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Asheville Chef Katie Button on Her Quick Rise and Learning From the Best

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Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Cúrate

Ashevlle, North Carolina chef Katie Button has accomplished quite a bit in the first several years of her cooking career: She's worked for José Andrés and Ferran Adrià and was featured as one of the high-achieving stagiaires in writer Lisa Abend's acclaimed book on elBulli, The Sorcerer's Apprentices. She then opened a Spanish tapas restaurant, Cúrate, for which she was a contender for Food & Wine's People's Best New Chef competition. She recently signed her first cookbook deal. Just last week, she and her partners — who also happen to be her parents and her husband — opened a sister bar named Nightbell that offers what she calls "modern twists on American bar food." And she started racking up all these accomplishments after only about a year of professional training.

In the following interview, Button talks about how her time at elBulli has helped shape her career and how she has managed to be so successful despite having relatively little experience. Button — who still makes a point of interning at great restaurants once a year despite being a business owner herself — also explains the importance of not letting ego get in the way of learning and shares how she feels like she's starting to figure out her own style of Spanish tapas. Here's the interview:

So I'd normally start off asking about your background, but Lisa Abend pretty well documented that already.
She did, she did. [laughs] She did a really great job. It was funny and kind of fortunate that I was there the year she was doing the book. It was kind of interesting.

How has that experience played into your career?

Without elBulli, I wouldn't have had the guts to open my own restaurant.

My experience working at elBulli definitely sparked my interest in what I'm doing and gave me confidence. Without that experience, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing right now here or have had the guts to open my own restaurant in Asheville. Even looking back on it, I think I'm a little shocked that we did that. At the time, I didn't feel quite ready. It's funny because we just opened a bar last week, and it's interesting doing it the second time because it just reminds me of how much I didn't know when I did it the first time. And [it] also reminds me of how much I don't know now. You can always keep learning.

But no, the experience at elBulli really [was important] — and not for Lisa's book, that was kind of an added bonus because people had heard about my story and were interested in it — but more than anything it was learning the discipline, organization, and structure and then translating that into my own restaurant and work. It was really a training for chefs. A lot of the people I was working with were already chefs at their own restaurants, so it was just really an amazing opportunity to be in that kind of environment and have people like that be the ones teaching you and setting the example for you and then learning from the best.

Yeah, you have some pretty high-wattage mentorship.
Oh yeah. It's very intense. That's what I mean by it gave me a lot of confidence because I did really, really well there. And not everybody did. It was nice to know that I could handle that kind of pressure and perform well and that the chefs there really appreciated the work that I did. It also made it clear to me that hard work and a great attitude always pays off, combined with an ability to learn things quickly and an aptitude for learning. That was the confidence that it gave me. I realized that I had all that stuff in me.

[Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Cúrate]

And you were relatively inexperienced before you went into that.
Oh absolutely. Yeah I was about to start a PhD program and had kind of an early life crisis when I realized that I'd really not been enjoying what I'd been doing. I'd been really unhappy for awhile. It's a hard thing to realize. I just didn't have direction. I think that's normal. A lot of people graduate from college and they have no direction. You're just kind of lost and trying to figure things out, looking for something you enjoy to grasp onto. I had known for awhile that what really made me happy was food. Lisa wrote about that in her book that it had been my hobby and my mother's background and my whole childhood.

And so in DC I got a job working for José Andrés. But I got a job serving because I didn't have any cooking experience and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I was interested in food and the restaurant industry and really wanted to see if that was something I was interested in. So I went that direction, but I volunteered on my days off to work at minibar and help prep in their kitchen just to see if that was what I was interested in. The first time I went to elBulli, I worked as a server there. But it was there that I knew, wow, I really want to be in the kitchen. So before I left after that first season as a server, I told them that I really wanted to do that and they were like, go get some experience and come back. So from there, my first position in a kitchen was at Jean-Georges in New York in their pastry kitchen interning.

That's a good start.
Yeah, it was a good start. And I think that I had opportunities because... I don't know. I remember submitting my resume, [and] I think people were just interested in it because of my background and my education and what I'd been doing before. And I was just really obviously passionate about what I was doing now. I did really well [at Jean-Georges] as well. And then from there, I moved out to LA to work at The Bazaar by José Andrés. And then that following Summer, I went to work at elBulli in their pastry kitchen. So yeah, it was like a year's worth of professional cooking experience. So I had limited experience.

