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Cúrate’s Camaraderie

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Cúrate’s Camaraderie
Curate Bar de Tapas, Asheville, NC / Photography by Evan Sung

A THANKSGIVING STAFF MEAL WITH THE BUTTON FAMILY

Thanksgiving turkeys were hard to come by when Katie Button, executive chef of Asheville’s tapas restaurant Cúrate, was cooking in Spain a few years ago: “When I was at el Bulli, one of the American apprentices at the restaurant tried to pre-order a twenty-pound turkey, or pavo, for Thanksgiving, but the butcher said, ‘That’s impossible. The most I can get you is seven or eight pounds.’ He thought we were crazy.” Katie, a statuesque chef with an intense gaze and easy smile, preps two twenty-two-pound turkeys for an epic Thanksgiving meal for her restaurant staff as she tells her story through a nostalgic grin. “So we ordered two of the biggest turkeys they had. When we brought them home and unwrapped them, we realized the butcher thought we ordered two patos, or ducks.”

Photo by Evan Sung
Chef Katie Button / Photo by Evan Sung

Ducks would never do at the dinner currently being prepared at Cúrate. The restaurant’s barstools along the long, amber tapas bar are typically filled with patrons eager to watch the action unfold in the open kitchen in front of them as they indulge in tapas like croquetas de pollo (traditional creamy chicken fritters) and pincho moruno (lamb cured in Moorish spices) complemented by the restaurant’s signature cocktails like rebujito(Manzanilla sherry, bitter lemon, and mint) designed by Katie’s husband Felix Meana, a native of Spain and veteran of el Bulli. But Cúrate, which is owned by the Button family that along with Katie and Felix includes Katie’s parents Liz and Ted Button and the family’s elegant matriarch Ann Liddell, is closed today in order for the family to show gratitude to their staff by preparing for them an extraordinary meal.

Each and every day at Cúrate employees are treated to a hearty and nutritious staff meal to fuel them between frenetic lunch and dinner services. It’s a time to catch their breath, regroup, and share a few jokes in a demanding day that otherwise leaves little time for repose. In spite of their intensely busy shifts, there’s a sense of camaraderie amongst the staff inspired by the Buttons’ devotion to them. Erin Ervin, a sprightly line cook with boundless energy, explains as she tends to a nutty roux for the day’s giblet gravy.

“The Buttons are extremely organized and things flow as they should. We have a great group of people and everyone loves spending time with each other even outside of the restaurant. We’re like family here, and the Buttons really make us feel like we are important to the restaurant, like we matter. This Thanksgiving dinner is a perfect reflection of the spirit of Cúrate.”

Today’s meal is technically a staff meal, but as Liz sets the table with Thanksgiving-themed Tiffany plates from her personal collection, Felix polishes the crystal stemware until it gleams, Katie prepares a toasted caramel sauce for her flan ice cream, and Ann, also known as Mimi, brushes her signature rosemary rolls with melted butter, it’s clear to Cúrate’s employees that this is a staff meal like no other. Sous chef Tyler DeBruyne, who like many of Cúrate’s staff has been here since the restaurant opened, deglazes brussels sprouts studded with apricots with Spanish sherry as he says in his lilting southern drawl, “At other places I worked we did a Thanksgiving brunch for customers and then we got the scraps. The Buttons make you feel that you are appreciated, and this meal today is the perfect example of that. What they’re doing today is really unique and special.”

 
Photo by Evan Sung
Sous Chef XImo Sendra Gisbert / Photo by Evan Sung

The aroma of oyster dressing spiked with spicy Basque chistorra sausage fills the massive restaurant warmed by terra cotta walls and rustic wood tables as Ted Button greets the over sixty employees and their families who begin to arrive. Each and every set of eyes immediately falls on the communal table stretching from one end of the restaurant to the other as Liz welcomes each guest with a glass of holiday eggnog sprinkled with toasted cinnamon and cardamom. Felix, the restaurant’s sommelier, arranges bottles of white and red wine on the table as he discusses the Thanksgivings he has experienced in America since relocating from Spain: “There have been two really good ones and two really bad ones. The two really bad ones were those when I was by myself in the states. The last two with the Button family have been wonderful. I saw how much they cared about Thanksgiving, and it made me care about it that much too.”

 Katie delivers the brandied sweet potato soufflé to the table before giving her husband’s hand a tight squeeze. Felix nods affectionately to his hard-working wife before continuing. “I was so impressed by the first Thanksgiving I spent with them. I knew about the tradition when I lived in Spain, but I didn’t realize how important it is to people in America, and now it is just as important to me too. Every step, every recipe has so much meaning behind it. Coming from Spain, where family is really important, I love this holiday because it is a celebration, a time to pay tribute and be grateful for the people you love.”

