Raleigh, North Carolina-based chef Ashley Christensen opened her first restaurant, Poole’s Diner, in 2007, serving up comfort food classics with local and seasonal ingredients. In the years since, she has added six more eateries, which under her direction dish out everything from fried chicken and wood-fired steaks to coffee and cocktails. In her new cookbook, Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner, she delves into her first foray into the restaurant world and shares the recipes that have drawn so many into her diner haven.
Tell us about your experiences with food growing up.
I grew up in a small town that didn’t offer a lot in the way of restaurants, but both of my parents were great cooks, so most of our eating happened at home. They both worked full time, but when they got home, they spent time cooking together and creating dishes that included vegetables from my dad’s organic garden. Meals were more of an experience in our house than just a way to get full.
Tell us about being a self-taught chef.
With my parents cooking all the time, we had numerous cookbooks in my house, and I took that practice with me to college. I started buying cookbooks to go along with the ones my mother had given me, and used them not only to learn how to cook, but as a way of connecting with experiences that belonged to me and my family. I would read them and throw dinner parties for my friends, who would chip in for ingredients. It was an amazing way to get comfortable in the kitchen.
What is Poole’s atmosphere like?
It all comes down to comfort. I wanted to create a style of eating where people felt comfortable sharing plates and therefore sharing conversations at the table. Diners deliver a sense of dependability. They are places where strangers can find familiarity through food—I wanted people to naturally feel comfortable when they walked into the space. I wanted to convey that through the simplicity and honesty of the food, but also through the vibrant, boisterousness of the place.
How did you gain confidence in your cooking style?
I think it’s natural for young cooks, especially for those who are self-taught and have worked in smaller communities, to underestimate their style of cooking. You see so much trending, but you have to find confidence in the voice of where you started. That’s really what my food comes down to—I can tie everything back to my beginnings. Obviously, there have been influences and experiences that have helped my style evolve, but as soon as I grew up and felt more comfortable in my own story, the stronger I was at using my voice to tell that story.
What is the importance of the Seasoning section of the cookbook?
When it comes to seasoning food, the more you learn about cooking, the more you realize it’s not just about salt and pepper. To some degree the way we taste things is dependent on the texture, so when you add a touch of roasted garlic butter to the warm broth with field peas, it becomes thicker and sits on the palate in a different way, allowing you to taste notes that you might not have noticed otherwise.
You mention in the cookbook that you enjoy and are most at ease with vegetables.
Vegetables are dynamic and really stand up on their own. Often in the South you’ll see greens being cooked with ham hock, and I’m not opposed to that, but I think there’s already so much to something like collard greens—the incredible likker that comes out of the stems as you stew them—or field peas—the deep earthy notes of the ground they grew out of. Vegetables also do such a good job of telling of the seasons; you can tell what time of year it is just by looking around at a farmers’ market.
What do you hope comes from this cookbook?
Cookbooks are such an amazing way to learn how to cook—they’re windows into all these different kitchens. It’s a way of sharing your story. Our story taps into the connectivity of the idea of the diner, with a new approach to comfort food. It’s about what’s in the bowl, but it’s also about the environment we create, the way we welcome people, and using ingredients simply and honestly.