In my early twenties, as I was cementing my intentions to pursue a lifelong career in restaurants, I remember weighing the pros and cons of staying in North Carolina versus moving to some larger, more talked about food destination like New York or San Francisco.
I grew up here and it has always felt like home, but I worried that the options for growth and development in the culinary scene were too limited. Ultimately, I decided to stay and sought out education and mentorship from already pioneering chefs and hospitality leaders in the area — Andrea Reusing, Scott Howell, Ben and Karen Barker.
Last week, I was in Chicago for the James Beard Awards, to cook and to present the award I received in 2019 for Outstanding Chef. As I watched from the mezzanine of the Lyric Opera House, as N.C. chefs and restaurateurs took home three James Beard Awards, I was so moved and proud.
After the incredible hardship and pain of the last two years and the unique difficulties for our industry, I was overcome with emotion and excited to celebrate, not just these people but the industry as whole. On a larger level, it hit me: North Carolina is now inarguably a food destination — a place that tourists will travel to, a place that young cooks may relocate to.
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The critical mass of N.C. nominees in this year’s awards would be proof enough of that argument. In the regional category of Best Chef Southeast, which covers Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, four of the five nominees were from North Carolina. Ricky Moore, of Saltbox Seafood in Durham, took home the prize. Two of the national awards were clinched by Cúrate in Asheville, recognized for Outstanding Hospitality, and Best Restaurant winner Chai Pani in Asheville.
But representation from our state extends beyond numbers. The awards recognized chefs and restaurant teams from different cities across the state, with different styles of cooking and different types of restaurants and bars, from different backgrounds, championing different causes. They showed a clearer picture of the diverse, nuanced and powerful food culture of this area.
To hear Ricky acknowledge his team of 5 women, his community, and the importance of our fisher folk; to hear Katie and Felix of Curate address the importance of increased wage models and benefits; to hear Meherwan from Chai Pani emphasize that best restaurant honors the village, and not simply the name on the lease: The amplification of these varied voices is key to the betterment and sustainability of our industry.
The communities surrounding these restaurants and bars already know they’re great. The awards only underscore that. But to those who’ve never visited Asheville or Durham or Charlotte, the awards tell a story that has significant impact. That external impression is how destinations are made.
With it comes increased tourism — more important now than ever as independent restaurants are still struggling after two years of COVID. In 2020, tourism spending dropped 32% statewide and the gap is only beginning to close.
The voice of this industry will continue to evolve to better serve a more diverse community. These awards give hope and cause for future restaurant workers to come and live in North Carolina — because it’s not just possible, but likely, to find the career path and community you seek.
Ashley Christensen is an NC chef who owns seven Raleigh area restaurants, including her flagship, Poole’s Diner. She’s a former two-time James Beard Award winner: Best Chef- Southeast in 2014 and Outstanding Chef in the country in 2019.