The unorthodox rise of chef Katie Button’s Asheville empire.
Chef Katie Button and I were taking a short walk through central Asheville when I saw him. Young, in his early 20s maybe, maybe with a dog with a chain-link collar, definitely wearing a bowler hat and a black blazer that said, written in chalk on his back, Mr. Slinky Fucks Trains. He is just one of many travelers and hitchhikers who pass through to enjoy the easy charms and good weather of this place, and though I will go to my grave still not know what his jacket-message really means, I’m glad he wandered into our field of view. After all, this episode, if not about wanderers per se, is definitely about that other kind of Appalachian, the non-native, the adopted daughter, the inbound migrant. Asheville, North Carolina, is a particular magnet for this kind of person, someone who moved in because life can just be better here. That kind of person—the kind of person that Katie Button is—has been coming into Appalachia, and bringing all their inbound talents and gifts with them, for centuries.
Katie is the co-owner, along with her husband Félix Meana, of Cúrate in Asheville, which is one of America’s finest Spanish restaurants, as voted not just by actual Beard-award type experts, but by me and my Jamón- and Salmorejo-obsessed children. It’s astonishingly good, actually, and the kind of care and craft that she has poured into Cúrate is now finding a home in Button & Co. Bagels (again, something we feel good about judging, and did judge highly) and the rest of the Katie Button Restaurants group. Her journey from Jersey to El Bulli to the hills of North Carolina is filled-to-the-rim with #lifegoals and talent realized, and it was an honor having her close out this four-episode ramble through the beauty and bounty of Appalachia.
This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Katie. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Nathan Thornburgh: Let’s have some sodas.
Katie Button: Yeah, absolutely. In the bagel shop we’re making a couple of our own sodas and bottling them at Button and Co. Bagels and we make a celery soda and a strawberry soda right now.
The celery soda is something I was inspired about when I did a trip to New York as part of research. Obviously you go to New York for bagel research. Over the course of a weekend, I probably ate more bagels and more gluten than is recommended. Just breakfast, lunch, dinner and meals in between.
Thornburgh: That’s a good day.
Button: It was awesome. I was inspired at Russ & Daughters Café. I love that place. By their shrubs and the different flavors, they had beet, I think they may have had a celery shrub, but I said, man, we gotta do a celery soda. I love celery. You’re not gonna be a fan of celery soda unless you like celery. But it’s maybe one of my favorite flavors ever.
Thornburgh: Amazing. Well, let’s give it a try. Button and Co. celery soda. Well, that’s interesting. That’s really good. You say you have to be a fan of celery but of course, celery has this reputation of being somewhat neutral.
Thornburgh: I guess some people might hate it. That would be a weird thing. It seems more like a vessel for moisture and very light flavor. But somehow you’ve really created something that’s quite distinctive.
Button: I love it so much. It’s just effervescent, and we do ferment our sodas so it has a little bit of that depth of funk of fermentation, which I love.
Thornburgh: Yeah, I’m getting a slight hint of something from the kombucha world.
Thornburgh: Like, they would be selling some version of this at the high-falutin’ Kombucha bodega downstairs in Brooklyn. But have to come to Asheville to get this right now.
Button: Yes, you have to come into the bagel shop to get it, it’s not available anywhere else. It’s a labor of love for the moment and we bottle a few each week. That’s pretty much the story about the celery soda.
Thornburgh: That’s awesome. Get your asses down to Asheville.
Thornburgh: You had proposed drinking cider, but I had also just had some Spanish-style cider in West Virginia and that, the fact that out of four of five people here, I would be offered Spanish cider by two of them. Part of what was interesting out in West Virginia in the cold country was that, Asturians had come and been miners there for a long time. They had been making cider out there before Asturians ever came, but there is this dialogue with Spain which I just found totally fascinating. We ate at Cúrate yesterday, your Spanish restaurant, and it’s fucking great. That’s one of the best Spanish meals I think I’ve ever had, and I’ve spent way too much of my life in Spain.
So it’s very interesting to me, how and why and is there an Asheville connection, or is it just that you’ve got this set of flavors and this idea what people need to know this food. Why are you running such a great Spanish restaurant in the mountains of North Carolina?
Button: I’m not Spanish, but fortunately when I started working in the restaurant industry, one of the first restaurants I was working at was a José Andrés restaurant, Café Atlantico Mini Bar. Then I worked at the Bazaar in LA, by José Andrés, which is another Spanish concept. I was introduced into Spain and Spanish culture and then I met my husband, Félix Meana, who is Spanish, and had the opportunity to go and live in Spain and work at El Bulli, one of the best restaurants in the world at the time.
Thornburgh: I have heard of it.
Button: Living there and working there and just living the day-to-day life in Spain, I fell in love with the culture and the food and the style of eating and the concept of small plates, and spending a Sunday afternoon jumping from one place to the next and having a couple of bites and glasses of sherry and then moving onto the next one, watching the people walk by on a weekend day.
