Interview: Katie Button, Chef/Owner of Asheville’s Cúrate
It’s not often you get a private tour of the downstairs kitchen of the best tapas restaurant in the South, Cúrate, with the restaurant’s executive chef/owner, Katie Button, who was also a stagiaire (kitchen intern) at elBulli at one point in her life. elBulli’s Ferran Adria even wrote a foreword in her cookbook, Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen; he notes how “we saw that she was a person who learned at breakneck speed, thanks to her meticulous nature, her great capacity for concentration, and her rapid understanding of the Spanish language and culinary processes.” She also featured heavily into Lisa Abend’s highly regarded book about elBulli, The Sorcerer's Apprentices.
I had eaten at Cúrate by myself in downtown Asheville in 2016 before its April 2017 palatial expansion. Then a friend from Charleston came to see me, fleeing Irma, and I had to go there again to check out the new vermuteria, or vermouth bar.
Before my interview with Katie, I wanted to see the new space in action. Once the tabla de jamónes came out with a rainbow of thinly-sliced ham with three cheeses, each plate seemed to top the next, from salt-cured sardines to cured chorizo, to sautéed shrimp to lamb skewers, to house-made blood sausage. Mixed in, there was fresh fig serrano ham with goat cheese and small jar of mixed olives. We ended with the dark chocolate custard and orange sorbet.
It’s my theory that tapas chefs work harder than most cooks, simply due to the number of small plates they have to make. Our meal was a tapas grand slam. The place was alive with endless people.
Katie was there that night and she came out to say hello to us. A few days later I was back at Cúrate talking personally to her at the bar and later following her through a beautiful maze of a kitchen.
The Daily Meal: Normally, restaurants with beautiful communal momentum like yours tend to expand regionally into other locations. I’ve seen this happen in Connecticut with the Barcelona franchise. But you’ve made it pretty clear that you love Asheville—and your recent expansion was a dazzling intramural one. With a vermuteria no less! At Cúrate when did you first notice the re-popularization of vermouth that has already hit Spain? And how did you go about including it as a focus of your new restaurant addition?
Chef Katie Button: You’re right! I love Asheville! When we first decided to open our own business and realized that meant we could move and live wherever we wanted to, we started looking around for where we wanted to live, raise our children, and enjoy life. We looked around North Carolina because I had been born in South Carolina and my grandparents had retired there so I felt a strong personal and family connection to the south. When we drove through Asheville, we knew this was the place for us. It’s a small city, but with a super vibrant walkable downtown. It is full of independent business owners, so the restaurant and food scene here is amazing. There’s great beer, great music, great art, all surrounded by the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. What more could you want?
I noticed the re-popularization of vermuterias in Spain begin to take hold over the last decade. And now it is really gaining momentum and becoming all the more interesting, with many bars experimenting with making their own vermouths, or working on having extended vermouth bottle lists in addition to a few on draft. We have been thinking and planning for the Cúrate expansion since the day that we first opened. But it wasn’t until the past few years that both myself and my husband, Felix, who runs our front of house service and beverage program in the restaurants, truly fell in love with the vermuteria concept and knew it was something we had to include in Cúrate. Now we are working hard at bringing more amazing Spanish vermouth to the USA.
To take a look at your recent renovation I biked over to Cúrate on a busy Labor Day weekend and was struck by how tall the ceilings are in the new space that bursts with soft lighting. When I first ate there last year, on the right side, I got an almost sushi-bar feeling of intimacy, but the high ceilings on this left side addition have more of a brasserie feeling. I love the pig for slicing on full display in the back. And the vermouth wall taps behind the bar. Then, even deeper, you have a back room that has a more private identity all its own. Are you finding different clientele eating specific things in each area, given you have three unique spaces here? On that note maybe you could talk a little about the separate menus you have, like the new vermuteria one.
A big part of the design of our space was to give each area its own feeling and environment. And the best thing about that is that we have guests who request to sit in the different spots. The new high ceiling vermouth bar is bustling and boisterous; it’s meant to be that way as it’s the spot you walk into to grab a quick drink or bite to eat with friends, so it should feel a bit noisy and crowded. The back of the restaurant is calmer, perhaps better for a quiet date night or gathering with friends. And then you have the tapas bar section with the open kitchen right behind it, where the room feels like it is a part of the cooking experience. I love the different spaces because they are each unique in their own way. We have three separate menus that each diner can look at: the wine menu with a map of the different regions of Spain, the main tapas menu with our hot and cold small plates, and then the vermuteria menu. If you’re dining at a table in the restaurant you can order from all three, and I recommend people to start by picking a few items off the vermuteria menu before moving over the tapas the menu. However, if you are looking for a place to grab an amazing glass of sherry or Spanish cider after work you can just pop in and sit down at the vermouth bar. There, the only menu you get is the vermuteria menu, so you can have a few bites to eat and a drink without needing a reservation. That space is entirely first-come, first-serve and because it’s so casual with a limited menu it means the space frees up much quicker. Which is the purpose. It should feel like a bar. It also gives guests a place to belly up to the bar and wait for a table to free up in the dining room. It has become super helpful.
