Surveying Cúrate’s expansive exhibition kitchen, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes this Asheville, N.C., tapas eatery such a star on the local culinary scene. It might be the way the chefs and servers move together like honeybees as they prepare and present small plates to the 22 diners perched on stools at the Carrara marble bar. Or maybe it’s the food itself, a sizeable offering of Spanish tapas that give a nod to their Southern digs. Either way, it works. But what continues to amaze culinary insiders is how an Asheville newcomer with no formal culinary training managed to produce arguably the most celebrated restaurant in this small Blue Ridge town.
“This was actually my mother’s idea originally,” says Katie Button, executive chef and co-owner. “She has been a professional cook and had a catering business when I was growing up. It’s been a dream of hers to have her own restaurant for a long time. My mother was going to be the chef but when she realized I was so passionate about food and cooking, and I had so many ideas for the restaurant, it became clear it would be my role.” The epicurean enterprise soon turned into an equal partnership between Button, her husband, Félix Meana, and her parents, Liz and Ted Button.
In the months that followed Cúrate’s March 2011 debut, no one was more surprised by its success than Button. Just a few years prior, she had turned down a spot in a prestigious neuroscience doctoral program to make a sudden career change away from the lab and into the kitchen. What followed was a gig serving tables at José Andrés’ Café Atlántico (where she met Meana) in Washington D.C., an internship at elBulli in Spain, and a stint at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Jean Georges in New York City as a pastry chef before becoming a line cook at The Bazaar in Los Angeles. That was the extent of her résumé when she took the role of executive chef at Cúrate. We sat down with the two-time James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award nominee to see how it’s going.
The response to Cúrate has been very positive. Why do you think it’s been such a hit?
I think the first piece of it has to do with the atmosphere. We really wanted an open kitchen, but I don’t think we realized when we built the bar and had everyone share the same space, that it would have that lively interaction between the guests and the cooks and the server. But I also didn’t realize how that would spread to the rest of the restaurant. It’s a tight space, so the people in the four-tops behind the bar get to be part of the action, too. I think it is one of the main reasons people enjoy being here.
The second is that we wanted a concept that was clear, and Spanish tapas felt very comfortable with me having lived in Spain and having worked with José Andrés. It felt easy and natural for us. And that type of food is pretty simple. Ours is a little elevated and the plating is beautiful, but at the end of the day it is pretty simple. It’s food you would want to eat every day.
How did you eventually settle on Asheville as the site for Cúrate?
We liked the idea of being a large part of a small community rather than a small cog in the wheel of a large place. And Asheville has a very vibrant, centralized downtown that’s growing all the time. There is so much going on in terms of the arts and music scene. It’s actually crazy how much is going on here for such a small community. Then you have the outdoors and the mountains. Plus, you can get everywhere from here. And everyone who lives here is really enthusiastic about the direction of the community and the growth. They are really proud of it. A lot of people move here from other cities and immediately feel at home. The overwhelming acceptance and support we have received from the local community has been amazing.
I imagine it’s not always easy working so closely with family. How do you all manage it?
Very early on, we put things into quadrants and things started shaping. My father is the financial side. My mother is so great at the overall organization and the management and HR side. Félix runs the front of the house and the beverage program, and I’m in the kitchen. Everyone fell into his or her area. In order to avoid conflict from inhibiting us, we gave everyone control of his or her area. We talk about ideas and we are all very receptive, but in the end it’s each person’s final decision.
You run a very calm and orderly kitchen. How did that come about?
I don’t like yelling, blowing up or making things loud. It is something I learned from elBulli. The noise in the kitchen would start to rise and the chef would say, “Oye, chicos” (Spanish for “Hey, guys”), and the noise would start to come down. It was very important there to keep the volume down. But it’s really all about being organized. People just function better when they know what they are doing and have a system. They know how to react to things in an orderly fashion.
Was Asheville the right choice in terms of getting Cúrate the recognition it deserves?
It may be a little more difficult to be seen and mentioned. When people think of some of the best restaurants, their minds start going to the big cities. You don’t think about Asheville. But we’ve been getting lots of great recognition, and I don’t think it has hurt us at all. In the end, that’s not the goal anyway. The goal is doing what we love, doing it well, and hearing from our guests how much they enjoy it.
Photos Courtesy of Christopher Shane