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.