Tag Archives: Community

Q+A WITH ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN

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Last week, we introduced you to Ashley Christensen: chef, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and badass. She is August’s featured chef in our café (and collaborator for our upcoming Piggy Bank Dinner). Ashley recently spoke to us about good food, sustainability, community, and what she has planned next.

AC: Congratulations on your recent James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. How did you celebrate? (We hope you took time to celebrate…) 

We had a total of 22 folks sitting with us at the ceremony, so we kind of brought the party with us, which was really fun. After the awards, we decided to make the party about simply having a good time with our crew. We called in a pile of to-go Shake Shack burgers, ordered a bunch of champagne and crowded about 40 friends into our little room at the Ace Hotel. We followed this celebration by attending Jamie Bissonnette’s victory party at Toro, and then the Nomad’s epic party at the Highline Ballroom. It was more perfect than I could ever find the words to describe.

AC: You currently operate five restaurants in the Raleigh, North Carolina area – with more on the way. Do you have a different role at each establishment? How do you balance your roles at each? And how have those roles changed as you continue to grow?

In addition to being the proprietor, I’m the Executive Chef for the company, but I consider my most important role at this point to be “lead catalyst”. I have lots of ideas for new projects, and for refining existing projects. My job is to make sure that we ask of ourselves to improve each day, and to see the opportunity in studying the details that guide us to do so. We have an amazing crew of folks who make it happen every day, on every level. It is also my job to provide the tools and support that make them feel competent, empowered, and appreciated.

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GRAVY #52 – LEARNING TO LOVE THE STRIP-MALL SOUTH

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Thank you to the Southern Foodways Alliance for allowing us to share “I Fell Hard for Buford Highway” by John T. Edge.

From Gravy #52:

I grew up in the country. On fourteen acres of red Georgia clay, cut by gullies and skirted by cedars. I grew up fishtailing down gravel roads in pick-up trucks. And running barefoot through honeysuckle patches. Out in those boonies, I developed an urban crush. After a fitful college run through Athens, I hightailed it for Atlanta and made a life in a neighborhood near the city core.

I could walk to two Indian restaurants, a bookstore, and a co-op grocery. I pinch-hit on the softball team of my neighborhood bar. I became the worst sort of city snob: an arriviste. I was quick to dismiss my country birth and even quicker to declaim life in the white-flight suburbs, which I considered a homogenous wasteland, absent of sentient folk and sidewalks.

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BUBBLES (+ INEZ HOLDEN)

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Last year, I was introduced to Inez Holden over a glass of dry white wine at a fundraising event in our community. Mrs. Holden’s story, told with humor and passion, reminded me that the fashion industry runs deep here in our community. Before Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid, there was Bubbles Ltd.

As Alabama Chanin continues to explore the world of machine-made fashion with our new line and manufacturing division, A. Chanin and Building 14, respectively, Mrs. Holden reminded me that we humbly follow in a line of companies that completely designed and manufactured a fashion line in The Shoals and the surrounding area.

We’ve previously spoken about the rich history of textile production in our community and some of the local manufacturers who led the nation in textile and t-shirt production, but we were excited to discover Bubbles Ltd.

Around 1983, Mrs. Holden got her start as a designer quite by accident. She bought an oversized top and banded bottom pant that she loved the style and fit of, but the material was very rough and scratchy. So, she asked a friend of hers to help her make more sets in a similar style, but out of jersey fabric. She had about five sets of these pantsuits made in different colors, but kept giving them away because so many of her friends and family wanted them.

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THE FACTORY CAFÉ CHEF SERIES: ASHLEY CHRISTENSEN

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I am just going to say it: Ashley Christensen is a badass. (And there are many who would agree with this sentiment.) I could say plenty of nice, lovely things about her and they would all be true. But, if I’m being honest, that’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of her: badass. How else could she open and operate five successful restaurants (with more on the way) AND walk away with the 2014 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Southeast award – all while still in her thirties. You have to wonder if Ashley operates at any speeds slower than an all-out sprint.

In today’s food-obsessed culture, five restaurants equates to a virtual culinary kingdom. And yet, somehow, Ashley still manages to seem real and relatable. Perhaps more importantly, the food is approachable and delicious. She is an actual presence in each of her North Carolina-based restaurants: Poole’s Diner, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, Chuck’s, Fox Liquor Bar, Joule Coffee, and the soon-to-be-opened Death and Taxes. Crowds have been known to line up around the block at Poole’s, a former pie shop turned diner, where the egalitarian approach does not allow for reservations; it’s first come, first served. I once heard the story of Ashley driving her car to the front of Poole’s and serving drinks from her opened trunk on a busy night with an especially long wait time. That’s what I mean: badass.

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FRIENDS OF THE CAFÉ, SOUTHERN FOODWAYS, AND VIVIAN HOWARD

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Last Friday night, we hosted our second “Friends of the Café” dinner, which also served as our first Piggy Bank Dinner fundraiser for the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). Chef Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer restaurant and the Peabody-award winning television series A Chef’s Life traveled to The Factory from North Carolina for an evening of delicious food, cocktails, much laughter and lively conversation, and music, performed by friend and songbird, Shonna Tucker.

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Vivian’s show, A Chef’s Life, focuses on regional food traditions and explores classic Southern ingredients. Friday’s dinner highlighted the story of our own local farmers and their fresh ingredients, with Vivian’s Eastern Carolina twist.  Each course was accompanied by a wine pairing, chosen by Harry Root (Bacchus Incarnate) of Grassroots Wine.

