Ashley Christensen Didn’t Win the James Beard Award This Year, but Her Moral Leadership Is Still Reshaping the Restaurant Industry | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Ashley Christensen Didn’t Win the James Beard Award This Year, but Her Moral Leadership Is Still Reshaping the Restaurant Industry 

Lauren Ivey, Cappie Peete, Kaitlyn Goalen, Ashley Christensen, Charlotte Coman, and Lesley Anderson at the James Beard Awards

Photo by Francis Son

Lauren Ivey, Cappie Peete, Kaitlyn Goalen, Ashley Christensen, Charlotte Coman, and Lesley Anderson at the James Beard Awards

On May 7, after the final medal of the evening was draped around the winner's neck, an explosive energy radiated from the cavalcade of people spilling into the lobby of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As post-ceremony nerves deflated faster than soufflé and the frantic anticipation of finally getting to eat, drink, and celebrate kicked in, there was a pervasive sense of optimism at the end of the twenty-eighth-annual James Beard Awards.

Ashley Christensen, chef-owner of Raleigh restaurants like Poole's Diner, Death & Taxes, and Beasley's Chicken + Honey, is no stranger to the Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world. In 2014, she won the category of Best Chef: Southeast. This year, she was among five nominees for Outstanding Chef.

"Ashley Christensen is bad ass," said chef Steve McHugh, a nominee for Best Chef: Southwest for his San Antonio restaurant, Cured. "I did an event with her once, and she can throw down."

It was a common refrain I heard throughout the night. But beyond her prowess in the kitchen, Christensen is also celebrated among her peers for her moral leadership. In the wake of #MeToo, the sexual harassment allegations facing many high-profile chefs, and homegrown issues like the bathroom bill, Christensen has become a role model for effecting change and fostering equality in the hospitality industry.

Though Christensen didn't take home the win (New York City's Gabrielle Hamilton, of Prune, did), her progressive vision is part of a broader shift—the cause of the prevailing sense of optimism. This year's winners reflected the James Beard Foundation's effort to diversify its nominees; eleven out of fifteen chef awards went to women or people of color. The theme, "Rise," underscored this cultural shift. On social media and in videos played throughout the evening, chefs posed with signs on which they'd written what they "rise" for.

It's a badly needed jolt in a field that's traditionally been a boys' club where patriarchal hierarchies and macho environments fester. This is why the James Beard Foundation has two dedicated Women's Leadership Programs to help advance women in food, regularly sponsoring panels and conferences to support that mission.

After meeting Christensen at a James Beard Foundation-sponsored Women's Empowerment Breakfast & Panel, we asked her to share her top takeaways from the discussion and how they will shape her work—and the hospitality industry as a whole.

INDY: On the panel, Jessica Koslow from Sqirl in Los Angeles said that it's up to the restaurant owners to define the culture in their restaurants. How do you do that in your own restaurants, and are there areas where you see room for improvement?

ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN: I agree with her statement, and I think it's something that we've been working on for a long time. We think so much about the guest experience, which is tremendously important, but it's really important to make sure that we're considering how we make our employees feel. And it doesn't just mean how you pay people and your benefits, but how you consider them and the environment you create to make them feel welcome, safe, and successful.

I think a big part of the future of the restaurant industry depends on making people feel like they have the opportunity to feel pride and accomplishment in the roles that they love to do. Where I think previously, there's been an idea in our industry that you've only made it if you've become the boss, whether you become a chef, the GM, or the owner. I don't think it's a good structure.

I think that we have built so much recognition around simply pushing people up the ladder, and I want to find a way to create some healthiness within all the levels of the hospitality industry.

One of the things that satisfies people most in their work is to know what's expected of them. For us, it's [about] doing a much better job of outlining job descriptions. Also really important is how we're going to deliver feedback in a positive, constructive way that energizes people to want to do a job a little better each day.

I think we're at a really important time. The moves that are made in the next five years will define the future of the hospitality industry. And for that, and for so many reasons, we take this work very, very seriously. We're not just making food and serving food; we're a part of something that serves our community but also serves our industry.

I think what panelist Rohini Dey said is that one way to close the inequality gap isn't simply to have more women in the hospitality industry, but to promote women to positions of senior leadership. How do we close the inequality gap but still put the best person, regardless of gender, in the role?