 

Photo by Evan Sung
Photo by Evan Sung

Back at her kitchen station, Katie opens the oven doors, and the room fills with the scent of sage roasted turkey. Its crispy caramelized skin belies Katie’s secret technique. “I cook them upside down. This keeps the breast’s juices inside and ensures superior moistness. We’ve tried a bunch of different techniques in my family, but I think this one works best. Before roasting I brined them for twenty-four hours in a combination of water, salt, sugar, and herbs.” She pauses for a moment before revealing another trick up her chef-white sleeve. “For a Spanish flair, I also rubbed them in Iberico fat before roasting. About an hour before they’re ready, I flipped them over and basted them in fat one more time.”

It only makes sense that this New Jersey native who married a man from Spain and opened a tapas restaurant in Asheville would infuse her family’s traditional Thanksgiving recipes with elements from a nation she adores. Katieexplains while splashing cranberry sauce with Olorosso: “The recipes today have been passed down through my family for generations, but I also wanted to pay tribute to the country that has become such an important part of my life.” Liz smiles at her daughter as she arranges a tall tower of her pecan squares (a convenient substitution for pie when so many people are being fed) on a porcelain pedestal. She gives the buttered mashed potatoes a final vigorous whipping before carrying them to the table that is now surrounded by Cúrate’s eager staff and their families.

A cherubic baby bounces on his father’s knee at one end of the table, and on the other Cúrate sous chef Ximo Gisbert pulls out a chair for Mimi before sitting down beside her. Like Felix, the Thanksgiving tradition is a relatively new one for the Spanish native, but he clearly understands its significance.

“You gather around the table with your family, and you celebrate being together. You tell each other that you are grateful for one another. It’s just as important to do this in a restaurant because you spend so much time together. You grow so close, but you rarely have the time to properly thank each other. The Buttons celebrate every holiday here at the restaurant. They make us feel counted and important.”

The last person to sit down at the festive table now sparkling in candlelight is Katie, who brings with her a bowl of dainty pearl onions glistening in béchamel sauce sprinkled with freshly grated nutmeg. Just before she sits down, she takes in the remarkable scene before her. Felix pours her a glass of well-deserved wine as she unties her apron and nestles in shoulder-to-shoulder beside members of her biological family and the restaurant family she created when she first opened the doors of Cúrate one fine summer day not so long ago. Chefs at other restaurants might not think that all of this extra time, resources, and effort is worth it, but for Katie and the rest of the Button family, it’s an obvious choice: “You would do this with your family at home for Thanksgiving, and we wanted to honor our restaurant family by doing the same thing in order to show how grateful we are for them. Thanksgiving seems the perfect time for this kind of gratitude.”

 

Photo by Evan Sung
Ann Liddell with Rosemary Rolls / Photo by Evan Sung

Liz leans over to tell her daughter how proud she is of her before standing up to give a toast. Silence falls upon the room as all eyes turn to the radiant woman who stands before them. As the general manager of such a busy restaurant, Liz is known for her straightforward, no-nonsense approach to accomplishing her stressful job, and she begins her commemoration in a typically stoic manner: “It’s so exciting that you guys are here, and we want each and every one of you to know how important you have been to the success of Cúrate.” She pauses to look around the table at the people who tirelessly devote themselves each day to making the restaurant what it is, and in an instant she is overcome with emotion. Through tears she says, “You are like family to us, and we are so grateful to you.” There is a heavy silence in the room for a moment until the table erupts in applause. Liz regains her composure, lifts her glass, and cries, “Thank you, thank you, thank you! Now please, everyone, dig in!” With that, the clatter of spoons on bowls, glasses clinking plates as they are lifted in revelry, and an infectious laughter resounds in every corner of the restaurant.

Now that she has had time to relax after such a busy day, Katie finally explains what happened to those Thanksgiving ducks on that fateful holiday when she was living in Spain. “Ducks just wouldn’t do on such an important holiday for all of these Americans who were so far from home. So we asked one of the chefs at el Bulli to special order a turkey for us, which are rare in Spain. He pulled some strings and finally secured one, and we were able to have a proper Thanksgiving meal. It was important because no matter where you are in the world, no matter who you’re with, be it your real family or your restaurant family, you have to take time on this day, no matter how busy you are, to show your gratitude and celebrate each other.”

Chef Katie Button’s Recipes

Brined Sage Roast Turkey

Oyster Dressing with Chistorra

Brandied Sweet Potato Souffle

Buttered Mashed Potatoes

Whole Cranberry Sauce Splashed with Oloroso

Pearl Onions in Bechamel

Mimi’s Giblet Gravy

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Apricots and Jamon Iberico

Rosemary Rolls

Creamy Holiday Eggnog

Pecan Pie Squares

Flan Ice Cream with Caramel Sauce

Mentioned in this post:
Evan Sung