An all-star cast talks food and fame: Ashley Christensen, Vivian Howard, Phoebe Lawless, and Andrea Reusing

CHEFS AS GODDESSES: The News & Observer's Andrea Weigl with Phoebe Lawless, Ashley Christensen, Andrea Reusing and Vivian Howard at CAM Raleigh for At the Table with Walter, the magazine's first food event.

CHEFS AS GODDESSES: The News & Observer’s Andrea Weigl with Phoebe Lawless, Ashley Christensen, Andrea Reusing and Vivian Howard at CAM Raleigh for At the Table with Walter, the magazine’s first food event.

photographs by Chris Fowler

Some of the most celebrated chefs in the south told a sold-out crowd at At the Table with Walter – the first in the magazine’s new series of local food-related events – that being women hasn’t hindered their success. Instead, they say they’ve drawn strength and inspiration from one another as they’ve navigated their individual routes to the top.

“We’re all personalities that didn’t really allow for a lot of things standing in our way,” said Ashley Christensen, chef and owner of Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken and Honey, Chuck, Joule, and the eagerly-awaited Death and Taxes and Bridge Club. She was recently named Best Chef in the Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. “If there were people who surrounded us who thought that we couldn’t do it ….I think we just weren’t hearing it. I learned that the only thing that stands in your way is you. You decide what your opportunities are.”>continued on p. 68

Christensen and fellow chefs Andrea Reusing, Vivian Howard, and Phoebe Lawless, led in a discussion by The News & Observer food writer Andrea Weigl, spoke to hundreds of food lovers who filled Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum to hear their conversation and taste their cuisine.

The event benefited UNC Horizons, a program at the UNC School of Medicine that helps pregnant women and mothers overcome addiction and rebuild their lives. A table restored by women in the program served as the chef’s gathering place on stage.

Each chef shared stories of individual challenges rather than institutional ones, of being mentored by each other, of what it means to be a southern chef, and about the hard work it took for each to find her own voice in the kitchen.

“I would still be a line cook, probably in somebody’s basement in Manhattan, had I not decided…(that) Eastern North Carolina offered the opportunity to learn not under a microscope, and run a restaurant with no one looking,” said TV darling Vivian Howard, who has a lot of people looking today as star of the Beard-award-nominated PBS series A Chef’s Life and as owner and head chef of the Chef and the Farmer restaurant in Kinston.

Phoebe Lawless, chef and owner of Scratch Bakery in Durham and a semifinalist this year for the Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Pastry Chef, said that fellow females have provided her with support and guidance from the beginning. “Working at Magnolia Grill with the Barkers, with a woman owner (Karen Barker), helped,” she said. “The impediments were always self-inflicted – with insecurities – but not because of being a woman.” In fact, “the community of women is…an inspiration. I’ve known Andrea (Reusing) and Ashley (Christensen) for a long time. And the community does more than just one person” can.

Reusing, the chef and owner of Chapel Hill’s Lantern restaurant and the 2011 James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Southeast, echoed Lawless’s remarks: “Women being friends and giving each other support – we mentor each other all the time. That’s what we do. It’s really true. Women cook for people. We don’t want people to be hungry. We have a different reason for cooking than some of our colleagues. Most of us, we cook because we want to make people feel good. And we want to make each other feel good and help each other.”

Christensen, who worked for Reusing at Raleigh’s former Enoteca Vin years ago, credited Reusing for doing just that for her. Reusing’s work “had so much impact,” Christensen said. “The way she thought, the way that she sourced, her connection to quality…(I remember) the guy who brought rabbits who had blood on his apron when he delivered them.”

“His name,” Reusing said, to much laughter, “was Andy Youngblood.”

“There should be a country song about him,” Christensen said, as the two clinked glasses.

It was clear in the relaxed, joking camaraderie among the four around the table that these women are not only friends, but genuine fans of each other’s as well.

Howard recalled a time when she’d been toiling away – in what felt like obscurity – at her Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, feeling isolated. At that point, “we (had) no restaurant culture, we (didn’t) go out and share beers. We were the only game in town. So I was really hungry to be included. And then one day, about five years in, I was cutting the stems out of collard greens or something in the kitchen, and I got a phone call. Someone said: ‘Somebody by the name of Ashley Christensen is on the phone for you.’ ” She mimed a giant gasp of astonishment. “And I said – they know I’m here!…And that was just the beginning of all of this.” She gestured to the group of chefs, and the vast audience.

