A Culinary Homecoming

Ashley Christensen at NC States Hunt Library

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Raleigh chef and restaurateur Ashley Christensen jokes with N.C. State professor Dr.Cat Warren on Tuesday

North Carolina State University has spent all week welcoming their own back home. Current students get to celebrate homecoming on campus and so should the alumni. The overall weeklong event was billed as Red and White week and featured concerts, amazing alumni panels, art exhibits, and one very special sit down with the woman that helped spark the food renaissance in downtown Raleigh.Most people might find the prospect of a center stage interview moderated by their former English professor at their alma mater during homecoming week daunting. Ashley Christensen is not most people — plus she brought pimento cheese crostini and chocolate chip cookies with her, and arrived sporting an old school wolfpack mascot t-shirt, so there was a pretty good chance the crowd’s affection was a given.Christensen has opened seven restaurants and bars in downtown Raleigh in just under a decade, quickly contributing to the rising tide of culinary excellence in the triangle. She seems at home on stage and comfortable. Comfort seems to be a currency Christensen knows well and Dr. Cat Warren opens the conversation with just that subject by asking about her philosophy of never using the word customer. “This isn’t a transaction,” said Christensen. “Hospitality is a relationship. These are the messages you hone in on — you’re going to get things wrong everyday but if you can wrap yourself around that — that the people that dine with you are your guests, well you are going to get a lot right.”This cookbook, “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner” is part of a two book deal for Christensen and it focuses on recipes and stories from her first restaurant, Poole’s Diner. “I hope people will find an understanding or a new approach to a new ingredient,” said Christensen.The next book will feature recipes from her other restaurants. Warren moves the conversation towards those other endeavors and what the tipping point was for Christensen to decide to open other restaurants. “It was the people,” said Christensen. “We felt the momentum of our community, we’d grown up there together and I thought what happens next? More than anything I got into the business because I wanted to be a great boss.”Quail Ridge Books was on hand with cookbooks for everyone and Christensen found a spot to the side to sign and everyone was treated to a chocolate chip cookie and a pimento cheese crostini to top off a lovely evening.Christensen was self-deprecating and quick to give credit to those that came before her, as well as to those that work for her. A homecoming lesson for students, alumni, and friends.