Late in the spring of 2004, Ashley Christensen, the then 28-year-old chef of Enoteca Vin in Raleigh, was feeling a little down as she walked around the State Farmers' Market one morning. She had just seen Food & Wine magazine's annual Best New Chefs issue, and instead of being inspired by it as she had in the past, it made her feel a little down. She had been at Enoteca Vin for two years, and she loved her work there, but was she moving forward? Was she doing with her food what she set out to do? In the midst of these thoughts, her cell phone rang. It was an editor from Food & Wine magazine. They wanted to do a story on Enoteca Vin, and on Ashley. A big story. It was the kind of call that chefs dream of receiving, and all the sweeter because it came with no public relations push, no spin, no friends in the right places.
For years, Enoteca Vin (Vin to us in-the-know locals) has been at the forefront of the changing face of Raleigh and its restaurant scene. When the Food & Wine article came out, it called Vin "the perfect American wine bar." With over 50 wines by the glass on their wine list, which is overseen by Chrish Peel, the restaurant's sommelier and one of its owners, and a versatile menu that can accommodate a casual nibbler and wine drinker or someone looking for a blow-out meal, Vin was one of the first restaurants in Raleigh to challenge the steakhouse-dominated restaurant landscape. Until the Food & Wine article though, as Christensen puts it, "Vin remained this place that people had heard about." Because there was no signage on Glenwood Avenue (the restaurant is located at the back of the Creamery building), people often missed it.
After the article came out, all that changed. The 11-page spread in the magazine's October 2004 issue featured beautiful photographs and a gushing article about Christensen's food and Peel's wine list. People started flocking to the restaurant, and Christensen's career moved into high gear. In the early summer of this year, Enoteca Vin's owners decided that Christensen was so integral to what the restaurant had become, they made her a partner. Around the same time, Greg Hatem asked her to come on board to help him in his goal of redeveloping downtown Raleigh with his company, Empire. And then this summer, she got a call from the James Beard House in New York City, inviting her to come and cook on a Saturday night in October.
Being invited to cook at the James Beard House is considered one of the great honors that can be bestowed on an American chef. The James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and encouraging culinary excellence, invites chefs to come cook at the house as a way to showcase what they consider the best of American culinary talent. While the restaurant is always considered to be worthy, the invitation often comes as a result of a public relations push from the restaurant. But not in the case of Enoteca Vin.
That is one of the most remarkable things about Christensen's journey over the past year. She has had no PR machine behind her and no fancy press kits going out to magazines and newspapers. Everyone who heard about Enoteca Vin did so through word of mouth or local press, including the woman who wrote the article for Food & Wine. When the article came out, there were a number of rumors going around in the restaurant community—none of them true—about how the article came to be. The one I heard had to do with Chrish Peel having some big-wig wine friend in New York who pulled some strings to get the article written. But the article's author, who was in the area for another reason, happened into Enoteca Vin on the advice of a friend. She was so impressed with the restaurant's wine, with its urban and welcoming feel, and especially with Christensen's food, that she went back to her editors and suggested a story. The Beard House invitation almost certainly came as a result of that story.
But from the beginning, Christensen's story has been one of success without the need for spin. She became a cook in the most natural way possible—she grew up eating well, with a father who grew organic vegetables and a mother with a family gift for Southern cooking. When she was still a teenager, she began throwing dinner parties for friends. In her early 20s, she had a catering company, was hired as the chef of Humble Pie, and then worked in the kitchens of Andrea Reusing when she was the chef at Enoteca Vin, and Scott Howell at Nana's.
Christensen returned to Vin three years ago as the chef, and has been growing ever since. Christensen has been one of the area's strongest proponents for local and organic foods, and the food at the restaurant tends to be simple, refined and ingredient driven. While she is fully capable of wowing diners with interesting flavor combinations, she is more likely to take a familiar dish, like deviled eggs or chicken and collard greens, and do it very, very well.
The Beard dinner took place on a perfect New York fall day. Christensen and her crew arrived at the Beard House in Greenwich Village (the former residence of James Beard, considered to be the godfather of American cuisine) at about 8 a.m. to prep and cook for the dinner. Because they did not want to close the restaurant in Raleigh for the weekend, Christensen reached out to her community and found cooks, friends and one of the owners of the restaurant to help her in the Beard House kitchen. When I dropped by during the mid-afternoon, they were working happily and efficiently with Christensen in the center of the kitchen, quietly directing the proceedings. The dinner was sold out, and many of the guests were there from North Carolina. There were family and friends, but also Vin regulars, who made the trek to be a part of this exciting night for their favorite restaurant.
When I asked Christensen how she planned a menu for an event like this, she admitted that at first she was nervous. "But then I realized that they invited me to do this thing because they want to see what I do. So then I just sat down and wrote it." Her menu for the evening was pure Enoteca Vin, with simple, beautifully prepared and conceived dishes. There was occasional playfulness, like a delicious passed hors d'oeuvre billed as butter-poached lobster BLTs, but for the most part, the dishes were straightforward, highlighting the ingredients and the flawless preparation rather than the ego of the person preparing them. There were seared dayboat scallops with beets and an amazing hazelnut vinaigrette, a Japanese sea bass with tomato and tarragon, a crispy Niman Ranch pork belly with sweet potatoes and rosemary honey, a delicate lamb carpaccio, and incredible red wine-braised short ribs with bufala ricotta gnocchi and chanterelles. The short ribs especially were a testament to the importance of a good recipe. So many chefs put all their eggs in the innovation basket, forgetting that often the best dishes are the ones people have been cooking for centuries, and yet it takes a master to get it just right. The ribs were hearty and comforting, and yet pulled off the trick of not being too heavy at the end of a long meal, despite their richness.
"If the night had of gone any better, I wouldn't have wanted it to, because the whole experience was perfect," Christensen said a couple of weeks later. It certainly seemed that way from the smiling faces and applause at the end of the meal.
And it looks from here like Christensen's career is going to continue on its upward trajectory. On the walls of her office at Empire, where she is in charge of the company's restaurant development, there are floor plans for a Southern restaurant she hopes to have open by the middle of next year. Empire is also planning to build a boutique hotel near the BTI center, and included in those plans is another restaurant, which Christensen refers to as her "signature" restaurant. It's a lot to take on, but somehow it's obvious that she's up to the task. I have never encountered a chef before who is so calm, so driven, so respectful in her tone and manner, and so universally loved by the people who work for her. Julie Young, Enoteca Vin's office manager who has worked with Christensen for years, said to me once, "I don't know how Ashley does it. She does so much, and yet she's so nice."
It does feel good when our hometown success story couldn't have happened to a nicer chef.