Season of change: An interview with Katie Button

STAR QUALITY: Katie Button is poised on the brink of some big firsts. The executive chef and co-owner of Cúrate and Nightbell and host of the television show "The World's Best Chefs" is launching a catering business and writing her first cookbook even as she begins the journey of motherhood. Photo by Tim Robison

Asheville has no shortage of local culinary celebrities. Everyone from food truck owners to tailgate market vendors — and, of course, award-winning chefs — could claim to be a part of that group of notables. But even in the midst of Asheville’s constellation of food luminaries, Katie Button is a brightly shining star.

Several years ago, Button, 32, took a passionate leap from a neuroscience Ph.D. program into the culinary world with hands-on learning and stints with chefs José Andrés and Johnny Iuzzini. She ultimately earned a career-defining internship in 2009 with Ferran Adria in the legendary kitchen at Barcelona’s El Bulli. Working with her husband, Felix Meana, and her parents, Elizabeth and Ted Button, as the Heirloom Hospitality Group, Button has now found her home in Asheville as the co-owner and executive chef of Spanish tapas restaurant Cúrate and, more recently, innovative nightclub and dinner spot Nightbell.

Blessed with the ability to be both elegant and down-to-earth, she can be seen in the media doing everything from teasing fellow Asheville chefs with a rubber rat to modeling an Emporio Armani coat and Jimmy Choo boots in a Glamour magazine fashion spread. Although she sports a list of honors, including being named a James Beard Rising Star Chef Finalist in 2014, she continues to remain accessible and is deeply dedicated to the local community, supporting area farmers and helping to create initiatives such as the 12 Days of Giving and a restaurant partnership program with the Haywood Street Congregation’s Welcome Table.

In 2015, fresh from her star turn as host of the globe-trotting Fox International television series “The World’s Best Chefs,” Button is set to tackle several new and potentially daunting challenges — motherhood, the launch of a new catering business and her first cookbook. She recently sat down with Xpress to talk about what’s on her plate.

Mountain Xpress: Is there anything new on the horizon with your restaurants?

Katie Button: Recently we decided to make the leap into catering, something we’ve been talking about since we opened Cúrate. We had so many requests for it, but we felt really limited in space, and it requires a whole separate set of systems. People think that if you have a restaurant, then you can do catering, but that’s not the case. So now we’re finally at a good spot, we have the right staff in place, and we’re working full steam right now on getting ready to do that. Heirloom Events is what we’re calling it, and we’ll be using some of the space downstairs at Nightbell to do it. Before [with just Cúrate] we were just Spanish cuisine, but now that we’re doing Nightbell, we’ve got a much larger menu to draw from. … Another reason for jumping into this is that is that it gives us opportunities for our staff to grow into. Part of our drive for growth has to do with trying to find things for the talented people who work for us to do and move into as they grow. One of the exciting things about working for ThinkFoodGroup — José Andrés’ food group — was that it felt like there were limitless opportunities popping up around the corner. And as an employee you feel like, wow, OK, if I put the effort into this I’m going to be rewarded because there are possibilities there for me, and I think that’s really exciting to be part of a group that’s growing. We are looking at launching it this spring, and we’re actually ready to start taking reservations very soon.

You’ve said before that Nightbell has been your chance to be creative and apply some of the things you learned at El Bulli, so tell me about that. Your dinner menu is something that’s unique in this area.

Yes, it’s something that’s a little bit different. We’re focusing on American food and seasonal ingredients and changing our menu accordingly, really looking at doing small plates. It has allowed me to step out from the box of Spanish tapas which I was in, and it’s opened doors for me because we couldn’t play around and be as creative over at Cúrate. The nice thing that American cuisine does is it really opens the door for creativity. … People ask me, “What is American cuisine,” and really we are a nation that is a melting pot of other nations, and our cuisine is very much a reflection of that and the different regions and what they’re serving. It really opens up the whole world in that way. With our bar snacks and the snack side of our dinner menu, we really tried to take classic American things, use excellent quality ingredients and present them in a slightly different way. And so, one of our signature dishes, the deviled egg, is totally different from a traditional deviled egg: It’s corn sabayon with smoked trout gravlax and caviar that we make with Sunburst Trout and hardboiled egg and chive and paprika.

