Top 25 South – Ashley Christensen

The American South recognizes the Top 25 most mentioned chefs in the South from over 5,000 interviews conducted by Best Chefs America. Today, we highlight Chef Ashley Christensen of North Carolina.


Since making Raleigh her home, Chef Ashley Christensen has sought to foster community through food, philanthropy, and the stimulation of the city’s downtown neighborhood. Christensen opened Poole’s Diner in 2007. The shotgun space offers an evolving chalkboard menu of comfort-food classics, re-imagined through a philosophy of locally grown, seasonal ingredients and French-influenced technique. Since Poole’s, she has opened four additional ventures, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar (all housed in the same building), and Joule Coffee. She has three new projects coming in 2014: Death & Taxes, Bridge Club, and Aux. She is a board member of the Frankie Lemmon foundation and a co-chair of its annual fundraising event, Triangle Wine Experience.

2013 James Beard Award Semi-finalist, Best Chef: Southeast


Top 25 South – John Currence

The American South recognizes the Top 25 most mentioned chefs in the South from over 5,000 interviews conducted by Best Chefs America. Today, we highlight Chef John Currence of Mississippi.


Born and raised in New Orleans, Chef John Currence’s career in food has covered half the globe, but is tightly focused on his roots in the Deep South and Louisiana. He is a chef driven by ingredients and technique and spends as much time in the cultivation of those ingredients, whether they be plant or protein, as he does in the kitchen these days.

Currence is currently working on the Adventures of The Big Bad Chef video series, trips through the lesser known food spots of the Deep South. He recently released his first cookbook: Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some.

2009 James Beard Award Winner, Best Chef: South


Top 25 South – Norman Van Aken

The American South recognizes the Top 25 most mentioned chefs in the South from over 5,000 interviews conducted by Best Chefs America. Today, we highlight Chef Norman Van Aken of Florida.

Best Chef

Chef and founder of NORMAN’S in Orlando, Fla., Norman Van Aken has been described as ‘legendary, visionary and a trailblazer.’ He is known as “the founding father of New World Cuisine,” a celebration of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, African and American flavors. He is also known internationally for introducing the concept of “fusion” to the culinary world. In 2006, he was honored as one of the Founders of the New American Cuisine at Spain’s International Summit of Gastronomy Madrid Fusión event.

Norman Van Aken has published six cookbooks: Feast of Sunlight, The Exotic Fruit Book, Norman’s New World Cuisine, New World Kitchen, My Key West Kitchen (with Justin Van Aken), and No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken.

2003 James Beard Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America Inductee

1997 James Beard Award Winner, Best Chef: Southeast


State Plate: Chef Lee Richardson Makes the Case for Arkansas Cuisine

By Lee Richardson

AR_BCA_Honey AR_BCA_Strawberries

Throughout America’s history and the recent emergence and evolution of our newfound American foodie consciousness, Arkansas is reasonably the South’s most overlooked and underappreciated contributor. It is a virtual unknown, although the reason for this is most likely the by-product of its not having the tourist and commercial draws of a coastline or metropolis.

Prior to the recent interest in sustainability and small-farm agriculture found within the farmers market community, the busy, bustling, rat-racing public forever in search of newer, bigger, and better, had little interest in the small-town feel of The Natural State. Today, Arkansas finds itself befitting of the next big thing.


Arkansas cuisine is one of staples, not extremes. It is a state not of little interest, but of significant spectrum, offering end-to-end defining elements of Southern cuisine and culture, ranging from the Delta to the Ozarks and divided diagonally from southwest to northeast into perceivably two different states, politically, climactically, and geographically.

By name alone, Arkansas starts with Native American heritage. With its most significant influences coming from African, English, Scotch-Irish, and German traditions, I find the cuisine, by most points of view, best described as essential country cooking with all of the African elements of soul and thrifty nuance of preservation techniques such as pickling, canning, and fermentation.

In the big picture, Arkansas produces vast amounts of commodity chickens and rice, sweet potatoes and pecans, while offering the transport infrastructure and retail outlet to get these products to the rest of the country and the world.

Closer to home, a rapidly growing farmers market community has gone online with an abundance of pastured eggs, heritage poultry and hogs, and some grass-fed beef and lamb. We enjoy Arkansas Black Apples and Arkansas Traveler Tomatoes, Hope Watermelons, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, purple hull peas, squash and okra, and plenty of sweet corn. And more greens than you can shake a stick at! There is a wine-growing region and an old-fashioned stone mill, War Eagle Mill, in the northwest corner of the state where I get fresh buckwheat flour to make pancakes for the paddlefish caviar I get from the Delta in DeWitt. I am told that, apart from citrus, just about everything that can be grown in the United States can be grown in Arkansas.


The singular element that defines the world’s most recognized cuisines is the sense of place that can be found within the experience of their products, whether the seasonal emergence of a certain local fruit or vegetable, a regional technique or preparation, or simply the care that goes into their production. As America continues to turn its back on processed foods and to look for heritage livestock, heirloom fruits and vegetables, and honest cooking, The Natural State is well positioned to find itself a newly recognized place of interest. The disadvantage of being previously unknown becomes an advantage as our chefs and our consuming public makes a change in their dining directions. Come get a taste! But if you come between Thanksgiving and the end of January, we’re going to be in the deer woods or the duck blind!


Chef Lee Richardson studied under Emeril Lagasse, Anne Kearney, and Kevin Graham. He moved to Arkansas shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown New Orleans. Richardson is now dedicated to finding and defining the cuisine of Arkansas, a cuisine he describes as “an unrecognized but important part of America’s developing culinary identity.”




The American South’s All-Star Cast

Congratulations to our State Plate contributors in the running for James Beard Awards! Steven Satterfield and Edward Lee are up for Best Chef Southeast, and Vivian Howard is up for Best Television Program. Here is a peek of their contributions to The American South.