Interview with Chef Katie Button and Félix Meana at Cúrate in Asheville, NC & a recipe for Gambas al Ajillo
There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that’s first place. ~ Vince Lombardi
March 2011. Asheville, North Carolina. Cúrate, an authentic Spanish tapas restaurant opens to rave reviews. Since then, life has not been the same for Chef Katie Button, her husband Félix Meana, and parents Elizabeth and Ted Button. With the latest addition of Katie’s brother joining in as one of the participants in the soon to be expanding Heirloom Hospitality Group, LLC, this is truly a family affair and one that seems to be poised for incredible success.
Katie Button is driven, and driven to succeed, however, like many young people, she didn’t always know what she wanted for her future. With the strong encouragement of her parents, she applied her brains and ambition to be the best at everything she did while growing up. Beginning with competitive sports as a young girl, favoring singles tennis to doubles, on to a college career where she took on the near impossible, a major in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Bioengineering, she graduated from Cornell University excelling in her studies. When asked why she chose a major and minor in two extremely difficult subjects, she replied, “I was told those were the hardest subjects.” The more difficult the challenge, the better for Katie.
Like many young graduates, Katie dreamed of going to Europe after college. Paris, to be precise. Still unsure of her ultimate career choice, she felt that Europe should be a part of her immediate plan. Her parents told her she could go to Europe as long as she continued her education, so she enrolled in a master’s degree in Biomedicine at L’Ecole Centrale in Paris, a logical next step from her undergraduate degree.
The challenge she would take on in Paris: classes and textbooks are all in French and Katie had a very limited knowledge of the language. While struggling at times with the drudgery of the process, she once again put her determination to work and graduated with an advanced master’s degree and was accepted in the program for a PhD in neuroscience. It seemed that teaching would be the natural direction for her career with academics providing an environment for the recognition of her achievements that she sought and worked hard for. Yet, there was something missing. Passion.
While in Paris, Katie spent her free time and every penny on food and cookbooks and strolled the markets in awe of the foods and products available. She told us, “It was wonderfully inspiring. People go to the markets to purchase a wide range of products and produce. They are available because people know how to prepare those foods.” Cooking and food became a challenge outside the classroom and one that brought her greater satisfaction.
Katie clearly had the ability to pursue a PhD in neuroscience, but deep down she lacked the desire to do so and realized she needed a change. She thought about her time in Paris and the way she felt about the beautiful markets, restaurants, and food. Katie grew up with two generations of successful and passionate women cooks who also inspired her. Her great-grandmother wrote recipes for the Chicago newspaper and her mother had a successful catering business. Katie began to find the passion and excitement in food and cooking and her mother encouraged that passion. Katie made the decision to give up the pursuit of a PhD and would instead, pursue a life in restaurants in the kitchen. The first step was to gain experience in the restaurant business.
Katie returned to the United States with the determination to learn the restaurant business. Her first job was at one of the top Washington DC restaurants, José Andrés’ Cafe Atlantico/Minibar, where she would meet her future husband Félix Meana. Starting out by learning from only the best, Andrés was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 and is an internationally recognized culinary innovator. Katie went on to work in the kitchen of Jean-Georges in New York and then to Bazaar in Los Angeles. Félix would also be a great inspiration and support for Katie having worked with Jose Andrés for many years. He has been responsible for managing the front of house operations and assisting with several of Andrés’ restaurant openings.
Katie and Félix’s relationship would ultimately bring them back to Félix’s hometown in Spain and to El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s world famous restaurant (rated the best restaurant in the world before closing in 2011). This is the town where Félix began his own career. Katie was able to secure a seven month stage (unpaid chef internship) at El Bulli, which is something akin to neuroscience of the culinary world. This is where the laboratory and the kitchen came together to create some of the most extraordinary food on earth and was a perfect fit for Katie’s background in science paired with her passion for food.
Katie has been able to work with some of the most highly regarded chefs, in some of the most prestigious restaurants, in a very short period of time, while building her culinary skills. Félix has also worked with some of the finest chefs and restaurateurs while building his career in opening and managing restaurants. It seems like the perfect marriage. Of course, no marriage would be complete without the parents: Katie’s mother, with her knowledge and experience in the kitchen and catering and Katie’s dad who built and ran his own aviation business. This wasn’t a marriage, it was a corporate consolidation of skills, experience, ambition, and resources.
With just a few years of professional cooking experience, Katie and her mother decided it was time to open a restaurant together. Combined with Félix’s skills and her father’s knowledge of the books and banking, this would cover all of the bases.
Once the decision was made to open a restaurant, Katie’s mother, Elizabeth, enrolled in the French Culinary Institute’s culinary, restaurant management, and sommelier program, graduating at the top of her class in about a year and a half. Not a surprise from such a driven family.