And we’ve come up with this minisandwich section of our menu, and we have a lobster roll where we poach the lobster to order in butter, and we put it in a minibrioche bun that we make here with chive and lemon dust and a brown butter that we make from the bodies of the lobsters that adds this richness. It’s interesting because with that whole section of our menu, you come in and you order a bunch of little things, and it’s a great way to start and have some snacks and share them then move on to the small plates. And in our small plate section we’ve been playing around with some creative items – we did a twist on linguini with clam sauce, putting pasta that we make here with clams from Clammer Dave’s in Charleston, which is this amazing clammer — he has the best clams I’ve ever had, and he ships them to us overnight so the day after they come out of the water they come to us — then we make the sauce with a little bit of lobster sauce and garlic. This was featured on the Tuesday Tasting menu [last fall].

A lot of the dishes from Tuesday Tasting made their way onto our current menu due to feedback. We have a sautéed mushroom salad now that we serve with toasted pine nuts and a little bit of preserved orange rind, orange segments, pine nut purée and a pine nut vinaigrette using muscatel vinegar and Parmesan cheese and a little bit of crispy brioche toast on that. It’s just a really great winter seasonal salad. We’re having a lot of fun testing ingredients and branching out.

You recently hosted a television series, “The World’s Best Chefs.” What was that like?

It was an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to travel to 12 of the best restaurants in the world, work in their kitchens for a couple of days, interview their chefs and ask whatever questions I wanted to. … It turned out to be a lot of fun, but I was nervous in the beginning. It was hard to be around chefs that you admire so much, like Michel Bras and Andoni Aduriz, and, you know, in the show you have to treat them like equals, even though you’re not, you don’t feel that way, but you have to try to relate on that kind of a level even though you are pretty much in awe of everything they do. That was the hardest piece for me, trying to be comfortable around these people that I admire so much and I have all of their cookbooks and everything; it was a little bit nerve-wracking.

We filmed between June of 2013 and January 2014, on and off, and the show has aired all over Europe and parts of Asia and Latin America. Hopefully, at some point, it will come to the U.S., but at this point there is no further information about that. There is talk of another season, but nothing has been determined. … The opportunity came from a connection that I made from the time that I worked at El Bulli. One of the production companies there had filmed me when I was at the restaurant working, and when they were talking with Ferran Adria about this TV program, my name came up as a possible presenter or host. They were looking for somebody who was a chef and could speak English fluently because the show’s in English, but also I think my knowledge of Spanish helped quite a bit.

Did you speak Spanish when you started at El Bulli?

No, I learned Spanish at El Bulli (laughs). It was great, but it was a little intense. Felix remembers, I used to get up early in the morning before my work shift and listen to Rosetta Stone and work on that for like an hour before going into work every day. I really dedicated myself to that because nobody spoke English in the restaurant. It was learn it or fail, and failure wasn’t an option.

Are you bringing any of the techniques you learned during the show into your kitchens here?

You know, there are some things that I saw and learned, and one of them was at Mugaritz [in Spain]: They had this Japanese ice shaver that shaves blocks of ice into cotton-like ribbons of snow — the texture is just amazing — and they were pouring over a cold reduction from prawn heads, and it was this kind of cold, really delicious bite of the ocean and the sweetness of the prawns. So I actually bought one, and we use it in our root beer float dessert, and we use it in some of our cocktails.