Christensen told a similar story about a time when she was cooking at Humble Pie, and Lawless, who was then at Magnolia Grill, came in to the restaurant. “I remember thinking, wow, she’s so cool, I just want to talk to her.”  Turning to Lawless, she said: “And you took the time and you spoke with me. I remember getting really confident, and telling you about some dishes I was working through and thinking about, and I think you were really polite about those dishes.”  Much laughter. “But I remember you specifically spending time with me, and how much it meant to me.”


What’s exciting to you in the Triangle food scene today?

Phoebe Lawless:

There’s lots going on in Durham. Everyone is excited about Dashi, Billy and Kelli Cotter’s ramen joint (expected to open this winter). It’s (the Cotter’s sandwich shop) Toast and The Cookery (a culinary incubator and event space owned by Rochelle and Nick Johnson) coming together.

Boxcarr Farms in Orange County is going to start making cheese in the next couple of months.

And I’m excited about Christmas, and Christmas baking. That’s kind of where I’m going right now. That’s where my mind is. And Hannnukah.

Ashley Christensen:

Also Dashi; so excited for that. I think everybody’s excited to have Toro (the Durham pizzeria that suffered a fire) back. I think one of the things that as the capital city of this state we’ve been lacking is the presence of – or the acknowledgement and celebration of – ethnic cuisine here. It has really been elevated. I have the biggest crush on Garland, Centro, and Bida Manda. I can sit here and talk about how much I cook at home, but those guys (know better). Everything they’re contributing to Raleigh is creating something very special. So those are the things I’m most excited about.

Andrea Reusing:

There’s so much to be excited about food-wise I don’t think I can encapsulate it. I’m just going to say Ricky Moore, Saltbox. Oh. My. God. It’s the most delicious thing. It’s a seafood shack in Durham, and they close when they run out of fish, and it’s unbelievable. And Panciuto in Hillsborough. He’s not new, Aaron Vandemark. (semifinalist, Best Chef, Southeast in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014). That food is delicious, and you guys would be crazy to miss it. It’s a little bit of a haul, but you’ve got to go.

Vivian Howard:

There’s a lot of stuff happening in Kinston, surprisingly. We’ve been there 9 years. We have a new restaurant called Boiler Room that’s fun. It’s a place I like to eat, it’s oysters and burgers. The gentlemen who own Mother Earth Brewing (Trent Mooring and Stephen Hill) are investing tremendously in our downtown, and opened an Asian restaurant called Ginger 108.

(They’ve) also renovated an old bank building on the corner of our street, and it’s gong to be a 10-room boutique hotel called The O’Neill. And it is so awesome. I can’t even believe it. I’m going to move into one of the rooms…The bank vault is going to be a cocktail lounge.

We have a new bakery around the corner called Sweetiepies. The folks who are on our show a lot, Warren and Jane Brothers, from Brothers farm, they’ve opened a bed and breakfast called Brothers Farm Experience.

My sister has opened a deli called Queen Street Deli, it’s kind of like a deli and a bakery…we did not come from a restaurant family, but strangely enough, we’re all wrapped up in it now.

So I’m very proud of our little town. People are energized and excited and investing in the community, and it’s wonderful to be part of that.


Ashley Christensen’s pimento cheese grits served in small cups.

At the Table with Walter


Vivian Howard, Chef and the Farmer

Endive spears with apple, pine nuts, parmesan, and anchovy

Ashley Christensen, Poole’s Diner

Pimento cheese grits with green tomato chowchow and red eye vinaigrette

Phoebe Lawless, Scratch Bakery

Peanut and muscadine pie

Andrea Reusing, Lantern

Crisp pork belly with five spice and pickled pumpkin

Phoebe Lawless works backstage to prep her dishes.

Phoebe Lawless works backstage to prep her dishes.

Walter would like to thank

At the Table with Walter’s generous in-kind sponsors

Ashley Christensen, Phoebe Lawless, Vivian Howard, Andrea Reusing, and their restaurant teams

CAM Raleigh

Posh Nosh Catering

Raleigh Wine Shop

The Crunkleton

The Franklin Hotel

Top of the Hill