Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen is known for her activism nearly as much as her food, often taking the lead with online essays on topics from sexual harassment in her industry to her thoughts on North Carolina’s so-called Bathroom Bill.
But Thursday, her response to an online commenter can only be described as epic, and the 1,000-plus words (plus a 127-word addendum) blew up on Instagram, with local chefs, restaurants and businesses voicing their support of the James Beard Award-winning chef. By Friday afternoon, the essay had collected more than 3,500 likes and more than 600 comments.
The exchange touched on the colliding worlds of food and politics, which can often blur in ways such as hiring and wage practices to how ingredients are sourced. In the age of foodiedom, with heightened expectations from diners on every aspect of the meal, and outlets like Instagram and Yelp turning up the volume on every voice, are politics off the table?
It started Wednesday when Christensen, the owner of Poole’s Diner and other acclaimed restaurants in downtown Raleigh, posted a photo on her Instagram account of herself and former first lady Michelle Obama. She wished Obama a happy birthday (it was her 54th) and wrote, “Your presence and leadership continue to give me (and so many others) #hope and #drive to make tomorrow better than today.”
“Just cook and be quiet” popped up 16 comments later.
“Are you serious?” Christensen responded.
And it was on.
The commenter wrote back, “I just don’t understand why business owners can justify going political. If you are a chef, you go to work in your kitchen to make your customers happy. You do not go to work to ingratiate Michelle Obama.”
Christensen responded, “I’m just making sure you’re up for this conversation. #allarewelcome.”
From there, dozens more chimed in to voice their support of Christensen and her role as a leader in Raleigh and the culinary world.
A subsequent post Thursday on Christensen’s account featured a screen shot of the initial exchange and a lengthy essay that addressed what those five words seemed to imply.
Dear Steve, Yesterday, I posted a happy birthday message to @MichelleObama from my personal Instagram account (which, at some point, you chose to follow of your own volition). Years ago, I had the great honor, as a small business owner and community-focused chef, of introducing her at the convention center in Raleigh. It was an experience I will never forget, and that I hold dear. She is a personal hero to me, and to many others. We are all entitled to be inspired by others. Your initial comment to me, “just cook and be quiet,” is a command, suggesting that you view me and my colleagues as mere servants of a trade to fill your belly. It implies that chefs and cooks should put their heads down, cook their food, and make their customers happy. First I want to share with you... I am not employed by “customers.” I am an employer of hundreds of incredible hospitality professionals in the capital city of the state you call home. Together, we work tirelessly to create and invest in the relationship of hospitality with GUESTS. We have an incredible and diverse base of guests, for whom we are tremendously grateful. And our work is a constant conversation with them in effort to build brilliant relationships. It goes so much further than a simple transaction of food for cash. Through this relationship, we drive our industry and community forward. Furthermore, your comment makes me think that you’ve missed a few decades of growth and change in our industry (and in the world), and of the concept of hospitality as a whole. That’s okay...you can’t help what you don’t know, or what your circumstances may have prevented you from experiencing. I’m excited for you to learn what has changed in a world of which you claim to be a connoisseur. If you truly love food and hospitality, I would think you’d be thrilled by the strength and impact of the people who do this for a living. Restaurant operators and food personalities have more reach and influence than ever before, and with that, comes responsibility. We take it seriously and so many of us do our best to step up and invest in our people, give back to those who need it, and push towards progress. [Continued in comments]
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Christensen took issue at the commenter’s language and the suggestion that her own views, in this case Obama having a pleasant birthday, might make someone feel uncomfortable eating in her restaurant.
“Your initial comment to me, ‘Just cook and be quiet,’ is a command, suggesting that you view me and my colleagues as mere servants of a trade to fill your belly,” Christensen wrote. “It implies that chefs and cooks should put their heads down, cook their food, and make their customers happy.
“First I want to share with you... I am not employed by ‘customers.’ I am an employer of hundreds of incredible hospitality professionals in the capital city of the state you call home. Together, we work tirelessly to create and invest in the relationship of hospitality with GUESTS. We have an incredible and diverse base of guests, for whom we are tremendously grateful. And our work is a constant conversation with them in effort to build brilliant relationships. It goes so much further than a simple transaction of food for cash. Through this relationship, we drive our industry and community forward.”
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The commenter is a self-described foodie whose now-private Instagram feed was almost entirely photos of meals.
After it appeared that some people had learned of the commenter’s unconfirmed former employer, Christensen cautioned her fans to not “pass judgment on this establishment.”
“It’s unfair to judge them or punish them based on one ex-employee’s personal beliefs ... You are all more positive and better than that.”
But she did ask the original commenter how he could have a passion for food, but not for those who make it.
“You cannot be a food connoisseur while insulting those who cook for a living, but telling them their voice doesn’t matter,” Christensen wrote. “I also hope that you realize that you chose to follow me personally and that you felt entitled to suggest that because I am a chef I should not wish one of my heroes happy birthday in the presence of my platform of personal followers.”
Christensen owns Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes, Chuck’s, Beasley’s and Fox Liquor. All of her restaurants have “Don’t Forget Kindness” written on the glass windowfronts.
Over the past decade, Ashley Christensen has made her mark on Raleigh through fine dining experiences that evoke a sense of comfort and community. She continues to use her platform as a local restaurateur to foster a food community and to convey t
Drew Jackson: 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson