A winding road is one that many chefs tread. Schooling, stages, back breaking days on the line, many with a dream of opening and owning their own restaurant. The road for Chef Katie Button was most certainly winding, and supremely fascinating, considering that she start off earning a degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell and a masters degree in Biomedical Engineering. Katie made her way through the kitchens of Jean George in NYC and Jose Andres’s Bazaar in L.A. before working for a time at elBulli in Spain. She opened her first restaurant, Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina. I recently had the chance to speak with Katie. She told me a bit more about her path to working in a kitchen, her excitement about being a finalist for the 2014 James Beard Award Rising Star Chef of the Year, and her favorite food memory.
Behind the Pass: Where did your passion for food come from?
Katie Button: It came a lot from my family, from my mother. She had a catering business when I was growing up so she was in the industry. She had a very successful one in New Jersey.
When I was a little girl I used to help her a lot in the kitchen in her catering business and everything. I was always surrounded by good food. When you come from a food family it sets you up to be extremely passionate about food.
It’s funny because my mother remembers a moment that I don’t necessarily remember. I kind of remember being a little bit disappointed when I was in high school, and she decided to stop with her catering business. When she stopped apparently I told her how upset I was with her because now that meant that I wasn’t going to be able to work with her in catering anymore.
BtP: The path you took to eventually becoming a chef fascinates me. You obviously love cooking. So, where did the idea of going in to chemical engineering or bioengineering come from? [Laughs]
KB: Well, I was really good at school, and math and science always came easy to me. While I really loved cooking, I looked at it more as a hobby. It was something that I was really passionate about, but I honestly didn’t think of it as a career possibility.
I think I was always really ambitious and driven and I think I wanted a career. When I was coming out of high school, getting in to cooking, as a profession, just wasn’t that prevalent. I didn’t know about it that much.
It took me going off into a different direction to kind of find my way back. I got through my undergraduate work, went on into the master’s degree; at every transition point, I was kind of lost. I wasn’t clear on what I wanted to do, where I wanted to work or what I wanted my career to be. I was just doing the work and continuing.
BtP: What was the next step then for you once you realized, “Ok, this isn’t for me; I need to find another path?” How did you make the change to pursing a culinary career?
KB: It came in phases. As soon as I quit the PhD program, I knew that I wanted to work in restaurants. I wasn’t sure in what capacity. I just knew I wanted to be surrounded by food. Part of that realization was looking back on the past years. I hadn’t been very happy doing the research part of my schooling, so I thought, “Well, what had I been happy doing?” For me it was really cooking.
When I was in Paris I spent all my spare time at the markets. I bought these crazy expensive cookbooks, learning the basics of French cooking, Larousse Gastronomique, and all my time off I was cooking and teaching myself techniques in my little studio that I was living at when I was there. Taught myself how to make puff pastry on the floor of my apartment for counter space; that’s what I spent all my time doing. I realized that’s what I was most happy with. I spent all my money and time doing that. My master’s program, while I did well at it, it wasn’t my focus for sure.
I immediately thought I wanted to be in a restaurant so I just printed out resumes and went door to door to the best restaurants in D.C., where I was living at the time, looking for a job. I figured serving would be easier to get in to, and good start since I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be doing, but I knew I wanted to be in food.
It was actually the manager at Café Atlantico Mini Bar, one of Jose Andres’s places that gave me an opportunity. I started working there and it was working there that I really started realizing I wanted to be in the kitchen. I just wasn’t sure exactly the path or the route I was going to take to get there.
Eventually I met Felix (Meana), my husband, who runs front-of-house at Cúrate, and worked for five years front-of-house for elBulli. He was like, “Do you want to check out the best restaurant in the world and work in their front of house?” I was like, “Oh, yeah! Of course!” I don’t think anybody passes that up.
So, I went to work at elBulli but I went there with knowing at that time that I really wanted to be in the kitchen. I made it very clear from the very first day that I wanted to work in their kitchen and I wanted to know what I needed to do to do that. They told me I needed to get some experience, so that’s what I did, working at Jean George in New York, then at Bazaar in L.A. After that I went back to work at elBulli and they gave me a spot in their pastry kitchen to work there and it was really an amazing experience.
BtP: So obviously a lot of your training was on the job. If someone asked you what you thought the best path to a culinary career might be, what would be your advice?
KB: I would tell them to plan on going to culinary school, but before you do it take a year and work in a restaurant.
I think it’s really important that you understand what the restaurant world is like if that’s what you want to do. Maybe you want to do catering or something; whatever it is you want to do, I think you need to jump into it for a year and volunteer. Live with your parents and intern somewhere wherever you can and just get the feel for a kitchen and how intense it is and the pressure and the way people work. I think that’s really important and then plan on going to culinary school after that year.
I wish I had gone and worked in a lab before I started down the path of chemical engineering. It would have changed things for me probably!
BtP: That’s probably the case with most careers! [Laughs] Ok, so shifting gears a little bit, the James Beard Awards are coming up Monday (May 5th).
BtP: You’ve garnered attention from Food and Wine along with other awards. In the culinary world the James Beard Awards are a big deal. What does it mean to you to get recognized and to be nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year?
KB: Oh my gosh! It’s huge. First of all, we’ve been nominated in the semi-finals in the last two years. The first year that we were nominated, our restaurant had only been open for a year. I wasn’t even chef of a restaurant for a year and we got on that list and I was like, “Holy crap!” The second year we get nominated again!
This year making it to the finals – we were watching it on the video, the nominations coming in, and we heard my name announced and we were freaking out. I was jumping around excited. For me that’s enough, that’s winning. Just being able to go to New York, being invited to be there, being recognized for the work that we’ve been doing, it’s amazing.
Also, for me, I’m really proud because we’re in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a wonderful place to live, simple and laid back. We picked this place because it’s where we wanted to live and be for a long period of time. Asheville’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s hard getting noticed in a smaller city. Everybody talks about New York and Chicago and the San Francisco area, so it can be challenging. But, I’m so excited. I can’t even believe it! I’m getting ready to go up this weekend and just being a part of it. It’s amazing.
BtP: I definitely wish you the best. If nothing else, it should be a good time! So, my last question relates to food and memories. Do you have a particular food related memory that really kind of stands out to you as one of your favorites?
KB: I guess for me the biggest memories are always Thanksgiving. That to me is the best holiday because it’s all about food. It is about giving thanks, too, but it’s about creating this enormous banquet of food and then sitting down and enjoying it.
Those, year to year, were always the time when we got together with my grandmother, who is also a wonderful cook. Actually, I come from a line of wonderful women cooks My mom and grandmother have these funny stories about my great-grandmother, because she used to cook a four-course meal for family every night. One day she served canned pears for dessert and my great-grandfather threw a fit and wouldn’t eat them because he was upset that she actually had the audacity to serve something out of a can. [Laughs]
But, yeah. Thanksgiving was always this huge affair and almost like my mother and my grandmother cooking off. I used to always get to help out and cook with them. I was very much a part of the menu choices because if certain things were not being prepared that year it made me very angry as a little girl. I was like, “How could you not prepare the brandied sweet potatoes soufflé?” and things like that.
That’s one of my fondest memories, having the whole family together. We have this tradition of having this early Thanksgiving dinner and eating this wonderful meal and then taking a nap and then watching a movie or playing card games and then making that 10:00 pm turkey sandwich. For me, that’s one of the best memories that I have.