Katie Button: In addition to my husband.
Thornburgh: Sometimes it’s the whole package.
Katie Button: Right.
Thornburgh: Makes that bond strong. So you were living in Rosas?
Katie Button: Yes. I was living in Rosas, I lived there for about 14 months divided over two years.
Thornburgh: Well, that’s a hell of a way to get introduced to Spaniards in general—starting with José Andrés who is the most, I think the term, is loced out, of all the Spaniards I’ve ever met and moving onto the Adrias who are also totally fucking insane in their own way. They’re all gorgeous guys. It’s just incredibly fun to be around and just on some kind of other planet with food. By the time this episode is out the book will already be there, but we did a book with José recently that my partner Matt Goulding had co-written, called Vegetables Unleashed.
Button: I saw that, yeah.
Thornburgh: It’s gonna be great. You will recognize the lunacy bouncing off the pages, I’m sure, having actually worked with him in kitchens. We’ve got a recipe in there for compost potatoes, which is essentially just putting a bunch of small potatoes on a tray and tipping your compost on top of it and then baking it at 400 degrees for however long. When José Andrés first started dumping garbage on food and then making food out of it, he was so pleased with himself. He’s like, I think this might be the best thing I’ve ever done. Because he’s picking a potato out, brushing the banana peel and the coffee grinds off of it.
Fortunately, some of the best shit in Spain is made to travel well
Button: That’s amazing. Don’t tell the health department, but I love that recipe idea. That’s insane.
Thornburgh: It’s the full José.
Thornburgh: It’s like, Why can’t we cover these vegetables in compost? I guess I can see that, it’s funny because actually my son, he’s been around José also at some moments when José has seen something that has gone wrong in the Spanish context. Like, something that is being presented as Spanish that is not Spanish. Something being presented as Valencian that is not Valencian.
Thornburgh: God forbid somebody a call a thing with chorizo in it a paella. These cardinal sins. So when we walked in yesterday, and you have these high ceilings and this great tile and you’ve got this cider space. He said, “Is this real?” Like what would José think about this place. I said, Oh, this is real. Then we saw that first item on the menu is chips José’s way.
Thornburgh: It feels like you are ready for the José Andrés spot inspection at any moment. It’s probably because you came up in this tradition and you know the watchful eyes that are out there.
Button: Yes, we do not do American-Spanish fusion. It’s very important to us to be representing Spain and everything that it is in our best way.
Thornburgh: But, at the same time, those things that are universal in good restauranting these days, which is using local.
Thornburgh: Fortunately, some of the best shit in Spain is made to travel well. I mean, you’ve got your lapas, you’ve got your cans of amazing seafood. That will taste exactly the same on a plate in Asheville as it will on a plate in Spain. But the parts where you’re showing off this region a little bit are also super fun.
Thornburgh: It’s ramp season.
Button: It is ramp season. So we’ve got grilled ramps with Romesco sauce. Did you have that last night?
Thornburgh: You better believe it. The idea of missing a calcotada, which is when [in Spain] they grill leeks, or spring onions I guess, and feed each other these longs strands off the grill with this Romesco sauce… The fact that I have to miss that every year of my life except for one or two exceptions, is deeply unfair. It’s so cool to come here and get that. It’s ramp season, we’re in Appalachia, so we’ve been ramping it up.
Button: Everybody’s got ramps in their venue right now, it’s amazing.
Thornburgh: I gotta do better on the ramp puns.
Button: It’s one of my favorite, favorite times of year. It only happens for about a month. You would be surprised at how many people don’t know what ramp is. At the bagel shop, we puree the tops and whip it into cream cheese.
Thornburgh: I saw the ramp cream cheese.
Button: A local cream cheese that a local dairy is making for us, which is amazing. It’s better than cream cheese, it’s cultured, it’s ridiculous. Then we pickle the bulbs and serve that on our sable plate, which we smoke the cod fish and rub it in sumac and it’s really delicious as well.
It wasn’t about bringing New York to Asheville. It was about how we make bagels have a sense of place here in biscuit country
Thornburgh: So what you’re trying to do is take all that Russ & Daughters vibe that you got and then figure out what that Asheville version of it is.
Button: Exactly. I grew up in New Jersey, so bagels were just part of my daily routine and very important to me. The bagel shop was because I was really missing bagels. And I knew nothing about making bagels previously, I just learned it and I’m super proud of the bagels we’re making. They’re sourdough, we use a sourdough starter and we blend in local flour with an organic high gluten flour and a local milled flour. Then, we boil them with sorghum syrup instead of barley malt syrup. Sorghum is traditional in this area of Southern Appalachia. Then we bake them. It wasn’t about bringing New York to Asheville, it was more about, how do we make bagels have a sense of place here in biscuit country that’s not known for bagels?
