Ask anyone who keeps tabs on the food scene in North Carolina where to eat in the Raleigh-Durham area and nine out of 10 will say Vin. They may rhyme it with bin (I heard that a lot), but they're referring to Enoteca Vin, a small but influential wine bar in Raleigh's Glenwood South district. Fans love its 32-tap Cruvinet (which preserves opened bottles of wine to serve by the glass), its cool industrial-bistro look and the friendly-chic feel of it, but what they're really mad for is chef Ashley Christensen's food: an ever-changing array of simple, non-snob, downright exhilarating dishes that riff on American, French and Mediterranean traditionsand match brilliantly with sommelier and co-owner Chrish Peel's eclectic wine list.
Though she's only 28, Christensen has the vision and confidence of a far more seasoned chef. "I like the words 'pristine,' 'artisan,' 'quality,'" she says. "Not 'luxury': That's easy to obtain. You can buy it. Quality you have to seek out." To that end, she spends hours each week sourcing the best artisanal produce, naturally raised meats and cave-kept cheeses from Italy to Washington State to the Raleigh farmers' market, then uses the ingredients to create dishes that customers talk about for months, such as a potpie she made recently by filling a buttery cornmeal crust with homemade duck confit, sweet potatoes, currants, cipollini onions and kale.
Christensen, a self-taught chef, fell in love with food growing up near Greensboro, North Carolina. "My parents were really into all-day cooking," she explains. Her father, who drove trucks when she was small, then made the obvious career move into financial planning, was ahead of his time as a passionate real-food, slow-food geek. He kept bees, made 10-hour sauce from heirloom tomatoes he grew himself, rolled pasta by hand and even put bugs in the blender to produce organic pesticide. Her mother, a real estate agent, learned classic regional recipes from her "real hard-core Southern cook" grandma in Tennessee. Both Christensen's parents read cookbooks voraciously and experimented with recipes constantly. "There were not many people around doing that then," Christensen says. "Kids would come over and try the pasta and say, 'What is this?' But they loved it. Then I'd go to their place and it was: 'Sugar cereal? What is that?'"