The Accidental Chef
Anne McBride - June 2013
Katie Button gave up a clear path to the top of one prestigious profession, only to wind up making her name in another—and her family has been with her every step of the way. Anne E. McBride details the chef’s carefully curated rise at Cúrate in the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina.
The oysters had worms. So I’m making a new dish.” It’s 6 p.m., and 90 guests are scheduled to sit down for a five course meal at 7. Not a bead of sweat or hint of stress comes out of Katie Button as she rethinks part of her menu while directing her team in the preparation and plating of dishes that have nothing to do with the usual tapas fare of her Asheville, North Carolina, restaurant Cúrate. She’s in the basement of an event space just a few blocks from the restaurant she and her family opened in March 2011 in Asheville’s old bus station, built in 1927, arranging boquerones (marinated white anchovies) on oyster leaves and looking for the best way to add beet juice to the composition now that an oyster shell won’t contain it.
Such change of plans happens often enough to chefs, who are at the mercy of their ingredients and the reliability of their suppliers, especially when cooking away from their own kitchen. Mastering the unexpected is part of the long training they endure before finding themselves in as bright a spotlight as the 30 year old Button is now. But she’s been a chef for just over two years, and got to this point with only another couple of years’ experience, mostly as a stagiaire, which makes her poise all the more noteworthy. Her wide brown eyes sparkle with intensity that sometimes belie a stare, sometimes a gaze, as she retreats into her thoughts. She is tall and slender, with long chestnut hair held back in a ponytail.
Michael Moore, creator of Asheville’s Blind Pig Supper Club and host of the evening’s dinner, is standing in a corner, not quite sure of how to occupy himself. “Usually I’m running around at these events, getting things ready, but not with this chef,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for that.” The event benefits the Bob Moog Foundation, named after the electronic music pioneer, so Button celebrates other forms of groundbreaking with her menu, namely her time at the Spanish restaurant elBulli, where Ferran and Albert Adrià became mentors. ElBulli taught her both creativity and organization, it quickly becomes clear. And organization is key when serving 300 to 500 guests per day at her restaurant—or succeeding at off-site events.
In the past two months, from a conference panel in Charlotte to a Sherry class to cooking at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, Katie has taken part in 14 events—too much, says Félix Meana, her husband and partner at Cúrate, along with her mother and father, Liz and Ted Button. At 38—and perhaps because years of living in the United States have not made him any less Spanish—Meana is ready for more work-life balance. Katie says yes to everything, and everyone in the family agrees.
“I don’t know exactly what I should or shouldn’t be doing,” Katie says. “People may have heard of you, but when they see you and meet you, it expands your exposure. They remember you, your name, Asheville. We’re cheerleaders for Asheville.” It falls on Liz to say no to event and media requests, focusing instead on the things they all deem truly important: what allows them to contribute to the Asheville community and what further helps Katie’s career.
In second grade, her teacher told Katie: “You are the perfect package,” a phrase that would prove heavy with meaning as Katie grew up. The perfect package indeed, she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomedical engineering at Cornell University and a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at École Centrale in Paris. She was then one of two people admitted into a prestigious neuroscience doctoral program offered in collaboration by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and the Karolinska Institutet in Solna, Sweden. All set to start, Katie found herself incapable of opening the articles she was assigned to read throughout the summer. The weeks went on, each filling her with more dread. She volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and left for Zambia. She remembers people there as exulting happiness, despite their lack of necessities, making her take stock of her own life: “My happiness had been succeeding and getting good grades,” she says. “That’s not really happiness. I realized that I had been unhappy in my personal life for a number of years. I was insecure, feeling confined.”
With two weeks to go, Katie called the NIH and told them that she was dropping out of the Ph.D. program. She hadn’t consulted her parents, who were concerned about her decision but didn’t question her. Katie knew that she was sealing her fate for a future in science. There was no going back after turning down such a unique opportunity, especially at the last minute.
Having moved to the D.C. area in anticipation of her Ph.D. program, Katie decided to stay there and became a server at José Andrés’ Café Atlántico (now closed) and Minibar—a move that would change the course of her life in all aspects. “I instantly loved what I was doing, and I got back to being that stellar student,” she says. “I never feel that it’s work.”
