069 – Virginia Festival of the Book, Ashley Christensen, Poole’s Diner
Community Work. In a Diner. With Chef Ashley Christensen at The Virginia Festival of the Book. Welcome to my latest episode! Were you a bad food enthusiast? Did you miss Chef Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner giving her stupendous talk at the Virginia Festival of the Book? No worries, Edacious taped it for you! Ashley grew up in North Carolina as part of a family who felt it important to cook and eat meals together no matter how busy their lives. It’s a philosophy she took to her adult life. Putting creative energy into food and watching people share it which often develops into deep conversations over it.
She went to NC State, intending to move to a big city after graduation, working in restaurants while attending classes. Like so many of her co-workers, she worked in kitchens until she could decide what was next. Until the day she realized this was it. This is what she wanted to do. This is what’s next. She realized she could do all the things she wanted right there in Raleigh. And she could do them by cooking food. A small fundraiser she organized for AIDS research turned into a massive fundraiser. That sealed the deal. As she looked about her college town, she realized she could contribute and make great strides right there. Graduation became less of a concern. She dropped out and started cooking in earnest.
Her initial curiosity and interest in food quickly developed into a catalyst for social change and community. Setting her intention, she decided to create a higher level of hospitality, one that starts with food but goes deeper to connection. A hospitality which creates a profound level of trust between the chef and the guest. Customer is something she considers “The C-Word,” and something never to be uttered in any of her restaurants. Her commitment to this belief isn’t just lip service. She has the word “Guest” tattooed on her forearm.
“We like to use the word ‘guest’ (instead of customer) because I like to remove the idea of it being a transaction. Dining together, and the energy that we put into it, the chance that you take on us I think conveys a relationship…It really helps all the folks who work with us to really understand and respect and value that idea.”
Her first restaurant, Poole’s Diner, reflects this intention. It’s not fancy, but a place you visit once a week. Or more. A place where you can be a regular. All the menus are on chalkboards so you have to physically get up and move about to decide. Which sparks conversation because most of them hang above booths. The double horseshoe bar encourages conversation because no matter where you sit, you can see the other patrons. Even the word “diner” evokes comfort. It’s a place where someone in a tux can dine next to somebody just off work in a dirty tee shirt.
The story of how she went from working in other restaurants to starting her first is beautiful, poignant, and so inspiring it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. You’ll have to listen to hear it for yourself! Ashley now owns six, including one serving fried chicken with honey in honor of a childhood nickname. In fact, all of her restaurants in Raleigh contain story whether it’s in the name or the food they serve, once again taking the simple idea of a place to gather for eating to a more meaningful level. Folks are responding. She’s been nominated for a James Beard Award several times and won the title of Best Chef Southeast in 2014. Her restaurant Death and Taxes was a finalist last year.
Her first cookbook, Poole’s Diner, is a volume reflecting a life lived rich and full through sharing food. How to use a safe, comforting space to give back and effect social change. Comfort is a fairly novel concept in this world of fancy schmancy, where tattooed-covered Tweezer Punks with dusts, strange ingredients, and 14-course meals constantly want to take you on a journey. We’ve sometimes forgotten the soul-filling concept of a simple bowl of grits. The recipes in this volume embrace comfort. They don’t change the essential meaning of classic Southern dishes, nor reinterpret them, but simply add Ashley’s personal spin. It’s a gorgeous volume evoking the comfort and simplicity of a meal at Poole’s.
Now more than ever in these challenging times it’s important for folks from different backgrounds to come together over food on a regular basis. Food can spark conversation. Maybe folks who disagree can find commonality somehow over something they mutually love and respect. A terrific talk and my favorite one of the festival. Ashley’s mission is one I strive for here on the podcast each and every day. Connection, community, and conversation with food as a starting point. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Cheers!
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Virginia Festival of the Book – most of the authors who attend are unpaid, and travel here out of their own pocket. Food writing is a challenging business. Your donation will help cover expenses and get some of the big names here in 2018!
- Help Scotty Recover – My best friend has Stage 3B Colorectal cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help? Share! Donate! No amount is too small.
- Subscribe to This Podcast. Stay Edacious! – Come on, after this episode? You know you want to 😉
- Subscribe to Edacious News – Never miss a food event in our area! Learn about regional and national food stories so you can stay edacious!
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