Are you still doing yearly stages? I remember that was the plan.
I actually am. Last Winter, I went to Tickets and 41 Degrees in Barcelona. Obviously with my connection with Ferran and Albert Adrià, that was an easy one and I was really interested in doing Spanish tapas. I'm always interested in keeping that tie with Spain and keep learning about it with Cúrate. So I went there for two weeks. The year before that, I went to Noma for three weeks. We've only been open for three years, so that's one a year so far.

Can you explain that strategy of continuing to stage while you're now a business owner yourself?
I have decided to continue doing internships because I felt that I was really inexperienced when we opened Cúrate. I still have a lot to learn and the only way I can do that is by getting out from what I know and what I'm doing and learning from other people. Because if you think about it, I came back from elBulli, and [my husband and I] moved to Asheville, North Carolina. The original idea was to help my mother open her restaurant. That was it. And, six months later, it was clear that we were going to do Spanish tapas and I was going to run the kitchen. Even though that wasn't the original plan.

With such limited experience, I didn't want to stop learning.

So I always felt like with such limited experience, I didn't want to stop learning. That's why I keep doing stages. I still have a lot to learn. I think it's really important. I feel a little bit like I was put in a position without quite the experience necessary to be in that position. And being great at what I do is something that's really important to me. But I have to say that the best thing about doing this is that it's made me absolutely unapologetic about my experience and about making mistakes or wanting to continue learning. I think that's helped me to grow a little faster.

[Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Cúrate]

How was dealing with the anxiety of opening a restaurant and having that feeling sometimes where you realized your inexperience was coming into play? How did you get through that?
It was really difficult. When we were first about to open Cúrate, I had a conversation with Felix [Meana], my husband, and I was like, "Look, I can't do this alone. I need help. We're not going to be able to open unless I can get help from some people that I know." So we called José Andrés. And the next day, he flew down four of his head team members. They were here for two days, not a really extensive period of time, but just enough to point me in the right direction and say, "Look, this is where you're at, these are the things you need to be doing." I mean, they've opened like 10 restaurants. I think they've opened four more since that time. So they're experts at it. And then we kind of went with it from there. It was really great to have that connection and friends that were willing to do that for us.

We called José Andrés. And the next day, he flew down four of his head team members.

But, in the beginning, I was a little bit nervous about the fact that a lot of the people I was hiring even had more experience than I did. So I doubted myself a lot and just tried not to let it bother me that I didn't know all the answers. And that if I wanted to know the answer, I maybe had to ask somebody who works for me. And that's fine. But it took me a little bit to get comfortable with that. And then realize, well, you can't grow or continue to learn if you're going to have an ego in your way. I think that's the main reason why I've been able to learn as much as I have in as short a period of time. It's that understanding and acceptance.

You're willing to ask questions of people who work for you.
Everybody. And work as a team. And do research. Not be embarrassed by the fact that I'm still learning. I never went to culinary school. The other day when I told [my sous chef] to edit recipes, she threw the word depouillage in there, which is like taking the fat off of a stock. And I never even knew what that term meant. I came across it in the recipe and I had to look it up. And it's fine. It's not a big deal. I'm proud because the concepts of the dishes and the whole experience is mine and is me but with the help of my team.

And also you mentioned that opening the bar last week that you feel like you had learned from past mistakes and realized what you still don't know. Can you tell me more about that?
It's always a crunch. I don't think it ever isn't a crunch opening a new restaurant just because you have to create an entire experience and everything from scratch and then get it up and running within a very short period of time. It's kind of intense. It's like all of a sudden you have to create everything from nothing. So I would say that what we did so much better this time was just being organized and [taking] the systems that we already have in place at Cúrate and just implementing them here. I mean, checklists, order guides, prep lists, equipment lists, what needs to be ordered, how to train the staff, what I want the staff trained on, and how I want things done. Even down to how I want the kitchen cleaned. It's all of those things that I didn't have in place before when we opened Cúrate and I didn't know what I wanted either. So that's been really a lot easier this time.