There she met Meana, who was born and raised in Roses, Spain, up the road from elBulli. He worked at the famed restaurant for five years and took Katie along as a front-of-the-house stagiaire. She returned the following year as a pastry stagiaire (when she was featured in Lisa Abend’s book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, a narrative of the restaurant’s 2009 season). She also staged in the pastry kitchen at Jean Georges in New York City with Johnny Iuzzini and worked at The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles.
Just before Katie embarked on her culinary path, Liz moved to Manhattan with her husband and enrolled at The French Culinary Institute to fulfill her lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. “It was my mother’s dream; it still is,” Katie says of the initial idea. Liz, Ted, and Katie then traveled up and down the East Coast to find the perfect location. After early years in Greenville, South Carolina, the family spent more than a decade in northern New Jersey, where Liz ran a successful catering company—Katie’s first training ground. They were looking for a small city ready to sustain a restaurant committed to excellence, with high-quality ingredients nearby and with room to grow. Asheville offered all that, and wasn’t in a part of the country completely unknown to the Buttons.
Meana had never been to Asheville when he agreed to move there and open a restaurant with his then future in-laws. That’s how certain the four partners were of the potential for the success of their idea. “I knew we were going to do a good job,” Liz says. They have company by-laws in case issues need to be addressed, and attribute their success to the fact that each family member focuses on what he or she does best. Katie runs the kitchen. Liz manages operations and “does all of the stuff that nobody notices,” her daughter says. Ted handles finances and business development. Meana is in charge of the front-of-the-house affairs with Liz, along with beverage director duties, responsible for the 70-some wines on the list, including 40 by the glass. Liz describes her role as owner, general manager, publicist, expediter, and prep cook when needed…and Katie’s assistant.
The family is close. They are equal partners in their Heirloom Hospitality Group—“too many strong personalities to do it differently,” Ted says—but the financing came from Liz and Ted. Katie and Meana are paying their share with sweat equity. “It’s an opportunity we never would have had,” Katie lucidly states, aware of her privileged start but not making excuses for it. Her creative contributions amply pay for her share.
The last year has been meteoric: Katie has won the Robb Report’s Next Culinary Masters competition, against veteran chefs such as Café Boulud’s Gavin Kaysen and Aziza’s Mourad Lahlou; been a finalist for Food & Wine’s People’s Choice for Best New Chef in the Southeast, and a semi-finalist in the James Beard Award Rising Star Chef category. GQ also named Cúrate one of the 12 places to go for a perfect night out in the U.S. in 2013.
Katie is just beginning to realize how important the time spent outside of the kitchen is to her career and to her business, also because of how it connects her to her industry—something also new to her. “We’re all doing the same thing in the end, the same career,” she says. “We support each other. More than anybody, the other chefs get what you’re doing and the work that’s going into it a little bit more.”
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains about two hours from Charlotte, Asheville is probably best known for housing George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate, still the largest privately owned residence in the country. The city of 84,000 inhabitants is also home to a vibrant independent music scene. The Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club is frequently listed in national media as one of the best venues in the country for live music, and the largest free outdoor festival in the Southeast, Bele Chere, brings 350,000 people to Asheville every summer. Visitors come from Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, New York City—and now some stop on their way from Toronto or Florida just to eat at Cúrate.
It’s hard to find someone in town born and raised there; people speak of moving to Asheville for the outdoor activities, the low-key pace, a rich cultural life centered around the music and art scene, and ever more so around its food businesses and restaurants. The city has a DIY ethos that matches the artsy appearance its downtown area projects. Dan and Jael Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates arrived from Costa Rica, where they still have a farm on which they plan to grow cocoa beans for the chocolate bars they make at their new factory. Dan takes welding lessons to build his own chocolate-processing equipment, which includes a rooftop solar roaster for the beans. Asheville feels at times stuck in the 1960s, or even in the grungy ’90s—hacky sack is still a popular activity, and tie-dye is very much in fashion—and the sophistication of Cúrate and some of the other new restaurants in town still stands out not as being quite the norm yet as much as signs of a new generation of businesses for the mountain city. Soon, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Ale will open new breweries in Asheville, which will likely continue that forward push.