It's a complex question. I think that one way that we serve that issue is to put a lot of energy into the work environment itself and how women and men treat each another. If we create the environment where people have each other in their best interest and are pulling for each other and working together each day to learn and achieve things—I think that absolutely has to come from the top, and you have to plant the seeds to make that happen. I think that when we do that, then the balance we're talking about occurs naturally. [There was] a very powerful statement, I can't remember the word they used, but essentially something really drastic ...

I think they called it an "artificial jolt."

Yeah, that was the wording. I think that the jolt right now is the fact that this is a huge conversation that's happening everywhere, and we have to keep that dialogue going. It can't be, let's just make some noise around this until people stop talking about it.

click to enlarge Ashley Christensen - PHOTO BY JOHNNY AUTRY
  • Photo by Johnny Autry
  • Ashley Christensen

I think more than one panelist pointed out that having the conversation is important, but at a certain point, we need to involve men in the conversation. Otherwise, it's just going to be a really great venting session.

Oh yeah. Definitely. We did a panel on this conversation about workplace environment and inequalities within the hospitality industry at South by Southwest. One of the things that hit me is, we've got to talk about the fact that everyone's like, "Why aren't men saying anything about this?" And then, when they speak up, everyone says, "Why are you talking right now?"

We've got to get to a place where we can have conversation with everybody at the table, because at the end of the day, that's what the point is, right? It's for everybody to be heard and to talk through and work through a solution that makes sense for how we direct the future of this industry.

Some of the conversation on Twitter was about how part of the problem is labeling this as a "women's breakfast" or "women's empowerment." Where does that leave other groups that feel marginalized? How do you define a truly inclusive culture within your company?

We try to talk about the real issue, which is creating justice and equality, and there are so many people to include in that conversation. The piece that is very tough is that there's a marketing angle to driving the issue forward. I think that a lot of folks want to get behind something and believe in the wording, but also, the wording is part of the problem.

Not to say that you can't have a wonderful women's dinner. We have an event that we do here called 12 Roses, and it's women winemakers, women somms, and all women chefs, but I don't think that we use it as a tool to address something. It's just women who want to gather and do good for this particular charity [The Frankie Lemmon School]. There is a lot of conversation among women chefs when you go to one of these dinners like, "Oh great, another women's dinner." Whereas I think something that would be super powerful, if you want to have a dinner with all women, is do it and don't mention it.

I remember what panelist Rohini Dey said about women not just running the kitchen but owning the kitchen. How do you equip your team to have a stake not only from a personal-fulfillment standpoint but also in driving the financial success of the business?

We've got an incredible operations director. We do one-on-ones with all of our managers, and they are part of the process of developing projections, really knowing how to move the numbers within their locations. That has been something over the last two years that we've put a ton of energy in, and it's a long project. But for me it means everyone has a much deeper understanding of what's happening in the walls of the businesses we're running. I would love for these folks to stay and work with us for as long as they feel fulfilled in this company. But my other goal is, when they move on, I want to put people into the world who know how to change some of the things that have been problematic in the industry.

I'm curious to know what you think the role of the media is in all of this. How can we better educate consumers or highlight restaurants that promote equality in the same way that we speak ubiquitously about farm-to-table, for example?

[By] making sure that the folks who are doing it right, that their stories are told in a way that allows people to gain inspiration from it. [Especially people] who are in the industry and have never had a mentor who showed them that. Of course, a lot of it has to do with how we're raised and a core set of values, but if you come up in a business and you work for six total schmucks who never show you what matters about being a great employer ... It's important to look really hard for people who are not just doing it right, but who are doing it in interesting ways that can be applied to other folks' businesses.

The theme for the awards was "Rise." What do you rise for?

I rise for the future of my industry and all the things that we have the potential to do the right way, being able to share that message and set an example. I think that's the reason my name was on that list. It's because that's something that we take very seriously. As we put the energy into this, we're not protecting it and just keeping it home; we're trying to make sure that everything that we put work into, we have the opportunity to share with our industry and to inspire the health and success of this business. I want this to become an industry where people want their children to work. And right now, I don't think that we can all say that.

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