Your menus read like tapas poetry, especially your desserts (postres). There seems to be a lot of passion, not only for the exquisite space you have created for your diners, but for the individual menu items themselves. The drinks range from local Asheville beers to sherry to cider to vermouth on tap. If you were to do a multi-course tapas tasting as an introduction to Cúrate, what might you choose and how would you pair the dishes with drinks?
This is how I would sit down to enjoy the perfect Cúrate experience: I would start with a red or white vermouth served with an orange or lemon wheel and olive over ice. With that I would enjoy the traditional vermuteria experience: a can of berberechos [cockles] dashed with some of our housemade vermut sauce [smoky, garlicky, vinegary, pimento-based] and potato chips, along with some pintxos like the gilda pskewers of pickled guindilla pepper, Spanish anchovy, and olive].
Then I would move to a glass of sherry, fino or manzanilla. I particularly like the fino en rama that we have on our menu, which is an unfiltered fino that has a great nutty flavor with refreshing salinity. I would enjoy that with some of that amazing jamón ibérico and marcona almonds. Then I would order a glass of albarino to enjoy some of the amazing seafood dishes. Albarino is from the region of Galicia, known for its amazing seafood, so it makes sense that would be the best pairing for a wine of that region.
I would enjoy our clams roasted in our charcoal grill with tomatoes and charred onion, and then some carabineros, the famous red prawn from Spain, cooked on the plancha and meant to be enjoyed by drinking the sweet juices from the head and then peeling and eating the super tender and sweet tail meat. Finish the savory with a glass of red wine, and you could really go any direction here, but I enjoy mencia from the region of Bierzo. The mencia grape typically produces a lighter bodied red wine, which pairs great with the cerdo ibérico, fresh pork from those same delicious amazing ibérico pigs. I would enjoy that with our sautéed mushrooms with sherry and the migas, a vegetable version of this Spanish dish that we serve in fall and wintertime with sautéed Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, breadcrumbs, and a celery root purée.
Finally, I would finish the meal with a glass of Pedro Ximenez, a sweet wine I would pair with our tarta liquida, a marcona almond tart with a warm gooey center served with Amarena cherries and a cherry sorbet.
I found your charcuterie to be thin and warm yet with a silken finish. For those who don’t know a lot about the specific pigs you use, could you talk about the journey of finding ibérico and white Salamanca pigs, and the ideal way to bring the best charcuterie to the table? All the way to the precise art of slicing it in front of patrons.
I love the art of cured ham that they have perfected in Spain. I first tasted jamón ibérico working for Jose Andres in Washington DC, and I thought it was out of this world. Then I went and lived in Spain, and ate myself silly with the stuff. I have since then had the opportunity to travel and see how those pigs are raised, and then see the curing process. It is an amazing tradition that once started out as a necessity when there was no refrigeration but has now turned into an art, with the legs being aged for up three years before they are enjoyed.
In our restaurant we try to give the jamón the respect that it deserves. We have a manual meat slicer that we maintain super-clean with a razor sharp blade to cut through the room-temperature meat with a quick slice. We use that for our boneless ham pieces that we get into the restaurant. Then we serve the jamón ibérico de bellota, the top end of the ham we offer in the restaurant, aged three years, from 100% ibérico pigs that grazed on acorns all fall. Then we carve that ham by hand with a knife, the traditional way. I love the texture of the ham that is cut by hand; it is thin but substantial. And since it is kept at room temperature, the fat melts the moment it hits your tongue. All of our hams on display and we carve and slice them right in front of our guests, so that they get to share in this amazing experience.
What new trends do you see happening in tapas and how are you using them? Where are some of your favorite places to travel for ongoing ideas?
One of the new trends of the vermouth bars are interesting pintxos, little bits either on skewers or served on pieces of toast points. They are small snacks and an excellent way to enjoy a variety of different Spanish ingredients or bites. They are also a cool way for our kitchen to get creative with what they have in their restaurant. I go back to Spain every year not only to visit family but also to get ideas. Barcelona is hands down my favorite city for ideas; this is primarily because many of our friends from elBulli now have their own restaurants there, not to mention that Albert Adria himself has opened quite a few since elBulli’s closing. These restaurants are always at the forefront of food innovation and trends and it is wonderful to visit with old friends, have amazing meals, and get new ideas.
What was it like to work at elBulli?
The experience really changed my life, and I loved that I had the opportunity to see both the service and kitchen operations. The organization and attention to detail were what I took away from that experience. Those who thrived were the ones who took a sense of ownership in the place and at elBulli they really encouraged that. Even though the work was hard and hours were demanding and you were feeling the constant pressure to achieve perfection in everything that you do, it was extremely rewarding and I felt at home there. The experience gave me the courage to go out and open my own restaurant.