Cúrate has become a place where all of these facets of Asheville blend. Well-traveled residents, multigenerational families, local politicians, journalists, and tourists—they all make their way to the restaurant at some point during the week. From the moment the restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m. until it closes around 11 p.m., the energy and noise level are at a constant high, as the open kitchen cooks plate after plate of pan con tomate (tomato bread), croquetas de pollo (chicken croquettes), butifarra con mongetes (sausage with white beans), pulpo a la gallega (octopus with olive oil potato puree), and gambas al ajillo (sautéed shrimp with garlic). The space and the food are sophisticated, but never pretentious, and the tapas format allows diners to spend as much or as little as they’d like—or can. From the cocktails to the food, the family has communicated that quality ingredients are expensive, something that the guests seem to understand.
It’s clear around a meal at local barbecue hot spot 12 Bones Smokehouse that Katie has made Asheville her home and feels completely at ease. Asheville is very much about community, and the word comes back over and over in conversations with locals, be they residents or business owners. It’s not a buzzword for the Buttons and Meana: Cúrate even sponsors two local soccer teams. Of course, there is friendly competition among the local chefs. Katie is quick to say that all of the new wave restaurants, very much focused on sustainability, regional foods, and complex flavors, contribute to the city’s dynamic culinary life, but her peers and customers talk about Cúrate and the family with slight reverence. “The Buttons have elevated the food scene here,” William Dissen, chef/owner of Market Place says, a sentiment shared by Moore.
Katie admits she has to work harder here to gain media attention than if she were in New York City or Los Angeles—of course, being Andrés’ protégée doesn’t hurt in that quest—but serving food that no one else around her is offering gives her a certain freedom. While many of her customers have heard of elBulli, few if any have eaten there. As such, Katie’s cooking can dazzle without direct competition to its points of reference.
Katie had never imagined owning a restaurant and didn’t want to become an executive chef so early in her career: “She didn’t think that she could do it at that point,” Liz says. “She’s aware of her vulnerability.” But as the plans for the family affair took shape, Katie and Meana pushed for a Spanish tapas approach rather than a more typical local/seasonal focus—fresh from their time in Spain, they felt that the country’s flavorful food and a flexible tapas menu would appeal to a broad audience—which sealed Katie’s fate at the helm of the kitchen.
Katie is the first one to admit she understands her limitations as a chef—and works on strategies to learn everything she hasn’t quite mastered yet. “What we do at Cúrate, the special dinners I do, that stuff I know,” she says. “I know less in a global sense, but what I know, I know really well. I see that I need to learn the rest. I’ve never cooked with duck ever in my life, for example. I don’t have the all-around skills I would have gotten in culinary school. I’m kind of unique, because I’m learning by opening a restaurant; it’s definitely limited in that way.” Katie has committed to doing an internship every year, building her own culinary program, she says. She spent a few weeks at Noma in Copenhagen in 2012, and in 2013 returned to her Spanish stomping grounds to spend a month with Albert Adrià at Tickets Bar in Barcelona. Next year might be a butchering internship. “My strength is that I learn things really quickly,” she notes.
Meana speaks of her ability to be “a sponge.” With 20 years’ experience managing hotels and restaurants in Spain and the U.S., he has a lot of knowledge to share, and Katie has absorbed much of it. She has done the same with what her mother taught her growing up and with the techniques she learned at elBulli and with Andrés. That capacity can bring into question where an Adrià dish ends and a Button one starts. References to “Ferran” and “José” pepper conversations among the Cúrate partners, particularly between Katie and Meana. “They are why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Katie says, but she is clear that it’s her food and her dishes on any menu that she produces. Like all apprentices, she wants to make her mentors proud, but also show her creative independence. The techniques learned along the way are part of her repertoire, just like knife skills and stock making; hers just happen to have a solid dose of modernism alongside the classics.
The loyalty goes both ways: Andrés brought a team to Asheville for three days when Cúrate opened to help put systems in place, particularly organizational ones that ranged from station prep lists to ordering guides, and to be there on opening day (which saw Andrés on the street, calling for guests to come in). “Right away I was really impressed with Katie’s commitment,” Andrés says. “She had never actually worked in a kitchen when she came to work for me, but she was passionate and hungry to learn. I’m very proud to have seen her grow and become successful with Cúrate. It’s really an amazing restaurant.”
During her stage at Tickets, Albert Adrià told his team that Katie could do whatever she wanted in the kitchen. “The first time I saw Katie was at elBulli, when she came to work as a waitress,” Albert Adrià says. “I quickly realized that she had something special and that she did not come to waste time. She was always taking notes, and I have never seen anyone learn a language so quickly. That is her greatest strength, to know what she wants and just do it. She is one of those who listens carefully and soon knows more than you.”
