THE HOT SEAT: Chef Ashley Christensen
By Stephanie Burt of The Southern Fork
photo credit: AC Restaurants
Ashley Christensen is that rare combo of a “people’s chef” and a “chef’s chef,” a consummate professional utilizing French and the occasional modernist technique to reinterpret the Southern classics she grew up on in North Carolina. With the opening of Poole’s Diner in 2007, she helped fuel a Raleigh, N.C. food scene, and while that flagship restaurant is still cooking on all burners, her reach has expanded through a growing number of restaurants, as well as accolades, including the James Beard Award for the Best Chef in America in 2019. Still, eat at any of her restaurants, and there isn’t the sense of the larger national conversation -- instead, Christensen’s food feels like it’s cooked just for you, which it is, of course. Her food is at once intimate and comforting, yet horizon-broadening too, so yes, she is one special cook.
Do you Have a Grilling or Campfire Memory That Started Your Love of Outdoor Cooking?
When I was a kid, my parents cooked on a charcoal grill as much as possible, and then there was also my grandfather’s BBQ chicken. He was a fighter pilot in WWII and lived in Memphis, and his grilled chicken is one of my fond memories. As an adult, one of my grilling memories has to be on a trip to Uruguay with the Fatback Collective. What a return to simplicity the cooking and grilling was, and yet complexity at the same time, in order to do it well.
What’s One Meal That Really Shines on Your SIF?
One of my favorite things on the SIF Kettle is a grilled oyster, shucked but keeping that deep well with the oyster liquor and meat, and then topping with some butter and citrus. You get a nice set of embers and then they cook fast and are delicious. Referring to one of the optional pieces, the griddle, being able to put that on the hot griddle, with the relationship to the smoke adjacent -- and then using one of those domes to move the smoke onto the oysters for just a hint of it -- is exceptional.
What is Something You’ve Cooked on the SIF That Surprised You?
I’ll get a group of folks together and slow roast a whole fish with citrus, stuffed with herbs. I love to be able to adjust the heat and use those domes to adjust it further.
How Would you Describe Your Style of Cooking?
Very straightforward, inspired by the classics, and I love modernist elements. I love looking for new efficiencies in classic cooking, so basically (and you and I have talked about this before) I like to pull apart a classic and put it back together thoughtfully.
What Type of Wood do You Like for Your SIF?
I use post oak, buying what’s in the area. Specifically, the one we buy is a kiln-dried post oak, and it is pest free and burns really beautifully.
What’s Something Tricky About an Open Fire That the Average Person Needs to Know?
The most important thing to remember is that you are cooking directly. You have to wait on the embers. With direct cooking, you have to be patient, and you have to let the embers burn down to coals.
What is Your Favorite Element of the SIF?
It’s more than just one. It’s the size, the raisable grill surfaces, and the dome is just perfect with the wooden handle. It’s also the willingness for them to look for feedback from the chefs, to continually look to improve their product. We love working with those guys on the road too.
Big Fish on The Forge
From Ashley Christensen, AC Restaurants, Raleigh, NC
Serves 8 to 10
Chef’s note: This fish is awesome with drawn butter, lemon, and chimichurri. It makes an awesome freestanding main dish or can be deliciously served as tacos on fresh corn tortillas.
12-15 pound NC Golden Tilefish (scaled/gutted/fins snipped/gills removed)
2 Ounces Fresh Thyme (on the sprig, which comes to about two bunches)
4 Fresh Bay Leaves
1 Small Head Fennel (with fronds)
1 Bunch Italian Flat Leaf Parsley
½ c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Black Peppercorn in a Grinder
Butcher’s Twine, cut into 10 16-Inch Pieces
Neutral Cooking Oil
Slice the lemons in half (pole-to-pole), and then into ¼ -inch thick half moons. Cut thyme springs into 1-inch long pieces. Thinly slice the bay leaves. Thinly slice the fennel bulb and stems into 1/8-inch thick slices. Chop the parsley (stems and all) into 1-inch long pieces.
In a mixing bowl, mix all of the above ingredients with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt, about 40 cracks of fresh ground pepper, and half a cup of olive oil. Set aside.
Season the fish inside and out with kosher salt. Season with about twice the amount you would season a filleted side of fish with.
Next, stuff the herb and citrus mixture into the cavity of the fish. Pack it in tightly... we want the fish to have the same shape it had when it came out of the water before it was gutted. I put some of the mixtures in where the gills were as well. (This keeps the meat that is in the head and close to the collar from drying out, and gives it flavor).
Next, using the sections of the butcher’s twine, tie the fish shut. Starting at the beginning of the incision, tie 1 piece of twine around the fish’s “equator”; repeat with the remaining twine, spacing out the ties every 2 inches. I lay the twine out on the counter, spacing it every 2”, and then I lay the fish on top of the twine. I make my knots near the spine of the fish, as this is the most structurally sound place to tie a knot.
Burn down a pile of hardwood logs (I use post oak) in the Sea Island Forge until you have a large, glowing bed of embers. Lower the grill top down close to the coals, allowing it to heat up. Once hot, raise it back up.
Use a kitchen towel to rub the surface down with a neutral cooking oil. Place the fish on the grill and lower it back down to the coals to create a sear (about 5 minutes). Raise it back up, and using 2 spatulas, carefully flip* the fish. *Before flipping, use the edge of the spatula to make sure the fish skin isn’t sticking. If it is sticking, use the sharpest edge of the spatula to free the skin from the grill as you flip (this will keep the skin intact, and help to keep the meat juicy). Lower the fish back down to the coals, duplicating the sear from the first side (again, about 5 minutes). Then, raise the fish back up.
Cover the fish with a SIF dome, and allow it to slow roast. Cook until the thickest part of the fish is fork tender at the bone, or until an instant-read thermometer reads 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
At this point, lower the fish back down to the coals and allow it to roast for 5 more minutes with the dome on. This will add one last kick of smoky goodness to the fish, and a little more crispness to the skin. The citrus stuffing, and the fact that the fish is whole and on the bone, will keep the fish from overcooking with the extra blast of heat.
Raise the grill back up, and swing the grate away from the fire. Call in a pal, and have them hold a sheet tray large enough to support the whole fish near the grill grate, and a few inches lower. Use the 2 spatulas to move the fish off of the grill grate, and onto the tray. Allow fish to rest for 15 minutes, and then use sharp scissors to snip and remove the butcher’s twine.
Present the fish whole, and use 2 larger spoons to slide the meat off of the rib cage. Pulling the meat as you need it (vs. pulling all of the meat off at once) will keep the meat warm and juicy.