At 24, Katie was one of two people admitted into a prestigious neuroscience doctoral program offered in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior, she earned a degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell and a masters degree in Biomedical Engineering. Two weeks before she was going to start, Katie realized that being in a kitchen gave her more happiness than being in a lab. She dropped out and picked up a server job in a restaurant. Katie trapeze'd herself through kitchens such as Jean George in NYC, Jose Andres’s Bazaar in L.A and finally landed a job ended working at elBulli in Spain.
Fast forward to today, she has opened two restaurants in Asheville that have received accolades in The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and local press. Chef Button was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award from 2012-2014 and was a finalist in 2014, and also was a semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast in 2015. Chef Button was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2015 and hosted an international television series, The World's Best Chefs. Katie also just released her new cookbook, Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen
In-between managing two restaurants and a book tour, she found time to sit down with us to speak about lessons learned along the way.
Q. How did you deal with the uncertainty switching careers?
I was certain that I did not want to stay on my current pre-defined path, so the thought of continuing on was scarier than the ambiguity of the unknown. It's funny, when we come to these crossroads in life we often assume it will be stressful and complex, however, I found the opposite. It turns out these uncertain moments in life help bring true clarity...you get to allow yourself to ask what if. This was the first decision in life I made completely by myself, I restrained from asking guidance from mentors, friends or family because I knew they would convince me otherwise.
“It turns out these uncertain moments in life help bring true clarity...you get to allow yourself to ask what if
Ultimately, having confidence in myself and knowing my capabilities, I knew things would end up ok...I have never been scared of failure. I'm a student through and through; this was just another topic I could apply myself to learn.
Q. What are the keys to building a successful business?
A team you trust is a vital component of a successful business. We have four equal owners (all family). each of us has different, complementary skills that, when we work together, allow us to bring out the best in our food and atmosphere. Although many advise not to go into business with family, it has worked out tremendously for our team. I always know that they have my best interests at heart. Another important lesson is clear role definition and accountability for leadership and staff. If you can be proactive in addressing questions, a business can move that much quicker.
Q. How do you hire?
We measure culture fit over technical aptitude. Such a large part of what makes Cúrate and Nightbell is the culture of our restaurants. For example, people call me the checklist queen...I run my life/restaurants on detailed checklists and well-defined recipes. If that is something you are not accustomed to or can not work with, than we like to know that before. We generally will bring in a candidate for a working interview to judge both his or her technical skills but also how do they get along with other chefs. As I mentioned before, setting expectations is a large part of our hiring process; making sure the candidate understands the responsibilities helps limit employee churn.
“I run my life/restaurants on detailed checklists and well-defined recipes.
Q. If you started over, what would you tell yourself?
Go with the flow, things will be OK.
Q. How do you travel for Business & Pleasure?
Travel is so important to me, it helps me to poke my head above the kitchen and see what others are up too. Whether it's getting lost in a market in Spain or trying a pop up in LA, traveling helps inspire me. I just launched my cookbook, Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen, and have been on a whirlwind book tour traveling a ton. The way I travel has changed a bit now that I have a daughter, so what I enjoy has become very "mom"-focused. I generally look for Airbnbs, as they have kitchens and more space.