The sorcerer’s apprentice

Like magic: Katie Button constructs a pañuela de chocolate, a sweet treat made with potato starch paper, inspired by an elBulli creation. Photo courtesy of Cúrate
Like magic: Katie Button constructs a pañuela de chocolate, a sweet treat made with potato starch paper, inspired by an elBulli creation. Photo courtesy of Cúrate

Liquid nitrogen vapor billowing around her, Katie Button looks every bit the sorcerer. Button, one of the owners and the executive chef of Cúrate, whisks the liquified gas into what will become a frozen gazpacho, ripe with summer. With a somewhat impish smile, Button splashes a little on the table in front of her, sending a shower of shimmering, quicksilver droplets flying through the air, trailing tails of vapor like miniature comets.

By all appearances, Button appears a master of her craft — and a master who is seriously enjoying herself. "Remember, maximum seriousness, in order to have a good time," her mentor, Ferran Adrià, once reminded Button and her co-apprentices lined up before him in his kitchen.

Adrià, elBulli's chief creative mind, is widely considered to be the most significant chef of our time. ElBulli is Adrià’s stage, his gastronomical Willy Wonka factory in Roses, Catalonia in Spain, where securing a reservation is — quite literally — like winning the lottery. Somewhere between 500,000 to 2 million people apply for the 8,000 reservations available for the six months per year that elBulli is open.

Adrià, credited with the creation of flavored "air" and a maverick magician of food, whimsically crafts paella from Rice Krispies, experiments with syringes and sodium alginate and freezes normally hot foodstuffs with liquid nitrogen. Adrià is a master of culinary trickery, fashioning rose petals to look like artichoke leaves that have been made to look like roses (wrap your brain around that one). Some call it molecular gastronomy, though Adrià abhors the term.

Adrià executes much of his magic with the help of a fleet of young apprentices who follow a rigorous daily routine in exchange for roughly one plate of food a day and the experience of a lifetime. Author Lisa Abend paints a picture of these nervous yet enthusiastic recruits in her new release, The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen of Ferran Adrià's Kitchen. The book follows Button, then 26, around the elBulli kitchen. She struggles along with some other students of Adrià’s through her stage, or internship, aching to overcome her own insecurities, and cook at a level befitting one of the best restaurants in the world.

A scientist's crisis of faith

Thousands of young and hopeful culinary professionals apply for a stage at this altar of progressive cuisine. Button was one of the few that made the cut, although her Spanish was shaky and her culinary skills more underdeveloped than many of her fellow stagiaires. But Button, Abend says, is the model student. A perennial overachiever who abandoned a prestigious and comfortable fellowship in biomedical engineering to work with food, Button found peace with her abrupt career change while learning the ins and outs of food alchemy. 

Abend also details the crisis of faith that struck Button at the prospect of imminent restaurant ownership. When Button was still toiling in a kitchen in Spain, her family was busy cooking up plans for the opening of Cúrate in downtown Asheville. Button would be in charge of the kitchen, even though she'd yet to hold a position higher than garde-manger — essentially a cold-station cook who doesn’t often do much actual cooking.

"I know I'm not ready for this," she says to Abend over a beer after another grueling 14-hour session at elBulli. "Not old enough. Not experienced enough. But, if someone hands you the chance to live your dream when you're 26, are you really going to turn it down?"

Climbing Mount Everest

Button, now 28, rests for a moment in the dining room of the perpetually humming Cúrate, open since March of this year. The liquid nitrogen and sodium alginate are stowed away in Button’s molecular gastronomy toolbox, as she focuses on the traditional-style Spanish tapas that her restaurant serves — Spanish cheeses and jamons, absent of any of the additives that sound like they belong in a chemistry set. Occasionally, she’s been known to sneak a foam-like substance on a plate — the "light as air" mayonnaise on her dish of white asparagus with lemon-tarragon vinaigrette, for example. That dish, says Button, is straight from her elBulli repertoire. 

Button will soon have an opportunity to showcase more of what Adrià-inspired cuisine she can conjure in the kitchen. On Monday, June 20, Cúrate will host the elBulli Inspirations cocktail party, a reception held to celebrate the release of The Sorcerer's Apprentices. The party will offer an opportunity to meet Button and her family, as well as Abend. Cúrate will provide a small menu featuring a number of hors d'oeuvres inspired by — or straight out of — the annals of elBulli. "It's a nice chance for people who are interested in that type of food to get together and experience what I've learned," Button says.

And as exciting as it is for the food-curious, it's just as gratifying for Button to have the chance to dust off some of the more esoteric techniques she learned under Adrià’s tutelage.

It’s not something she can often do, at least not yet. On an average evening, elBulli serves only one turn of 50 diners (attended to by a staff of 70). Cúrate, on the other hand, can easily feed 200 mouths on a single Friday night — with a staff of less than 40. Those numbers don’t support the sort of intricate, rarefied food for which elBulli is known.

It also helps, says Button, that elBulli runs like a machine. “And that's why they never fail,” she says. A well-implemented system is an integral part of the foundation of creativity. "If you don't have that consistency, you cannot do the rest," she says. "You need a lot of time to put into trial and error — because there's a lot of error," says Button. "And I just don't have that time."