Thornburgh: How did you get to Asheville?
Button: I was born in South Carolina.
Thornburgh: That’s right, you were born in Conway. How did that happen?
Button: My grandfather had this amazing vision about retiring early. I admire him so much for figuring that out. He set a budget, retired early, they bought a house boat, they were in Chicago at the time. Took the houseboat down the Mississippi and went around looking for the place where they would retire, and ended up in Conway because he was an engineer and was helping some people in that area develop their water systems and things. I’m not totally clear on exactly what he was doing, but they ended up in Conway on the Guacima River and just decided to stay there.
That was where I was born. My grandmother had a vegetable garden and things that I used to help her with and cook, and she’s an amazing cook. As is my mother as well. Then we lived in Greenville when I was a little girl. Greenville’s only about an hour and a half from Asheville. So we used to come up here. Then we moved up to New Jersey, as I said, hence bagels. But when we decided to open a restaurant, it was like, Where? We realized that we were opening our own business and we could really live anywhere and where do we want to live and raise a family?
Button: I thought about moving back towards the south, we looked around the northeast, but it’s so expensive.
I’ve had this connection and passion for the South and South Carolina because I feel like a Southern child, even though I grew up in the North East. We started looking around this area and went all over North Carolina to different cities and came through Asheville, and it was just that so many people who move and live in Asheville have the same feeling. It’s just this moment of saying Wow. This is the place.
Button: It’s got these beautiful rivers and mountains and then there are all these amazing artisans. Brewers, and potters and glass blowers, and bee keepers, and cheese makers, farmers, it’s really fascinating.
Thornburgh: So it’s this artisanal dream, but then there’s also slinky hanging out in the park in case you feel too much in a bubble.
Button: The population’s around like 80 or 85 thousand now and so it still has that small-town feeling and you run into everybody you know at the farmer’s market, but at the same time, we got a lot of tourists, so that can support the businesses in addition to local community. It’s just really a kind of perfect combination.
Thornburgh: I do have a bone to pick, and it’s definitely not your fault. It’s not Asheville’s fault. In Key West, we had some sort of similar thing when I was growing up. It was a very small-town, but the world came to Key West. Not on cruise ships, but they came because they were gay and they brought theater, and the arts, and music, and architecture and all of this culture that a redneck island off the Florida Straights wouldn’t have had otherwise. As cruise ship culture grew, they moved out and a lot of them have come to Asheville.
I would say, it’s very unscientific, but there’s been a heavy poaching of people who were my mother’s close friends who were part of the fabric of our lives growing up, who said fuck this. Key West is not what it used to be. We’re gonna take our best gay life to North Carolina, which before I really started to hear about Asheville, was highly confusing and concerning to me. I spent more time in Tobacco, North Carolina than here in the mountains. There’s some sort of homing beacon for people who wanna live a certain way and like you said, get into your crafts and your arts and live well, but not be a banker to do so.
Button: Exactly. I actually think that the history of Asheville, and the fact that it’s smaller—it doesn’t have a ton of professional industry jobs available—I think that is brewing the creativity. I mean, the creativity’s always been there, but it helps because people want to live here because it’s so beautiful and this amazing welcoming place to live.
They see an awesome quality of life, which is why we moved here. But to do that, you have to create your own job. Which creates entrepreneurs and people following their passion and doing bean to bar chocolate or coffee roasting or a woman who geeks out on single origin flour, right?
Thornburgh: That’s the promise of the bounty. But there are places that are not that far away that are some of the poorest zip codes in the country. What’s that dialogue and how could it be better between Asheville as this really vibrant and it’s living its best life in here and what would people would think of more broadly as Appalachia.
Thornburgh: Generational poverty in Appalachia. Is it about working with farmers, making sure that they can stay on the land? Is it about buying ramps from people who are collecting them? How is that relationship?
Button: It’s a combination of things. You are right, one of the statistics, the nationwide statistic about children with food insecurity is one in five, and here it’s one in four. We have an issue and a problem, and the community is trying really hard to help solve that. I think that the businesses and the people who live here are very caring on multiple levels. Manna Food Bank is probably the number one resource trying to combat hunger and poverty in the area.
Thornburgh: This may seem trivial, but that’s a great name for a food bank. Manna.
Button: It’s awesome. They are doing amazing work. There’s the downtown welcome table in Asheville that the restaurants participate in, where we cook a meal, each restaurant takes a turn and they serve meals at the downtown welcome table every Wednesday and Sunday, and it’s not like a soup kitchen. It’s actually a whole different experience where people come in and they sit down at round tables and they get served family style on real plates and platters with glasses. They share and partake in this meal experience and the restaurants in town, we take turns providing and cooking that meal. It’s about dignity. It’s about being able to sit down and have a meal that you couldn’t. So we come to them.