken out against harassment in the kitchen and North Carolina’s now-defunct House Bill 2, which required people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates, among other provisions. The phrase “Don’t Forget Kindness” is etched on the windows of her restaurants, and she is a frequent fundraiser for local, regional and national organizations for causes close to her heart.
As Monday’s James Beard Awards concluded, “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the ceremony’s host, shouted Christensen’s way: “I’m obsessed with this woman. What she has done for the LGBTQ community is so amazing.”
“(Ashley) has worked hard from day one and there’s nothing but integrity in everything she does,” Barker said.
Barker was named Best Chef: Southeast in 2000. Three years later, his wife, Karen, won the Outstanding Pastry Chef award. Their awards help contextualize Magnolia Grill for today’s Instagram age, making it one of the Triangle’s most important restaurants to have come and gone before the area’s larger dining ascendance.
But Barker said their awards came in a different era for the industry. Their awards may have made some difference to diners, and certainly expanded the Triangle’s reputation nationally, but were mostly an industry accolade, instead of the phenomenon the awards are today.
“I don’t think it was quite as well understood,” Barker said. “It didn’t have the same magnitude as it does now. It’s a national recognition of (Christensen’s) contributions to American cookery.”
Award criteria changes
Barker applauded the Beard Foundation’s recent strides in diversifying its winners. Many chefs, including Christensen, should have been recognized long ago, he said.
Last fall, the James Beard Foundation announced changes to its judging criteria for the 29th annual awards, reacting to a history of giving awards mostly to white men. Most significant among the changes, the group vowed that its judging committees will at least represent the diversity of the U.S. Census.
“(The changes are) a first step intended to increase gender, race and ethnic representation in the governance and outcomes of the Awards, as well as to increase transparency of the judging process, and to make entry to the Awards more accessible than ever before,” the James Beard Foundation said in announcing the changes last year.
Winners are chosen after a lengthy process, involving an open call for submissions. The huge list of nominees is narrowed down by judging committees made up largely of food journalists, critics and past James Beard winners. Semifinalists are announced in February, with around 20 names per category, which is then cut to a five nominees a month later.
This was Christensen’s second year in a row as a finalist and her fourth as a nominee.
Last year, before the changes, the awards started to see diversification. Rodney Scott, an African American pitmaster from Charleston, S.C., won for Best Chef: Southeast. The Best New Restaurant went to Seattle’s Junebaby, also owned by an African American chef, Edouardo Jordan.
And Highlands Bar & Grill, led by legendary Southern chef Frank Stitt, in Birmingham, Ala., won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in the country, and longtime pastry chef Dolester Miles was name Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Like Raleigh, Birmingham is beyond the food world’s mainstream. The city remains a destination for civil rights history, but Vickie Ashford, with the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau, said restaurants are becoming a draw.
“We’ve been overlooked, but we’re on people’s radar now,” Ashford said. “More people started coming in (after the win). Many come in just for dessert.”
Restaurants’ economic impact
Raleigh as an overnight food city sensation is a decade or more in the making, Peacock said. The momentum within Raleigh’s culinary scene is the greatest tourism driver in the city, he said, with restaurants and bars accounting for more overnight stays than any other attraction.
Besides Poole’s Diner, and Christensen’s Death & Taxes, restaurants like Garland, Bida Manda, Brewery Bhavana, Crawford & Son and The Cortez have earned their own followings — and national attention.
Food and beverage sales in downtown alone, brought in a record $240 million in 2018, up 7.6 percent from the year before, according to the Downtown Raleigh Alliance’s most recent downtown report. With two new food halls and a host of new restaurants, first quarter numbers for this year look to surpass that, the Alliance said.
“Our culinary scene is it. It’s our calling card,” Peacock said.
Raleigh’s reputation as a tourist destination can be limited, Peacock said, the city lacking the mountains of an Asheville or the beaches of the coast, despite temporary influxes like the World of Bluegrass festival. Instead, Peacock said, something special is happening in Raleigh’s kitchens and the broader Triangle that seems worth traveling for.
“There’s a cultural and ethnic melting pot in Raleigh that manifests in its culinary scene,” he said. “These amazing farmers and agricultural areas give a bounty of great stuff to play with.”
Christensen, who grew up in Kernersville, is a proud cheerleader of Raleigh, where she settled after attending NC State University. She thanked Raleigh in her acceptance speech, saying she shared the award with the city. While she could have cooked in kitchens elsewhere in the country, she told The News & Observer in 2017, that she isn’t going anywhere.
“We all grow up somewhere, but home is really where we choose to be,” she said in 2017, when she was named one of two Tar Heels of the Year. “Ultimately, Raleigh is that for me. For every moment I spend with my foot on soil somewhere else, all I can think about when I’m in those places is what I’m going to take home and how it’s going to make me a better person home in Raleigh or a better contributor to the place that we call home.”
Beyond Raleigh, this year’s James Beard Awards seem to be a win for the whole South, what some might call the New South, the pieces and people in-between the postcard South. Chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Ga., won Best Chef: Southeast, Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford, Miss., won Best Chef: South. and New Orleans baker Kelly Fields of Willa Jean won for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the country.
The accolades have helped showcase the South as one of the nation’s top food regions, said Melissa Hall, managing director for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which documents and celebrates the South’s food traditions and stories.
“The Highland’s win, Ashley’s win, it makes clear this region is a place a talented chef, a restaurant with a vision and a clear voice, can find a platform to tell the story they want to tell through food,” Hall said. “Twenty or 30 years ago, people might have said it was possible, but only in New Orleans, Charleston, Atlanta.
“I think when Oxford, Savannah, Raleigh and Birmingham are a part of that conversation, its impact is clear across the region, and I think that’s exciting.”
James Beard Awards by the numbers
Here is a look at where winners of the James Beard Awards for Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurant have come from.
|New York City||14||11|
|San Francisco/Bay Area region||3||4|
|Los Angeles region||3||2|
|Yountville, Calif. (Napa Valley)||1||1|
Pocantico Hills, NY