After jumping ship from academia, Katie Button has shot up the culinary ranks at warp speed. With a coveted stage at the late el Bulli under her apron strings, she now showcases her technical prowess and knack for innovation at Cúrate and the new Nightbell, her two family-owned and operated establishments in Asheville, North Carolina. We spoke with Button about her favorite dishes from her menus, her forthcoming cookbook, and why she never wants to stop learning.
JBF: You just opened a new bar called Nightbell. Can you talk about what you're doing there? What’s the menu like? What's the story behind the name?
KB: The idea was to create a cocktail bar that offered the whole package: delicious bites, surprising desserts, and well-crafted cocktails. And we didn't stop there: we also handpicked a great variety of large-format, 22-ounce beers, and we offer high-end wines by the glass that can typically only be purchased by the bottle. The food can be described as a surprising twist on American bar food, but using the best quality ingredients. Our version of a deviled egg is an individual serving of an eggshell cup filled with corn sabayon, housemade smoked trout gravlax, and smoked trout roe. Angels on horseback, which are typically oysters wrapped in bacon, are oysters lightly poached in sherry and topped with a warm smoked pancetta foam, pink peppercorns, and crispy pancetta.
We’re also having a lot of fun with desserts. We have a version of a root beer float, which is actually a nitro-coulant of vanilla–bourbon mousse on shaved ice and frozen cherry gelée with our housemade bourbon-spiked root beer syrup. Our petits fours are mini versions of classic American desserts, like key lime pie.
Our name came from the word "night bell," which simply means "a doorbell to be used at night." It’s the after-hours doorbell, and we immediately thought the name evoked a bar, a place only open at night, as well as the idea of a speakeasy and having to ring a particular bell after hours for entrance. Our storefront has no sign—it looks like an antique shop that’s strangely only open after 6:00 P.M.
JBF: What's a dish, on either of your menus, that you're particularly excited about right now?
KB: I'm pretty excited about the petits fours at Nightbell. We're bringing the techniques I learned in el Bulli’s pastry kitchen to a bar where everyone can enjoy them. When I typically think of petits fours, I think of stuffy, tea party-type cakes that make me yawn. El Bulli changed that view for me: I found that dainty can be surprising, and it can really unleash the creativity. We have a petits fours box that showcases our take on carnival fare, like cherry cola cotton candy served in a cherry candy cone, or the candy apple, which is a liquid green apple center covered in white chocolate with caramel and peanuts. I love to see people's faces light up when you present them to the table. I think the desserts that we are serving at Nightbell are up there with some of the best desserts in the country.
JBF: We read that you make a point to intern at a restaurant every year. Where would you love to do your next internship and why?
KB: Interning is the only way that I can keep learning and growing. I would love to do my next one at Osteria Francescana in Italy. Massimo Bottura finds a balance between pushing boundaries and honoring classic Italian techniques. He seems to have one foot in the clouds and one foot firmly planted in Italian tradition. I find that extremely fascinating and feel that I could learn a lot from him.
JBF: You're working on the Cúrate cookbook now. How is that going? What's the premise?
KB: I just started working on it and I'm super excited about it. Flatiron Books is the publisher and they have been wonderful to work with. The book is about the connection between Spain and the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, and how that influences the dishes we create and the ingredients we use. It’s going to be a cookbook written for everyone to follow. I want it to be the book that you pick up regularly when you think about making dinner for your family or friends. I want it to portray the food we serve at Cúrate: simple, straightforward recipes that produce exciting, flavorful dishes.
JBF: Speaking of cookbooks, what are some of your favorites and why?
KB: I use different cookbooks for different things. When I'm at home, my go-to cookbook is The Dean & Deluca Cookbook. I open that time and time again to try something new. At work I turn to Thomas Keller's Under Pressure, the Alinea book, and the el Bulli books for technique and inspiration.
JBF: Last question: what’s your earliest food memory?
KB: My earliest food memory is sitting in the kitchen with my grandmother at her house in South Carolina, while she made my favorite zucchini brownies (mainly because she had a wonderful vegetable garden that always produced way too much zucchini than she knew what to do with). She'd be offering me frozen blueberries (for some reason as a little girl, I only liked blueberries if they were frozen). All of the women in my family have been wonderful cooks. My mother is the one I learned the most from, but my grandmother taught me about the connection to the earth with her vegetable garden. I was a child who grew up understanding where food comes from and what makes it special, and that is something that I wish every child had the opportunity to understand.
The 2014 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year is presented by
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