After much thought and consideration, the family chose to open their restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. Originally, the restaurant concept was going to be Farm-to-Table, however Katie and Félix had a very different set of experiences and skills and the family decided to support their vision and go with a Spanish tapas concept, which would be unique to Asheville. Cúrate opened its doors March, 2011.
Determination, working hard and smart, inspiration from like-minded people, and financial resources have all played a major role in this very quick rise to success in the culinary world.
Katie has already received numerous accolades and awards: most recently winning the Golden Whisk Award, honoring women in the culinary world; the Distinguished Chef Award by Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte; and most notably, winning the New Culinary Master Competition, chosen to compete for this honor by Jose Andrés. Katie and Félix also prepared a Spanish Holiday Table dinner at the James Beard House in November 2012.
Katie continues to expand her culinary skills through internships with the top chefs and restaurants around the world. Last year she spent two weeks at NOMA in Scandinavia which many consider the best restaurant in the world since the closing of El Bulli. Most recently, Katie traveled to Barcelona for a two week internship at two of Albert and Ferran Adrià’s new restaurants.
Katie told us, “I want to dabble in creating my own, unique dishes and it’s time to stretch and do that. I would eventually like to have a fine dining restaurant, but it will take some time to perform at that level and succeed. To be on the radar for Michelin stars, which is my goal, I need more time. Opening Cúrate felt rushed for me to be the executive chef, but it was my challenge and said I’m going to do it, make it happen, and succeed at it. This food is traditional Spanish food and I was comfortable and confident with the concept.”
With the success of Cúrate, the next step is obviously to replicate this concept in another city or to create another concept in Asheville. Katie said, “I am really proud of what we have done at Cúrate. This is what I can do really well right now. I just started five years ago, but I am learning more complexity and flavor combinations.” This is where her internships and travel to work with other chefs comes in to play.
For someone who loves the challenge and wants to be recognized and rewarded for excellence, Katie has found the ultimate career, being a chef. In a world that thrives on participating in special events, awards, and being the best at what you do, this was the perfect choice for her. “Mom has always whispered in my head, ‘You can do that,'” and now the industry is speaking loudly to her telling her the same thing. Katie was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as a Rising Star in 2012. Nominations for this year’s Rising Stars will be announced March 18, 2013.
What’s next? Katie could not share, although we think we have a very good idea of what the next restaurant concept will be. Between her internship in Barcelona, Félix traveling around the country helping Jose Andrés open three new concepts, and her mother and brother working on public relations, branding, social media, and booking events, while her father works on funding for the next restaurant, we know that the odds are in their favor for another successful launch from this extraordinary and very driven family. I think it is fair to say that we may be looking at a family with the potential to be one of the most influential in this every changing and emerging culinary industry.
Thank you so much to Katie and Félix for taking time out of their very hectic schedule to meet with us. It was truly a pleasure and we can’t wait to see what’s next for this inspiring couple and family.
We have dined at Cúrate twice have been very impressed. The kitchen seems to run flawlessly while Katie walks the line. The restaurant is lively and fun and we love the authentic tapas concept, which we experienced in Spain. The dishes are creative, fresh, and beautifully presented. This one dish in particular was quite impressive. We enjoyed this appetizer of Padron peppers flash fried, tossed in olive oil and sea salt, topped with bonito flakes, and with a bit of a surprise. The heat from the peppers causes the fish flakes to move. Take a look at this brief video.
Katie has shared her recipe for Gambas al Ajillo (Sautéed shrimp with garlic). It is one of the most popular tapas at Cúrate. I have made the recipe twice and it is fabulous. It is simple to prepare, yet the flavors are complex and the sauce is luscious.
Be sure to use beautiful fresh shrimp in this recipe and have a toasty baguette handy for dipping into the sauce. You will not want to miss one drop.
Gambas al Ajillo
Yield: Serves 6
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
3/4 cup Olive Oil, mild
6 Garlic cloves, whole peeled and lightly smashed with the back of a knife
6 Garlic cloves, sliced thin
6 dried arbol chile peppers, broken in half
6 bay leaves
1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled, deveined, and butterflied (approximately 42 shrimp if they are the 26-30 size)
1 1/2 cups dry sherry wine
1. Season the raw shrimp liberally with salt and set aside. Heat oil in large sauté pan over medium heat, add whole cloves of garlic until just starting to turn golden brown, add the sliced garlic stirring until fragrant and turning lightly golden brown. Then add the the chile peppers, bay leaves, and shrimp cook stirring until shrimp begin to color but are still raw, add sherry wine.
2. Continue to cook until shrimp are just cooked through, quickly remove from heat. Using tongs remove shrimp from pan and set aside, return sauce with garlic, peppers, and bay leaf back to the stove top, reduce slightly for 30 seconds to 1 minute until the taste of raw sherry wine has softened and adjust seasoning by adding salt if necessary. Remove from heat, pour sauce over shrimp and serve with some crusty bread.
Chef Katie Button
Asheville, North Carolina