The things that I'm always still learning about, I don't know, there are always things that are missing, that we've forgot to order. Thinking about where you're going to put the tickets when they come in, the check rail. Things that you overlook and then you have to scramble. And also I wish that I would have spent a little bit more time on figuring out exactly how I wanted the stations to be organized. It took us about two days just to get that figured out. Maybe that's an impossible expectation on myself for it to be absolutely perfect from the beginning. But I feel really pretty good about where we're at.

Good. Can you tell me a little too about coming up with the concept? Why did you decide to go with the bar next?
We've been thinking about that since we opened Cúrate, and I think it's because we kept having so many people looking for a place to go before [dining at Cúrate]. They always ask us, "Where can we get drinks? Where can we go dancing afterwards?" Asheville's a small community. There aren't a ton of options in that area, and we really wanted to add something. Actually, in the last couple of years, a few other places have opened like Imperial Life. The trend has kind of gone that way because we didn't have anything besides beer pubs, which are great and we love 'em, but everybody wants something different.

We realized we wanted a bar that was not just about cocktails.

And then we realized we wanted a bar that was not just about cocktails. Felix and I looked all over DC, New York, [and] Chicago, figuring out what we want and what people are doing. There's a lot of places that are focusing on maybe the cocktails and the atmosphere combined. Or maybe it's the food and the cocktails, but the atmosphere is kind of a dive. We realized that what we really want is to create a place that has interesting food. We're doing modern twists on American bar food. We wanted a heavy focus on desserts because with my time at elBulli's pastry kitchen, I really wanted to bring some of those really neat techniques to a larger audience. And then focusing on the cocktails, but also the wine, the beer, the atmosphere, and the music, and just try to create a place that is emphasizing all of those things.

[Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Cúrate]

I read one early blog review that said this is basically food you can't get anywhere else in the region. How is it introducing that?
I would say that's true. People really enjoy it. So far, we've been open a week and the comments about the food, they seem to be kind of blown away, which is awesome because that's what we were going for. And it feels a little bit more me. Everything that we're doing here at Nightbell gave me the opportunity to try something new and create my own concept and menu from the very beginning. Cúrate is Spanish tapas and the reason we went with that [was] not only because it was something that wasn't [in Asheville, but also] because it was something I was familiar with. I'd worked with José Andrés, I'd worked in Spain.

But while [Nightbell] is working off of the culmination of my past experiences, I've been able to create and have fun with things that are definitely mine and something new. And what I'm more excited about now that we've opened Nightbell is going back to Cúrate with new eyes, revamping things there and creating Spanish tapas that's me. I'm starting to figure that out.

How do you mean?

I've been slowly figuring out what my style is and how I like to create food.

Well, I've been slowly figuring that out, what my style is and how I like to create food. I recently signed a cookbook deal for Cúrate. Part of my reasoning behind that was to give myself a deadline of creating more recipes and revamping the menu at Cúrate. Felix and I really stress being true to our concept, so it'll always be based in Spanish food, but [I want to] make some things that aren't quite just a classical representation of a Spanish dish, which is what we do now.

I started moving out of that in the past couple years. I made a dish, a mejillones escabeche, which is a traditional Spanish dish that's typically served in a can. Canned mussels. But we're doing them with fresh mussels and making a vinaigrette that has that flavor of the escabeche vinaigrette, but is fresh and made from roasted tomatoes and garlic and onion. We're using wild Maine mussels and they're served cold, so it's something that's very different, but it's one of my favorite dishes on the menu. So I want to create more things like that. Just have a little bit of fun with it.

And how is the cookbook? What do you have in store with that?
Well, it has to be done in October 2015, so I have some time. But they want 125 recipes and a ton of photos. The idea is that it's going to be for home cooks and be approachable, seasonal, and product-focused. It'll have some traditional Spanish products, really high-quality things that we use at Cúrate, but then also local, sustainable products. The reason I think that Cúrate's been successful is because we do focus so much on the product. And it's the same thing here at Nightbell. We focus a lot on what the product is, where it comes from, and then we prepare it pretty simply. But it ends up seeming impressive just by the quality and the care that is taken in procuring it.

Well it sounds like you're incredibly busy right now with all these projects. How are you feeling one week into Nightbell?
I feel really good. If you talked to me last Monday, I was exhausted. But this week I actually feel like things are under control. We have our systems in place, everything is ready, and we feel pretty good.

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11 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC 28801