This week’s Balanced Babe, Katie Button, is a successful chef, passionate about cooking, and is one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” for 2015. Within two years after opening her first restaurant, Curate, curatetapasbar.com she was a semi-finalist for James Beard’s “Rising Star Chef” Award in addition to winning the Robb Report Culinary Master Competition and awards from StarChefs’ “Rising Star Award” and Golden Wisk. It shouldn’t come as a total surprise that Katie Button did a total career change; going from pursuing a PhD in neuroscience to becoming chef and owner of two successful restaurants. Growing up, she had two generations of inspiration: her great-grandmother wrote recipes for a Chicago newspaper and her mother ran a successful catering business.
We were able to pick Katie’s brain on what it was like to quit one career path to start another, what she cooks for herself after cooking for others all day, and of course how she maintains the Balanced Babe lifestyle!
BB: You left Cornell with a Degree in Chemical/Biomolecular Engineering. How did you end up changing course to become an award-winning Chef
It took me a few years to figure it out. I went on to get a masters degree in Biomedical Engineering at Ecole Centrale in Paris (really it was a reasonable excuse to live in Paris!), and it was the time I spent there that really got me thinking about cooking, I spent all of my spare money and time on cookbooks, visiting markets, and teaching myself how to cook classic french food from the tiny kitchen in my apartment. But it wasn’t until a few years later when I was about to start a PhD program in Neuroscience research that made me finally take the plunge. I think it was looking at the long road of a PhD program followed by what seemed like the rest of my life in a lab that sparked a minor panic attack when I realized that I hadn’t been happy in my work and that the only thing that I had been happy doing was cooking. So I did something I had never done before, I quit, two weeks before the PhD program started. In the end it was the best decision I ever made. From there I immediately started pursuing a career in the restaurant industry, starting in the front of the house as a server and then working my way into the kitchen.
BB: You’ve honed your skills at various well-known restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. How did you end up in North Carolina?
I was born in South Carolina, so even though I grew up in New Jersey, I’m a southern girl at heart. So when we decided to open our restaurant, the south was calling. I still had family down here and the idea of opening my first restaurant and trying to compete in the New York area just seemed overwhelming. Also we were looking for a place that we wanted to live long term and when we knew we could really pick anywhere, North Carolina was calling our name. So we took a tour all over North Carolina stopping at most of the major cities along the way and when we came through Asheville we just knew instantly that it was the perfect fit.
BB: Tell us about your spanish cuisine restaurant, Curate!
Curate is the first restaurant that we opened. And we moved to Asheville, NC for the purpose of opening a restaurant but we didn’t know it was going to be spanish tapas until we got here. Curate is a wonderful vibrant restaurant, with the bustling open kitchen feeding the energy in the dining room. The food we serve is fairly traditional spanish tapas, but with a sense of place mixing spanish ingredients with local Asheville products and ingredients. The food is straight forward, product focused, with big flavors, which is the way I really like to cook. Since we’ve moved to Asheville, we’ve opened a second restaurant just last year, called Nightbell, which is more modern american cuisine served up small plate style.
BB: So we’re thinking…after spending most of your day in the Curate kitchen, what you do prepare when you’re at home for a meal or snack?
Now I spend most of my day bouncing back and forth between Curate and Nightbell, running and operating two restaurants keeps me very busy so I don’t have that much time to cook at home. I typically cook up really simple meals, like grilling a steak and some asparagus with some oven roasted potatoes on the side. Or an omelet with spinach, bacon, and goat cheese. And then there are plenty of times when I’m too tired to turn the stove on and I end up eating cheese, crackers, and charcuterie.
BB: How do you maintain the Balanced Babe lifestyle?
It is challenging to maintain a Balanced Babe lifestyle when running and operating two restaurants, but first of all I exercise! Pilates is a great escape for me. Second, I try to eat well…granted eating well doesn’t always mean eating healthy, but it does mean eating quality foods made with quality ingredients and it also means eating a variety of different foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables …I love eating out, so I just try to balance eating out with eating healthy at home. I also just had a baby girl, my first, she was born on Valentine’s Day this year, so she has definitely forced me to be more of a Balanced Babe, one immediate change is going to bed earlier and waking up earlier so that I have a couple of those precious morning hours with her when she is super happy.
(photo credits: Evan Sung )