In Perfect Food Day we ask chefs and food-world personalities for their dream day of eating, where everything goes—they can eat anything, anywhere, and with anyone. And this they do!
Whether in the kitchen of one of her six restaurants, writing her new cookbook, or mapping out her perfect food day, Raleigh-based chef Ashley Christensen tries to create a sense of comfort. “I think comfort is certainly in the way we season and approach food, but it’s also in the way we help people recall traditions,” explains Christensen. “It’s food that makes you feel welcome and invited.”
It was in this spirit that Christensen wrote her first cookbook, Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner (Ten Speed Press). The book is filled with the restaurant’s refined yet straightforward takes on Southern favorites, like pork ribs with mustard sorghum sauce, warm broccoli salad with cheddar and bacon vinaigrette, and grits with roasted pumpkin, aged maple syrup, and crispy pepitas—the kind of recipes that have made Christensen so successful. It’s also filled with Christensen’s own stories and memories, which act as powerful reminders of how a proper meal can make us feel right at home.
While other chefs might pack their perfect food days with long, elaborate menus, Christensen’s stays strikingly simple. Just as she does at her restaurants and in her cookbook, she looks to meals from the past, often ones she’s enjoyed over and over. It’s food that makes her feel good—and delivers the comfort she works so hard to provide for others.
Breakfast: Day to day, breakfast is something I have to make myself partake in. When I do enjoy eating breakfast, it tends to be on vacation. One of my favorite memories of breakfast is from a yearly ski vacation with friends to Vail, Colorado. We have one friend who flies in from New York, and she always brings Russ & Daughters; a bunch of smoked fish and cream cheese. My ideal breakfast would be that kind of spread. I go to Russ & Daughters when I’m in New York, and I love it. Although it’s a bialy place, my favorite bagels are from Kossar’s of New York, which you can buy online to be delivered. There’s something to me that’s so memorable about that all laid out in the center of the table—the idea of enjoying this piece of New York in a place that’s very much unlike New York. It’s such a fun way to start the day, with everyone rolling out of their rooms, wanting toasted bagels and sitting around the table.
Lunch: For lunch, I’m calling out Cochon in New Orleans. There are so many great restaurants in New Orleans—so many places I love for different reasons—but when I’m in town, I make Stephen Stryjewski’s roast oysters my first meal. I sit down at the bar and almost every time, someone who’s eating oysters will look over and go, “You’ve got to get the oysters.” There’s something about sitting alone at the bar. I’ve always loved that interaction.
I’ll break my lunch into a few courses. We have a gal named Rosa who works with us on our prep team, and for birthdays she makes pozole, and when it’s your birthday, she says, “Red or green?” Green is always chicken; red is always pork. I go red. Rosa’s pork pozole would definitely make my magic day. She makes a huge pot, and I always snag a couple quarts to put in my freezer. At this time of day, I’m a fan of really beautiful, slightly bolted arugula—dressed with lemon, olive oil, and a little sea salt. I think it’s a great midday kind of thing and super simple as far as dressing and vinaigrette go.
Dinner: Growing up, every Easter, my mom always made leg of lamb and this really beautiful sauce—the sauce is actually in my book with lamb steaks. She would make things like mashed potatoes, field peas, all that great stuff, but we always had leg of lamb with mint vinegar sauce. It’s from this book that belonged to her grandmother. I just turned 40, but on my 39th birthday, she gave me the book her grandmother gave her. For this mint vinegar sauce, you basically make simple syrup with cider vinegar, water, sugar, and a pinch of baking soda. The baking soda rounds out the acidity of the vinegar, so it won’t knock you out. You simmer those things, and then my mom would walk out—we always grew mint—clip some mint, tear it, and just throw it in. It’s this really beautiful play on that terrible mint jelly people serve with lamb.
When my parents divorced, my mom kept the house, but when she couldn’t really afford that house anymore, she rented it out and moved into a tiny apartment. I remember coming home from college and my mom was living in this little apartment. We sat down and she made the same meal and somehow, her making that, on that day, in that place, is the most memorable of all those Easters. It’s such a warm memory for me. No matter where you go, there are foods that will make you feel like you’re home.
Dessert: I’m not a huge dessert person, but I do have a little bit of an ice cream habit, and I’m a sucker for coffee ice cream. I don’t have one specific place it has to be from, just good coffee ice cream.
Lauren Salkeld is a French Culinary Institute–trained writer, editor, and recipe developer. She has worked for Epicurious and Bon Appétit magazine and on cookbooks including The Yellow Table by Anna Watson Carl, Asian American by Dale Talde, and A Girl and Her Greens by April Bloomfield.