Stories / Awards

How These Chefs Turn Mentorship into Hospitality

Ashley Christensen and Lauren Ivey pay it forward

Morgan Carter

September 01, 2022


Left to right: Charlotte Coman, Ashley Christensen, and Lauren Ivey (Photo: Eliesa Johnson)

This past June, we celebrated the 2022 James Beard Awards, presented by Capital One, where we honored achievements in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system. During the Awards show, our Patron Program members were treated to a special VIP dinner on the mezzanine of the Lyric Opera House in Chicago. The theme of the dinner highlighted the spirit of mentorship and uplifting the next generation of talent. James Beard Award winner Ashley Christensen chose to spotlight Lauren Ivey, the executive chef of her North Carolina restaurant, Death & Taxes. We spoke with both chefs about the power of mentorship and how they are both creating space for the next generation of industry talent.  

James Beard Foundation: Lauren, after a stint working as chef de cuisine at Ashley Christensen's restaurant, Poole’s Diner, you left to explore new opportunities to grow your career. What eventually brought you back to the South?

Lauren Ivey: I worked at Poole’s for a while and then moved back to Colorado and then onto San Francisco. I worked for some great people there, but it didn't really speak to me the same way that Ashley and the Southern culture [did]. 

Ashley Christensen: The week before had won my first Beard Award in 2014, and I had a dinner in San Francisco at La Cocina. Lauren had let us know she was going to be coming back, so I called her up and said, “Hey, if you want to catch up, why don’t you come help me cook this dinner?” That was us being reunited. 

LI: I started the conversation, “If I move back are there any job opportunities? Can I come back to the company?” I felt like I'd grown up so much in my confidence and cooking ability and it was a good start to coming back.  

On the menu: wood-fired Niman Ranch short ribs with Anson Mills field peas, parsley pistou, and charred Castelvetrano olive–pepper relish (Photo: Eliesa Johnson)

JBF: Speaking of growing in your career, as a chef, mentorship is key to learning both in and out of the kitchen. Ashley, was there a mentorship relationship that influenced your career?

AC: Many. I had gotten into running kitchens early and moved up to management pretty quickly. I spent a lot of time teaching myself and then got the chance to work with [James Beard Award winner] Andrea Reusing—she now has Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill—and then Scott Howell who had Nana’s at the time. After opening Poole’s, I traveled, mostly to cook with other chefs, [which] I consider to be a continuing opportunity of mentorship for anyone. 

JBF: How did those experiences change your outlook now that you are in a position to mentor?

AC: My first lesson from being mentored was listening and realizing the opportunity to learn from others. I also realized the importance of making time for people. Making time for folks who are seeking mentorship can be tremendously helpful to them, but also fulfilling to those of us who get to tell our story and share our experiences. 

JBF: Lauren, now that you work as executive chef at Death & Taxes, how are you fostering an environment of learning in your kitchen?

LI: I have a great sous chef that's been with us for five years now. She's grown a ton and it's great to collaborate with her on dishes. We [also] have an up-and-coming line cook that’s awesome because I can ask her, “Have you thought of anything to do with this leftover product?” And then I’ll ask her to present it to me [so we can] go through it and talk about components. That's been a fun experience to watch them start from line cook to putting dishes on the menu.  

AC: That was one of the things that I noted about Lauren and what her path in the restaurant might look like. When we opened Death & Taxes, we had a different chef at the time—great guy who ended up going a different direction. Lauren had a real understanding of the heartbeat that the company was built around. Watching her invite people to be a part of the creative conversation, that's a language that Lauren speaks for us. She's done an amazing job of helping people find confidence in their ideas [while] also putting them into the context of the restaurant. 

For dessert, guests dined on the embered Valrhona white chocolate panna cotta with strawberry water gelée and grilled black sesame–cornmeal cake (Photo: Eliesa Johnson)

JBF: This past June, you both cooked at the VIP dinner for 2022 James Beard Awards held at the Lyric Opera House, celebrating each other and the power of mentorship. How did you two come together and collaborate on the menu?

AC: When the opportunity came to celebrate the relationship of mentorship, there was no question that Lauren should be the person that we celebrate. She is one of the finest examples of that successful relationship, for both parties—I feel very mentored in our relationship. For me, the development of the menu represented my thoughts on cooking, the city that we live in, [and] the region we live in. 

LI: The menu came together naturally because that is our relationship. That's kind of how the menu has come together at Death & Taxes over the years—a lot of our food just works really well together, and we can build off each other's dishes. 

Guests on the mezzanine of the Lyric Opera House
Guests on the mezzanine of the Lyric Opera House for the 2022 James Beard Awards (Photo: Eliesa Johnson)

JBF: Ashley, one of your mantras at your restaurants is, "Don't Forget Kindness.” How do you both embody that phrase in your work and interactions with others?

AC: To me, it's always respecting the restaurant as a place of many ideas that can be shared respectfully. I think about that both about how we engage with guests and how we lead our teams. Restaurants have the opportunity to create space for a community, built on all different perspectives, and bring them together over a glass of wine or a beautiful dish. Above all, I believe in creating a table where all people feel happy and safe to gather, celebrate, and feel respected. 

LI: We focus a lot on guest hospitality and making sure that guests feel welcome. Our team does an amazing job of that. But on the other side, we try to make the workspace feel welcoming to everybody. Every day at 4:30pm, we have a family meal. We all sit down—kitchen team, dishwashers, service team—and talk about the shift. It's a safe space for anybody to raise their hand and express [themselves]. We've had staff that's been with us for years, and that can be rare in this industry. In an industry that can be tough to get that kind of work environment, we're set apart from old industry standards. 

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