Rooted in the past

Buttoned up: Katie Button, Cúrate’s executive chef, will travel to Denmark this month to learn about new Nordic cuisine at Noma, currently ranked “best restaurant in the world” by Restaurant Magazine. Photo by Max Cooper
Buttoned up: Katie Button, Cúrate’s executive chef, will travel to Denmark this month to learn about new Nordic cuisine at Noma, currently ranked “best restaurant in the world” by Restaurant Magazine. Photo by Max Cooper

Cúrate's Katie Button cut her intern teeth at one of the most creatively advanced kitchens of our time, Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, the five-time “best restaurant in the world,” according to Restaurant Magazine.

Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, bumped the now-closed elBulli out of first place in 2010 and still holds the title. Helmed by chef René Redzepi, Noma is a temple of modern Nordic cuisine, a style emphasizing almost ancient cooking techniques and an ultra-local focus. Button will begin her next internship there this month.

"As you know, right now, Nordic cuisine is the thing, but their philosophies and what they're doing is the attraction for me," says Button. "I don't want to go there and come back [to Asheville] and smoke herring. That's not it."

In 2004, Redzepi and other similar chefs signed the "Manifesto for a New Nordic Kitchen," an edict that dictates, among other things, combining "culinary traditions with impulses from outside" and expressing through food "purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics that we would like to associate with our region." It's a food philosophy that translates well to Western North Carolina, a relatively small region that still managed to spend $62 million on local food in 2010.

At Noma, Redzepi and crew are committed to unearthing and utilizing heritage techniques. They smoke food over hay and use the ash for flavor; they pickle and brine for preservation; they make their own charcoal; they make their own vinegar out of local beer. "[Redzepi] does it in a really refined manner, which I think is what's most appealing to me," says Button. "And while the restaurant is at the same level as elBulli was, it's different. At elBulli, the concept was surrealism, let's go as far as we can. It was playing on reality and making things that you couldn't even possibly conceive of." Instead of relying on the new techniques of modernist cuisine, says Button, Redzepi and other chefs of the Nordic persuasion are moving backwards, returning to their roots. And sometimes even literally.

During a particularly cold and infertile winter when produce was scarce, Redzepi purchased carrots that had been left in the ground so long that they were gnarled and nearly inedible. The roots were braised as though they were a tough cut of meat. The resultant dish, "vintage carrot," is now a Noma signature item, born out of necessity and a staunch commitment to seasonality. That strict adherence to seasonal philosophies is impressive considering Noma's status. It's a balance that Button hopes to learn more about while in Copenhagen.

"It's a challenging aspect, to keep [your menu] fresh and interesting but also delicious, not sacrificing flavor — and your final plate — just because you feel like you have to change the menu to stay with the seasons," says Button. Shifting a menu frequently leaves little time to refine a dish to perfection.

"At a certain point, you have to say, 'OK, let's stop there.' But at what point do you do that? What are you sacrificing when you do that? There are very few restaurants I have eaten at that change their menu quite frequently so that when I go back, I love everything they have," she says.

In March, Button will collaborate with accomplished chef and author Jody Eddy from Manhattan to host a new-Nordic dinner with Gunnar Karl Gislason, an Icelandic chef that worked at Noma and chef/owner of Dill in Reykjavik, Iceland. The location of the dinner, which includes a foraging expedition, is still under consideration, but possible venues include the Warren Wilson College campus. The event will allow Button to try out her new Noma skills, unfettered by the boundaries of a traditional tapas menu. But don't expect to find reindeer meat on Cúrate's menu anytime soon.

"I'll certainly learn new approaches to new ingredients, or the same old approaches to the same old ingredients," Button says. "And maybe I'll bring some new techniques to Cúrate. But I'm also thinking about what will be next for us. I am really excited about Cúrate and want it to succeed and be new and fresh, but I'm also excited about doing other things that have a different concept."

What precisely is next, Button won't say — yet. "We have lots of big ideas and I know there's going to be something next. We've been talking about it. But for now, it's just ideas."

Button says her primary task is her personal development. "My biggest idea is really the expectations that I hold for myself and where I want to go and take this career that I launched three years ago. I would like to do things that are surprising. I'd like to be a great chef." http://www.curatetapasbar.com

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