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I love what Christi Britten—one of our dinner guests and the author of Dirt Platewrites in her review of the evening:

Pretty much, Vivian Howard gives a damn. She gives a damn how the food she serves is raised, prepared, cooked, presented, eaten, enjoyed, and thought about. She gives a damn about her community’s food culture and wants to suck up as much knowledge as she can about where their food comes from and how to make it. She gives a damn about the farmers that work hard every single day to feed a community as well as their families.

She has, with her own hands, butchered whole animals to use from snout to tail in her restaurant. She speaks with a tone of reverence and authority over the food she creates. And basically she is a food medium. She is confident, yet humble and puts us all into a place where we can visualize the care taken to prepare what we put in our mouths.

This farm to table dinner celebrated local farms and Southern food culture by bringing together the summer bounty into one meal among a diverse community of eaters.

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ALABAMA FASHION

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We often speak about our home, our state, and our community that provides an incredible amount of inspiration for our work. We are not alone: friend and occasional collaborator, Billy Reid, also headquarters in the same community. It has been mentioned (and is remarkable) that Alabama has the third largest membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), numbering at two; we rank just behind New York and California. And just as there is a rich history of textile production in our community, there is a somewhat unknown or unrecognized group of designers that have emerged from our home state.

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DIY SFA APRON

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In honor of our upcoming “Friends of the Café” dinners (which are also Piggy Bank fundraisers for the Southern Foodways Alliance), Alabama Chanin is offering a DIY SFA Apron kit, with a portion of the sales going toward the SFA.

I keep a selection of half-aprons and full bib aprons on a hanger inside the closet door of my kitchen pantry. Depending on the task at hand (and whether or not Maggie and/or flour are involved in the recipe), I may opt for the additional coverage of a full apron. I cannot count the number of times that I’ve looked down to see that I should have grabbed an apron before starting a kitchen task.  I remember both of my grandmothers wearing aprons habitually and often think that an apron is a great addition to every task in life—especially with the addition of a small pocket. This full apron is unisex in design, so I can use it – but it will also work well should I be able to convince my son Zach (who has recently been helping us in the café) to come over for a cookout.

This DIY Kit comes stenciled and ready-to-sew with one of our A. Chanin Long Bar Aprons in Natural and medium-weight cotton jersey for the appliqué (you choose appliqué and embroidery floss color). We will also include basic instructions for embroidery and construction techniques. A whipstitch was used to outline the logo’s letters and the outer circle. The individual shapes were stitched using backstitch negative reverse appliqué. For detailed instructions on these techniques, refer to Alabama Studio Sewing + Design.  

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COMMUNITY COOKBOOKS (AND COOKS)

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Community cookbooks – collections of recipes gathered by churches, women’s societies, rotary clubs, and other regional clubs and foundations – have been the foundation of home kitchens across America for decades. These collections often present an air of nostalgia, using old-fashioned techniques, offbeat ingredients, and occasionally include really great anecdotes. They are—in their best versions—a direct reflection of the region of their origin and an admirable labor of love. The recipes are seldom fancy, and most often highlight the kind of meal that is made in an average kitchen on an average evening by an average cook who finds an epiphany of enlightenment in a great recipe. Even more captivating is the community cookbook filled with family recipes passed down from prior generations and lovingly shared with the community at large.

Caxton Press in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania published what is believed to be the very first charity cookbook in 1864, during the time of the Civil War. This assortment, titled A Poetical Cook-Book, by Maria J. Moss, was filled with foods common to that era, like leg of mutton, mince pies, johnnycakes, and hasty pudding. The book was sold to provide funds for field hospitals and aid wounded soldiers.

Many, like the ones I was given by my mother, grandmothers, and aunts, are overflowing with sense memories of a location and an era. While similarities exist among the cookbooks, there are distinct differences between what the women of the Virginia Eastern Star were making in the 1920s and the dishes prepared by the late 1960s Junior League of Coastal Louisiana. Regardless of the when and the where, there is copious information on what the (mostly) women were like in each specific time and place. The ingredients tell a story of rural vs. urban landscape and wealthy vs. working class cooks. If a recipe called for a pinch or a handful, you might assume that the writer was a seasoned home cook who learned passed down recipes and perfected dishes by taste, not by measurement. If a recipe was “eggless” or “butterless”, you might suppose that it originated during wartime, when certain foods were rationed.

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BOOK GIVEAWAY: HANDMADE GATHERINGS

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A few weeks ago, we wrote a review of Handmade Gatherings by Ashley English (and also picked Ashley’s brain for her best tips on communal entertaining).

As The Factory continues to grow and host events, we openly welcome her simple approaches to creating an experience through collective, potluck meals. Now, we want to share those inspirations and insights with one of our lucky readers.

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THE FATHER OF THE BLUES + HANDY FEST

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“Where the Tennessee River, like a silver snake, winds her way through the red clay hills of Alabama, sits high on these hills my hometown, Florence.”
–W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues

We have written many times of our community’s rich musical legacy. The Shoals has a very notable place in modern music history; but, that history reaches much further back than many realize. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was born and raised here in Florence in the late 19th century. Discovering a love of music at a young age, he took up the cornet and participated in acapella vocal lessons while attending grammar school. Later, after receiving his degree from the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, he became a teacher and briefly worked in a piping company before ultimately pursuing music as his true passion. His contributions in shaping the blues were influenced by the African-American musical folk traditions he experienced during his travels across the South, with “Memphis Blues” marking the beginning of his musical career.

For over 30 years, The Shoals community has hosted the W.C. Handy Music Festival. “Handy Fest,” as the locals call it, provides a few moments of unrivaled fun – in the middle of what can be a long, hot summer. Many of us anticipate the event all year and even the most confirmed homebodies spend multiple evenings out and about, listening to live music, visiting with friends, and exploring the community during festival week.

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