Asheville-based chef Katie Button has the culinary chops to make not just a memorable dinner, but an avant-garde interpretation of a memorable dinner, complete with sous-vide-this and foamed-that. After all, one of her first kitchens jobs was at was the legendary El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s famous gastro palace in Spain. But for this season’s Williams Sonoma Open Kitchen dinner, she’s making a broiled fish dish that takes a total of 20 minutes, and a lentil salad with herb dressing that’s designed for leftovers.
The seeming simplicity of the menu belies the thought, strategy and inspiration behind each dish. The lentil salad, for example, inspired by one Katie ate at Wildair restaurant in New York City, yields three times the amount of herb dressing you need so you can freeze extras to have on hand later. (“One of my pet peeves is having half-used bunches of herbs go bad in my fridge,” says Katie.) The broiled fish, a variation on the brined and sous vide version she makes at her restaurant, uses her favorite home cooking weapon: the oven. (“It’s one less thing you have to actively watch,” she explains.) And the crust of the tart is gluten-free, to account for her guests’ diets.
Katie grew up around food—her mother ran a catering business—but she never thought about going into the industry herself. Instead, she followed a more practical passion for chemical engineering. (“I heard that was a good way to get a job,” she says, laughing.) But, she realized her fling with food might be more when, after spending a year in France getting her masters’ degree in biomedical engineering, she devoted so much attention to French food and cooking that she transformed a section of her kitchen floor into a croissant-making surface.
Then, just weeks before she was to begin a Ph.D. program in chemical engineering, Katie dropped out—to become a waitress. “I didn’t tell my parents until after I had officially resigned because I didn’t want them to talk me out of it,” she says. With no “official” culinary experience, she took her resume to every top restaurant in Washington, D.C., and was greeted with a string of rejections, until she applied at one of José Andrés’ restaurants. “Part of their policy was that they would hand out a quiz to everyone who applied,” says Katie. The quiz was on restaurant terminology, wine and food. “I aced the food stuff.”
From her first day she learned on the job. “I had been in school forever, so I had the learning thing down,” says Katie, laughing. Soon enough, she was promoted and, eventually, scouted for a job staging at Adria’s world famous El Bulli restaurant in Spain.
As if working under the watchful eye of El Bulli’s famously intense chefs wasn’t enough pressure, Katie also had a writer watching her every move—her entire experience, from stumbling through the language in a Spanish kitchen to making her first creative contributions to the restaurant, was chronicled in the book The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season at El Bulli by journalist Lisa Abend.
“The El Bulli experience was about being in the right place at the right time,” says Katie, modestly. “I saw an opportunity, I went for it, and I worked really hard.”
The book ends with Katie having mastered what was put before her, feeling ready to move back to the States to open a restaurant with her parents and her soon-to-be husband, Félix Meana. After a bit of thought, the duo decided to settle in Asheville, North Carolina, near where Katie was born. “Asheville is a great community to live in and it has a really vibrant culture of small businesses doing creative things,” says Katie.
Their original plan involved opening a Spanish fine dining spot, but instead Katie and Felix pivoted and created Cúrate, a perennially popular tapas spot in the heart of downtown Asheville. “Fine dining goes through trends, and in the end I wanted to make the kind of food that people want to eat every day,” says Katie. Soon after Cúrate came Nightbell, Katie’s elevated, Appalachian-inspired restaurant just down the street.
Now, Katie is undergoing what might be called her “third wave” of cooking—if first she thought of food only as a hobby, then as a serious profession and a business, she’s now returning to the home kitchen with renewed interest.
“In the last few years I wrote my first cookbook and had my first child,” says Katie. “My entire life changed and the way I look at cooking at home is drastically different than it ever was before.”
As an experienced chef, Katie wasn’t the type to fall for chirpy promises of “thirty-minute meals,” but the half hour between arriving home from work and when bathtime and bedtime routines proved to be inflexible. “I didn’t realize you had literally only thirty minutes!” says Katie.
She began searching for solutions that were fast, healthy, inspired and worked for her family. Pan-fried fish, sautéed greens, and simple seared meats with salads designed to clean up the refrigerator became her new staples.
So, when she was developing a menu for a gluten-free family dinner for a dinner party with 15 members of the family behind Brothers & Craft and Springible, Katie didn’t flinch. “I used the same bright, acid-forward flavors you get while dining out, but I simplified the techniques and did it all in a really easy, fast way,” says Katie.
See more of our day spent with Brothers & Craft and chef Katie Button below.