Interview with Chef Katie Button of Cúrate – Asheville, NC

by Sean Kenniff
December 2013

Interview with Chef Katie Button of Cúrate – Asheville, NC

Sean Kenniff: You work with your family; how does that sustain you?   

Katie Button: Working with my family has given me the support that I have needed to grow and learn as quickly as I have.  I think it's important that your partners in any business be people that you trust and people who always have your best interests at heart, and by opening Cúrate with my family, I definitely have that.  It also helps keep me sane.  When things get really stressful or really tough, I have close family who are involved in everything so they understand the pressure and the amount of work that we all share. They help relieve some of that pressure.  We’ve really done a wonderful job separating our job responsibilities so that the pressure is balanced among everyone.  

SK: Sustainability is quite the buzz word these days; It can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

KB: Sustainability means making choices that allow or help a system or business or environment to endure, survive, and be productive.  It's thinking ahead about the long term impacts of products or procedures, and opting for longevity versus thinking only in immediate profitability at any cost.  It's adopting the philosophy that slow and steady wins the race.  

SK: How do you incorporate a sustainable ethos at Cúrate?  

KB: At Cúrate we are constantly changing our systems, procedures, or purveyors by making more sustainable choices. In the past two and a half years that we’ve been open we have been able to accomplish the following:

- Compost all food waste/paper products, which get picked up by a local company Danny's Dumpsters and turned into soil and sold to local landscaping companies

- Recycle all plastic, glass, and metal, we even have a separate recycling for clean plastic bags and a junk metal recycling for when saute pans break, or to recylce cream whip chargers, or soda chargers, we also have a battery recycling program

- Like most restaurants we have a constant supply of clothing items/umbrellas/sunglasses etc that get left behind in our restaurant.  We put those in a "lost and found" bin and hold them for months to see if someone claims them and if they aren't claimed we donate them to Good Will. 

- We purchase local Non-GMO, expeller pressed canola oil for our fryers and then we sell our waste oil back to Blue Ridge Biofuels to be turned in biodeisel. 

- We are constantly developing relationships with local farmers that farm in a sustainable manner by growing a diversity of crops, use Non-gmo seed, and treating their animals properly.  We buy eggs, pork, beef, chicken, honey, trout, oil, and produce from local farmers.  Every year we add something new that we are buying local so this list keeps expanding.  When not buying local we make an effort to buy sustainable.  For example we purchase squid and mussels from a company called Sea2Table which only sells US wild caught seafood from a network of fisherman that pay their workers sustainable wages.  We purchase clams from Clammer Dave outside of Charleston, SC using sustainable aquaculture methods.  The spanish products that we purchase like the ham (jamon) comes from free range pigs. In the end the products that are treated better, produced in a more sustainable manner, taste better...and they make you proud to serve.   

- Wherever possible we purchase post consumer recycled products, and we keep expanding on this, even our baking paper is post consumer recycled paper.  we also wherever possible purchase compostable containers for our disposable items so that we can then compost them.  

- 90% of our lighting in the restaurant is LED.

- we purchase environmentally safe cleaning supplies as much as possible.  

- we are a living wage certified organization.  Sustainability is not just in the products you use, but in ensuring that the staff you employ is paid sustainable wages, and we all know that minimum wage is NOT a sustainable wage.  There is a group in Asheville, Just Economics that determines the minimum wage amount to live in our area, to be able to afford all of the basic necessities and live a decent life in Asheville, NC.  Those businesses that are Living Wage Certified, like we are, ensure that all of our staff from dishwasher, prep cook, to server earn a living wage. 

SK: How important are “locavorism” and “organic certifications”?  

KB: I think it is extremely important to support your local farmers, artisans, and producers, but I think solely purchasing local products in impractical.  The same goes for organic certifications...I typically opt for farmers that farm organically but I don't tie them to certifications because sometimes to save your crop you need more than purely organic methods and I don't think its fair to ask someone to lose their livelihood over a need to retain a certification, because that's not very sustainable either. In order for the farm/restaurant relationship to work, both have to be successful.  

SK: What are some of your most valuable tools for information about sustainability—resources, standards, news, etc?  

KB: We are lucky to live in a community that believes in sustainability.  We wouldn't be able to do everything that we do if it weren't for small businesses in Asheville educating businesses and providing services for business that allow us to be more sustainable or give us resources to be more sustainable. Blue Ridge Biofuels, Just Economics, and Danny's Dumpster are examples of that.  Not to mention groups like ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) which connects local farmers with restaurants and also connects them to schools to support education about food and where food comes from.  

SK: How do you pass the message onto your diners?

KB: We don't shout all of this from the roof tops, but we do explain it thoroughly to all of our employees so that they feel proud and are able to discuss it knowledgeably with our guests.  We also are lucky to live in a community whose local news reporters value this kind of work and are constantly writing articles about the sustainable work that restaurants and other businesses are doing in our town.  

SK: What’s the biggest challenge you face in balancing sustainable practices with putting out food of the highest quality every night?

KB: First of all, sustainability and food quality go hand in hand.  Because the products we purchase are of better quality, they taste better.  The success of our restaurant has to do with this.  The difficulty comes in the price extended to our diners for the food they are purchasing.  In order to pay our staff living wages, buy local foods, and purchase from sustainable companies like Sea2Table our labor costs and food costs are much higher, and finding the sweet spot of perceived value for the guest balanced with our costs is the most difficult aspect.  But I think most of our guests understand this and are willing to pay a little more for quality food, great service, and knowing that the company they are supporting is focused on sustainable practices.  

SK: What’s the most important thing you learned from Ferran and Jose?  

KB: Organization and structure.  The reason our restaurant is successful is because we modeled our organization and structure after everything that I saw working for Ferran and Jose.  From both of them I learned that if you begin with great ingredients and then create precise recipes for those ingredients that are weighed out in grams, and then create precise systems for ordering and prepping, those are the key base components for a successful restaurant.  With organization and structure you are able to free up valuable time for growth, change, new ideas, that otherwise can get lost in disorder.  

SK: Why was it the right time for Cúrate in Asheville? And how do you describe the food culture there right now?

KB: We decided to move to Asheville because it felt like the city was bursting with opportunity; a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an amazing art, music, and food culture.  When you think about the population of Asheville and all that it has to offer, it's truly unique.  We were also intrigued by the idea of a city with a vibrant downtown and we really wanted to contribute to the growth and improvement of that downtown.  I have never moved to a place and immediately felt like it was home.  When people ask me where I'm from, I don't say New Jersey where I grew up or South Carolina where I was born, I say Asheville, and that happened almost immediately.  The food culture here now is really growing, and its growing in a great way, young entrepreneurs embracing what they are passionate about, pursuing their dream, and opening their own restaurant. The number of people that move to Asheville and then become entrepreneurs and create their life and their own business is astounding.  And its because the community and people here really embrace them.  Because of that, we have many really unique restaurant concepts with great food.  And it’s almost a given that if you want to be taken seriously in this town, you need to be making sustainable choices.