Of course, not everything made its way here. At El Celler de Can Roca in Spain with the Roca brothers, they had a rotavap, this distilling machine where you can basically distill out clear, pure flavors of things — like you could put earth in there and distill out in a clear liquid form the flavors of the earth. Or they did this dessert that was all white because they could distill out different flavors of things — of passionfruit, strawberry, whatever — and you got this clear, strong liquid out of it. You couldn’t tell what anything was. But those are pretty pricey. Maybe at some point, but right now we can’t afford a rotovap.

Can you talk a little about the cookbook you are working on?

The cookbook I’m very excited about. It’s set to publish sometime in 2016 hopefully, and my portion has to be compiled by October of this year, so right now what I’m doing as much as possible is knocking out the recipes for that book. And it is based on the recipes at Cúrate. We don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s pretty much the food at Cúrate for the home cook. It’s not for professionals, it’s defintely a home cookbook, which I’m very excited about. I’m doing a lot of the testing out of my home kitchen, because I really want to make it so that it works in anybody’s home kitchen. If I test the recipes in the restaurant, our burners are hotter, our Vitamix blenders are better than traditional blenders … so I’ve been coming up with ideas and ways to make some of these things work without professional pieces of equipment. It’s been challenging, but it’s been a lot of fun. It’s going to be a big cookbook. I’ve got 125 recipes, and I’m just right now knocking out a few at a time as I can, so the next few months is my window to get that done. Which is where the concept of maternity leave comes in. It’s not exactly that, but you know, it is good because this is a project that I’m excited about doing, and it requires me to work from home.

So, when are you expecting your baby?

We are expecting our child sometime in February,* so we’re very excited about that and the timing. A couple years or even a year ago it would have been very challenging for us to have a family and do what we’re doing, but we got to the point where we decided if we’re going to do this, now is the time. And so we’ve got a good team of people who are responsible and in charge of both our restaurants and whom we know we can trust.

Do you have any trepidation going forward about how everything is going to work?

I don’t. I kind of feel like this is life and our work. I mean, we’re owners and I’m the chef. I don’t really worry. I just know that we’ll adjust and adapt as we go and make it work. And I’m sure our little girl, Gisela, is going to grow up in the restaurant, and that’s OK. She’ll probably hate the restaurant industry because of it (laughs). But maybe not. Maybe she’ll fall madly in love with it, who knows? And that’s OK too. And we just have to be flexible and make it work. I mean a lot of people when they hear we’re having a baby, they’re like, “How are you going to do that? Who will run the restaurants?” And the answer is, I am. I’m still running the restaurants. No, I won’t be working the line at night and running up and down the staircase because I can’t right now. But I’m still there. I’m not out of the country or somewhere, just letting things go. We would never be able to do that.

And it’s really nice that Felix and I and our family are all invested in Heirloom Hospitality Group together so I can really rely on them. Yesterday we had a food writer coming in, and normally it is something I would never miss, but we had an orientation at Mission Hospital for the upcoming birth of our baby, it was the only time it was scheduled, we had to be there, we couldn’t miss it, so I asked my mother to be there, to meet the woman and talk to her. So, you know, we just have to share a little bit. But I think it’s important just to be realistic about it and take things as they come. Nothing’s going to be perfect, and I’m sure I’ll always wish that I could be better at both things [parenthood and running the restaurants], but I think it’s normal to always wish that … but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to keep things in perspective enough to cut myself a break and know that we’re doing the best that we can. And I have great confidence in my team, and I think that we would never be in the position of having a family if we didn’t have that support behind us.

We have a lot going on, but it’s good. It feels like the timing is right to do all this. We like to keep growing. And part of that is us, but a big part of it is I see potential in a lot of the people who are working with us, and when I sit down to do a performance review with them, I feel good that I can tell them, hey, we have this on the horizon, hey, we have that on the horizon; these are all the things we’re working toward, and if you stay with us, we see you as one of the people moving into one of these positions. I think that’s really nice; it makes them feel good, and it makes me feel good.

*Katie Button gave birth to a baby girl, Gisela Meana, on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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