I love Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Downtown Diner.
No, not in the biblical or romantic sense, but anyone who has ever read this blog knows I’m one of her biggest fans. Yes, she’s a good friend, and I probably wouldn’t say a bad thing about her even if there was a bad thing to say (and fortunately, there’s not). But I rave about her cooking for two reasons: First, she can flat out cook. Second, she makes her own ingredients.
Ashley makes her own butter. And, of course, her own buttermilk, as a result. She cures and smokes her own bacon. Want some mozzarella from Poole’s? No problem, as it’s made in-house. There might be more things she makes, but this is what I know of. Hell, if she had the space, she’d probably start dry-aging her own beef. What’s that? She’s about to serve dry-aged beef? Ah, but she’s not doing it herself — she just got someone to do it custom-style for her off-premises. What a slacker.
Now there may be other chefs out there who have this much passion for food, this much dedication to the craft. But I don’t know of anyone in the area making all of these types of things. Please let me know who they are, because I’ll go eat there right away. I understand that it’s not necessarily passion that prevents chefs from making their own ingredients. It might be time, as the daily rigor of running a restaurant doesn’t allow one to make so many different things. They might do one or two, like baking their own bread. Or they might dabble in charcuterie. And there’s a fantastic trend of restaurants having their own gardens, like Herons and, to some extent, Zely & Ritz. But these are the exceptions, and there’s a difference between growing and making. On the other hand, many chefs feel that they can’t improve on some of the fantastic artisanal products made locally. Ashley, however, is willing to try, to experiment, to dare to be proven wrong.
Take her bacon (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I must say she recently surprised me with a gift of a beautiful slab to try). She cures it with sorghum and then smokes it with black cherry. Yes, not run-of-the-mill cherry, but black cherry. She uses it with her green beans. The Best Green Beans I’ve Ever Eaten In My Life. I cooked up some of that bacon for breakfast on Sunday, had it for lunch in a BLT, and I’m now craving more.
Noted food writer John T. Edge called Ashley Christensen a culinary rock star. Her dish of catfish rumaki at least year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium was the talk of the meeting. She’s cooked at the Beard House, and I would be stunned if she isn’t on the short list for a Beard Award next year. And her restaurant is in Raleigh. My Raleigh. And your Raleigh, too, so get your ass to Poole’s. And try the butter. I hear it’s really fresh.