Stories / Impact, Awards

Mentorship Is at the Heart of This Award Winner's Success

Ashley Christensen on how her first investor changed everything

Rachel Tepper Paley

December 05, 2019

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Ashley Christensen photo by Paul Mehaffey
Photo: Paul Mehaffey

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners and Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program alumni. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.

Below, Rachel Tepper Paley explores the power of mentorship in the career development of James Beard Award–winning chef Ashley Christensen, and how the 2019 Outstanding Chef Award winner pays it forward in her businesses, and Raleigh’s culinary community at large.

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In the restaurant industry, mentorship is a difficult thing to come by. James Beard Award–winning chef Ashley Christensen counts herself among the lucky few to have found one.

Long before she ever opened the restaurants that would help transform the sleepy town of Raleigh, North Carolina, into a culinary hot spot, Christensen toiled behind the scenes in other people’s kitchens. The child of two accomplished home cooks, Christensen was always drawn to the kitchen, and by the mid-2000s had successfully climbed the ladder to an executive chef position at now-shuttered Italian spot Enoteca Vin. But Christensen dreamed of something bigger: a place to call her own, with her own food and her own passion on the menu. Enter local philanthropist Eliza Kraft Olander, an Enoteca Vin regular.

“I think that she was there at a point when I was working very hard, and caring about a business that I didn't own,” Christensen reflected. Barely in her mid-20s at the time, she didn’t know the first thing about opening a restaurant. Olander stepped in with more than just good advice. “She saw something in me,” Christensen said. “I just remember her coming to me and saying, ‘Don't do anything silly. Don't get into business with the wrong people...when you're ready to be an owner, you come to me.’”

Christensen knew that Olander was someone worth listening to. In the years prior, Olander and her ex-husband had expanded their ownership of a single Burger King outpost into control over a huge swath of Burger King and Applebee’s locations across three states. She’d also become a champion of local charities and causes, and in the process, a pillar of the community. Sensing that Christensen would one day make a name for herself, Olander offered to front the money for Poole’s, a former 1940s-era pie shop–turned-luncheonette. Christensen envisioned the place as a modern diner, with an ever-changing chalkboard menu that married seasonal produce with elevated comfort food favorites. It was 2007, and Christensen was 30 years old. Olander was fully on board.

“She said, ‘I don't want you to think about paying this money back,’” Christensen recalled. Instead, Olander told her to focus on getting the business strong and figuring out what she wanted the restaurant to be, what she wanted the food to say. Month 36, Olander said, was the earliest Christensen should even consider repaying the debt. “We paid her back by month 35,” Christensen said proudly.

Olander was a silent investor, which gave Christensen the latitude to figure out things on her own terms—something that’s often impossible with active investors, Christensen said. But she still sought out Olander’s advice. “We would just talk through the softer stuff, the stuff that's a little more emotional,” she explained. When faced with conflicts with or between employees, she sought out Olander, who knew “how to do the right thing by your business and by the individuals.” When on the fence about buying more crystal wine glasses or hiring another waiter, she turned to Olander, who always advocated for putting money back into the business.

“I think when you're that young in business, we kind of need someone to go, ‘Yeah, that's the thing to do,’” Christensen said. “She's sort of like cheerleader in that sense, someone who just made me feel as though my thoughts and instincts were correct.”

The restaurant proved a major hit, even though the neighborhood was still in transition. “Nobody just walked by our restaurant,” Christensen recalled. With a convention center under construction nearby, whole streets were under demolition. A film of dust seemed to cover everything. “We were kind of in the middle of a mud bowl,” she said. “Every day, we’d spend half an hour sweeping red mud out of Poole’s.” And yet, within three years of its opening, Christensen was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast, an honor she’d later win in 2014.

These days, there’s a lot more foot traffic around Poole’s. In the years since its opening, Christensen has launched five additional establishments across Raleigh, racking up numerous James Beard Award nominations along the way. She’s also helped lay the foundation for Raleigh’s ascension into the ranks of other influential Southern food cities like Charleston, Atlanta, and Savannah.

Christensen said that a big part of her restaurant group’s success can be traced to staff education. Restaurant leaders and managers are schooled on what it actually takes to operate a restaurant, from the amount of money a property spends on condiments each week to the cost-benefit analysis of repairing an on-the-fritz refrigerator. While the knowledge benefits Christensen’s businesses in the short term, she also believes it’s helping to fuel the rise of the next generation of restaurateurs in Raleigh and beyond.

“We just want people to have a deeper understanding [of] what's happening in their shop,” she said. That way, they’re better equipped to make decisions on the fly. It’s already inspired several former employees to open businesses, which makes Christensen proud. She traces that attitude, in part, back to her relationship with Olander.

“I always try to be available for conversations about how to properly enter this business,” she said, especially for groups who have historically faced higher barriers for entry. “It's so important that we find a way to do that for folks who need it.”

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Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi, with visionary support from GrubHub and Edens and sustaining support from Enroot.