By Wendell Brock
I have never met Ashley Christensen, nor eaten at Poole’s Diner, the Raleigh, N.C., restaurant where she made her name as a chef.
But I’ll be darned if I didn’t feel an emotional tug simply from reading the introduction to her first cookbook.
Christensen’s story, the way she reinvented the 71-year-old diner and the way it reinvented her, is a tale of love, risk, hard work, transformation and comfort food.
Though Christensen never attended culinary school, she spent her formative years learning how to cook and how to eat. Her parents, she says, “made a life of gardening, cooking, imbibing and entertaining.” It rubbed off on her, and you can feel that honesty and brightness in everything she touches, from her famous Macaroni au Gratin to her Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Hot Honey.
Many Southern chefs build a repertoire by twisting the classics. Christensen explodes them, to tantalizing effect.
She puts malt vinegar in mayo, makes fritters out of turnip greens, uses cornbread as an ingredient (to bind crab cakes, “add a sweet, nutty crunch to baked oysters,” and soak up the juice of heirloom tomatoes in a panzanella spin).
While Christensen is hardly alone in her suggestion that meat and fish can be treated as a side, she’s the first cook to espouse a vegetable-first philosophy that I find fully satisfying.
I can’t wait for summer to get here so I can try her Marinated White Acre Peas. Instead of serving the boiled legumes in their own juice like my Mama did, she marinates them in Banyuls Vinaigrette. She pairs oyster stew with fried saltines and charred turnip relish; uses a simple short-rib recipe to make pot pie and hash; and bakes hummingbird cake with sweet potatoes and green peanuts.
No wonder Christensen now owns seven restaurants in downtown Raleigh. No wonder she won the 2014 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast.
This book makes me want to drive straight to Poole’s and perch my Southern butt on one of its red-vinyl stools. For now, I’ll take comfort and joy in its namesake cookbook. It’s one of the year’s best volumes on Southern food.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and the winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).