But Cúrate, says Button, every day functions more like the well-oiled machine she strives for it to be. "I've surprised myself," Button says, with all the confidence of an apprentice who's impressed her toughest critic — herself.

"I've never been a chef of a restaurant before. The learning curve was like Mount Everest. And I climbed it as fast as I could. I'm really proud of what I've been able to do in such a short period of time."

Demystifying the magic

On Monday, Button will prepare "spherical olives,” one of Adrià's most recognized feats of creative mischief. Clarified olive puree is squeezed by syringe into sodium alginate, rendering liquid-filled bubbles that look for all the world like actual olives. When tipped into the mouth, however, the “olive” bursts on contact, filling the palate with pure briny essence and intense flavor. Button's been known to make these for a potluck.

Serving something so complex in such a casual environment is indicative of the way she demystifies the magic with a certain down-to-earth practicality. "I would say that once you practice these techniques quite a bit, there's nothing super-challenging about them," she says. "I actually would say that some of the more traditional techniques are more challenging to take on and learn and require a lot more practice."

But the molecular techniques require patience and practice as well, she says — especially in the case of the olive spherification. "The first time you do it, you'll end up with really ugly looking spheres that turn out like sausages and things with tails," she says. The effect is more potent if something that looks like a solid olive turns out to be a liquid-filled bubble with a micro-thin skin. But when a random, amorphous, vaguely tadpole-shaped blob oozes liquid into a diner's mouth, he or she is more likely to register disgust, rather than amazement — not the effect any chef wants, no matter how avant garde.

The end of an era

After 25 years at the helm, Adrià will serve the last meals at elBulli this July. It’s said he’ll open a cooking school in its place. It seems apt, given the quality of the alumni — world-renowned chefs like Grant Achatz of Alinea and José Andrés, one of Button’s other mentors.

Andrés, widely credited as the father of the tapas concept in the U.S., penned a letter of recommendation for Button when she wanted to stage at elBulli. It was working at Andrés’ restaurant, Café Atlántico in Washington, D.C., where Button fell madly in love with cuisine, as well as Felix Meana, her future husband, Cúrate co-owner and fellow elBulli alumnus. Andrés was present at the opening of Cúrate, taking a break from managing his billion-dollar culinary empire to hand-slice jamón ibérico de bellota at Katie Button's side.

It's yet another example of Button’s link to the global culinary world, an example of the star-power that she seems to attract to Asheville. Many aspiring chefs would expect someone of Andrés' caliber to appear at their restaurant opening only in their wildest dreams.

Elizabeth Sims, marketing strategist for Asheville Independent Restaurants (and accomplished food writer) says that, as soon as word got out that a protégé of Jose Andrés' was in the kitchen at Cúrate — and that Andrés himself was coming to help with the opening — she was bombarded with calls. “I got calls from friends who write for The New York Times and Food and Wine,” she says. The restaurant, says Sims, adds a note of sophistication to our culinary scene. “The addition of Curate to Asheville's independent restaurant community is a substantial feather in our city's cap,” she says.

Bronwen McCormick, the chair of the culinary department at A-B Tech, agrees. "I think it can only be positive that Asheville is getting this level of food recognition, because it further highlights this city as a place to come for food,” she says. “Any of us that live here now know that Asheville's already a culinary hub. In some ways, it puts us on the map and makes it even more recognizable as a food destination."

Still growing

Even though, by Button’s admission, she's been handed her dreams, that doesn't mean that she's ready to rest on her laurels. To the contrary, she believes that it's precisely the time to push herself even further. "I don't think that I could ever just sit back and stop. If I actually want to be an excellent chef, I have to keep pushing myself, and I'm not there yet." To that end, Button hopes to intern on a yearly basis at the restaurants she most admires to continually develop her skills — and bring Asheville the latest in the world of inventive cuisine.

And McCormick thinks that Button has the mark of a great chef. "Clearly, she's extremely bright and talented and her restaurant's getting rave reviews, and that's exciting,” she says. “One of the things we tell our students all of the time is that you've got to go out there and see things and do things and then bring that back here. [Button’s] gone out there and worked with some of the best in the world, and she's bringing that back to Asheville … the more people that we have in Asheville working with food who have seen the world, the higher the level becomes.”

In the epilogue of The Sorcerer's Apprentices, Abend asks Button where she would like to be in 15 years. Button replies simply that she would like to be comfortable calling herself a chef.

"The actual translation of chef is boss," Button tells Xpress. "In that sense, yes, I have achieved that level. But to me, 'chef' means more than that. It's being comfortable having a certain skill-set to where you can do anything with any kind of food at any time. I'm not there yet. But I'm going to be."

Tickets for the elBulli Inspirations cocktail party on Monday, June 20, can be made by calling Cúrate at 239-2946. Tickets are $35 and include food and a welcome cocktail. Visit curatetapasbar.com for more information. Signed copies of The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli may be purchased at the event for $26. Malaprop's Bookstore and Cafe will also carry copies.

— Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at food@mountainx.com

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One thought on “The sorcerer’s apprentice

  1. slycos

    Making the restaurant’s web address more prominent and mentioning its physical address would be helpful. If they were not having a cocktail party, would there have been mention of the web address or phone number at all? Thanks.

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