Over the last decade, North Carolina native Ashley Christensen has built a restaurant empire in Raleigh. It began in 2007 with Poole’s, a modern American diner—which currently makes 16,000 orders of its famous mac and cheese per year, Christensen says. She now has six restaurants under her belt including a fried chicken joint, Beasley’s Chicken and Honey, and a burger spot called Chuck’s.
Christensen, who won the 2014 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast, is largely self-taught. Having grown up in a home where cooking was king, she got her start dishing up meals for friends at college dinner parties before landing the executive chef post at Humble Pie in Raleigh.
Surrounded by great ingredients, Christensen finds herself rooted in simplicity, detail, and community. We caught up with the cheese-loving chef to talk Southern classics, local producers, and, of course, mac and cheese.
On her famous mac and cheese
We’re using local heavy cream, reducing it, and adding Jarlsberg, Grana Padano, and sharp Vermont white cheddar—it’s the perfect combination of sharpness, funkiness, and the salty richness of parmesan. Each bowl is made to order and that makes a huge difference.
On cooking with cheese
I love parmesan broth. It’s a great way to make full use of a product, but it’s also got such a delicate flavor. We’ll often taste something and pop some parmesan rinds into it.
We just finished a dish where we add whey. I wouldn’t use it necessarily where I’d use milk, but I’d use it where I’d use stock or lemon juice. It has that great lactic acidity—like the brightness you’d get from citrus, but without the lemony flavor.
On local food and cheese
Here in North Carolina, there’s no excuse to not make great food because the agriculture is so strong. There’s a lot of energy around getting younger folks excited about farming and growing and raising great stuff again.
Our chèvre comes from Goat Lady Dairy, and Boxcarr—I really like everything they’re doing. In Charlotte, a project called Siano is producing all these beautiful Italian fresh cheeses like buffalo mozzarella, fiore di latte, and stracciatella. It’s a lot better than what we were getting previously.
On pimento cheese
Everyone has an idea about pimento cheese…and a lot of people just don’t like it. Sometimes, pimento cheese is made with Velveeta or mild cheddar and the pimentos tend to be a little softer. But in ours, the sharpness of the three-year aged Hook’s cheddar and the red peppers that we fire roast and marinate in cider vinegar are a little punchy. For people who like a little pep and pop, ours tends to be more appealing in both flavor and texture.
On a changing Raleigh
[When I first opened Poole’s,] Raleigh was experiencing a lot of revitalization; young, creative folks were sticking around, and I saw an opportunity to do the same. Downtown became a really energetic, highly populated, and interesting place.
There are so many independent restaurants now. Every time a restaurant opens, it plays a role in inspiring another restaurant to open by being a place for cooks to go eat and get fired up about how they approach the same ingredients.
I really like the buildings to be involved in the story we’re continuing to tell. Poole’s—an old 1940s diner—was the most natural place to pay tribute to comfort food. The first time I walked into the space, I knew how I wanted the food to make people feel.
On the Southern food community
There’s such incredible sharing, communication, and transparency across the South and it’s a really tight-knit community. The Southern Foodways Alliance plays a big role: It helps me learn about the history of why things exist in the South and creates a conversation about what defines Southern food and what can play a role in its evolution. It taught me a great deal about the importance of my story and my voice in food.
On taking a stand
It’s a real honor to cook for folks, but you’re also at the center of a community. There’s so much influence and with that comes responsibility. When it comes to issues of equality and creating a great place for people to work and live, I care a lot about that.
On the ideal day off
Cooking at the house all day with my girlfriend with the pups running around. We like to spend one big day cooking and put a lot in the freezer. It’s super rewarding to reach into the freezer a week later for something homemade.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Photo Credit: Johnny Autry.