Ashley Christensen, AC Restaurants (Raleigh, NC)
When Ashley Christensen of Raleigh, NC, stepped behind the podium at the James Beard Awards almost two weeks ago to receive its Outstanding Chef Award, she was ready to accept that medal and give a heartfelt speech. Her attitude wasn’t pompous or flippant, but almost an “ok then, let’s do this … together.” And in many ways, that’s how this outstanding chef has approached her work, going all in, learning the craft, celebrating the ingredients of her beloved North Carolina region at Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes, and more, and practicing paying attention to the building of a community, of a company, and of the chefs who work around her. She’s found her medium -- food -- to express her vision of kindness, comfort, and connection, but there is also a relentless striving for excellence that informs her work. This isn’t a chef who is going to rest on her laurels; she’s just getting started.