The world-famous mentors and nontraditional career path can invite envy, especially among those who worked their way up the line for 10 or more years before opening a restaurant. Rumors around town talk of a large PR firm promoting Cúrate, for example, rather than Liz from her basement office. But the family’s work ethic and high standards for themselves quickly turn first impressions around.
Perhaps by nature, perhaps because of her scientific background, Katie says she responds well to structure. She likes rules, directions, and following recipes, and dislikes inconsistency. Making lists and being organized allow her to relieve any pressure she feels, particularly when cooking at events, she says. The Blind Pig dinner is only her fifth plated dinner outside her restaurant; the Robb Report’s competition was her first.
Katie develops the dishes and tests them dozens of times before putting them on the menu. But Meana is crucial to the process: the flavors have to perfectly match those of Spain. “We are successful because we are very, very traditional,” he says. They emphasize that they are not doing Spanish-Southern food. If an ingredient wouldn’t be used in Spain, it’s not in a Cúrate tapa either. Katie has spent little time in Meana’s home country and most of it in Roses, Barcelona, and Madrid, but through research and an extraordinary palate, she’s able to replicate the way a dish might taste in Seville or Valencia, he says, nearly teary when describing her version of ajo blanco, a cold garlic/almond soup that Katie makes as if she had been born and raised in Málaga. Katie mostly takes liberties with the menu when it comes to salads, which are not traditionally found in abundance on Spanish menus anyway, and desserts. Vegetable dishes in particular allow her to cultivate relationships with local producers and purveyors that she deems essential to embed her restaurant in the locale the family chose for it. Beginning the restaurant’s third year in business makes it easier to know how much of one ingredient she will need; she works with local purveyors to plan how they’ll fulfill her orders from seedlings to final deliveries, especially since Cúrate’s high volume requires large quantities of ingredients. She uses the high-quality trout from Sunburst Trout Farm in Canton, North Carolina, in her esqueixada de montaña (trout sliced thin and served raw with fresh tomato, black olive, sweet onion, and lemon vinaigrette), and local eggplants for berenjenas la taberna, fried eggplants garnished with honey from wild mountain apiaries from the region.
With Cúrate, Katie is back to being the perfect package, and it’s easy to wonder just what role her parents played, and continue to play, in pushing her toward that perfection. “It’s more about me pushing myself,” she says. “Sometimes I blame them because they make an easy scapegoat. But I put myself in that, and I really wanted to be the chef of our restaurant.”
Is Liz a stage mom? “I’m not protecting my daughter as much as I am protecting my business,” she declares.
Katie wasn’t expecting the level of recognition she and Cúrate received in their first year in business, but it feeds into her need for reassurance. “I need to succeed,” she adds. “It’s ridiculous. I’ve always had that.” The pace has been fast, so Katie is trying to enjoy where she is now, understanding that recognition might not change her as much as it changes how others perceive her. “I’m very proud that my career has been short so far,” she continues. “When we opened, I was maybe a bit ashamed. Now I am really proud of it. I want no confusion: sometimes people want to expand my CV when they talk or write about me. I have a lot more to learn, and I will learn.”
The end of dinner is nearing at the Blind Pig event. The branch-filled vases that functioned as centerpieces are whisked away and returned flowering with cotton candy. The crowd has talked excitedly about the chef all night, with guests quick to say that they’ve traveled around the country and Cúrate is as good as restaurants in major cities, that Katie has put Asheville in a new gastronomic league, that she’s worked at elBulli. Katie is as much of a hometown girl as it is possible to be here. This is when most chefs would be working the room and inhaling the praises, but Katie hasn’t left the kitchen since she briefly spoke to the attendees at the beginning of the meal. Meana sends Cúrate’s assistant manager, who is helping with service, downstairs to get her.
Katie starts stopping by the tables where she has friends and acquaintances to greet, but then tells Meana she doesn’t know anyone at the others and doesn’t know what to say to those guests. She hasn’t yet realized that the food she is so good at cooking has made her a public figure: everyone knows who she is and is eager to shake her hand and tell her how much they loved their meal. All she needs to do is thank them for being there, Meana says. And so she does, learning to master step-by-step everything it takes to make a chef.