José Andrés may be one of the most innovative chefs in America, but he came up through the profession in the conventional way. Born in Asturias, Spain, he entered the kitchen when he was just a teenager, attending culinary school and serving a long apprenticeship at El Bulli, the revolutionary restaurant in Catalonia where Ferran Adrià developed his avant-garde cuisine. After moving to the United States, Andrés opened his first restaurant, Jaleo, in Washington, D.C., where he prepared what he knew best: straightforward Spanish tapas. But the success of that restaurant enabled him to spread his wings.
He opened Minibar, a tiny temple of modernist cooking located inside his wildly popular Café Atlántico. Soon after, he added Bazaar restaurants in Los Angeles and South Beach, and three restaurants in Las Vegas. This year he closed Minibar and Café Atlántico and collaborated with the National Archives to open a pop-up restaurant dedicated to reviving lost American recipes. (Minibar will reopen in the fall.) In the course of this fast-paced expansion, he has garnered nearly every accolade a chef can receive and then some, winning several James Beard Foundation Awards and, in 2012, being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Given his meteoric rise, Andrés could be forgiven if he originally wondered what Katie Button was doing in his kitchen. She began her career as a member of the waitstaff at Café Atlántico in 2007 with no restaurant experience whatsoever; in fact, only a few weeks earlier, she had held a prestigious postgraduate fellowship in biomedical engineering at the National Institutes of Health. But her hard work and passion quickly made up for her lack of formal training. Button fell in love with the culinary arts and, just as significantly, with one of Andrés’s managers, Felix Meana, who is now her husband.
She begged Andrés to recommend her for a dining-room apprenticeship at El Bulli. After completing this stint in Catalonia, she was determined to cook professionally and successfully lobbied the pastry chef there, Albert Adrià, to allow her to return as an apprentice the following summer—this time in the kitchen. In the interim, she and Meana relocated to Los Angeles to assist in the launch of Bazaar, Andrés’s first venture outside of Washington, D.C. By the time her second tour of duty at El Bulli was over, she had worked as a cook for a grand total of only 18 months; thus, her decision one year later to move to Asheville, N.C., and—with her husband and parents, Liz and Ted Button—open her own restaurant, Cúrate, was nothing short of audacious.
The establishment’s name means “cure yourself” in Spanish—calling to mind both Button’s previous career path and the restorative powers of her playful presentations of traditional Spanish tapas. Certainly Button’s cuisine has proved healthy to her venture’s bottom line: Critical praise for Cúrate is piling up almost as quickly as the queue of patrons waiting outside the restaurant’s door to sample Button’s delicious tapas prepared with the best local ingredients.
KATIE BUTTON: It’s true, I fell in love with your manager—but that came later. At the time, I had just given up my fellowship and needed a job. I didn’t really know anything about restaurants, so I opened the Zagat guide and started looking for the best ones. Your restaurants were all ranked really high, so I chose one of them.
JOSÉ ANDRÉS: Finally! So now we know Zagat is good for something besides looking up addresses. It’s good for human resources. You were working front of house, but then you came into the kitchen, right?
KB: On my days off I would volunteer to do prep at Minibar.
JA: So there was this person with no idea about cooking who fell in love with it very quickly. Still, when you asked me to recommend you for a stage [kitchen apprenticeship] at El Bulli, I had doubts. My first reaction was, “Uf, uf, uf, uf.” You had no experience working in a hard kitchen, and I’ve been burned. I kind of have a record of recommending people to Ferran and having them quit the day after they start. But you seemed very committed.
KB: I wasn’t going to let you down.
JA: So I thought, OK, you can go to El Bulli, but you have to prove yourself first. That’s when you came to L.A. with Felix to work at the Bazaar. I don’t see myself as a mentor—I just want to create an environment where anybody can succeed. I try to give people a platform, but it’s always symbiotic, because I benefit from their success too.
KB: But you gave me so many opportunities. You were so generous. You flew down to be at the opening of Cúrate; you sent down members of your team to help us out.
JA: Yeah, I don’t really know how to make money, only spend it. But I was very happy with what you and Felix were doing, and I wanted to give you a gift. I could have sent flowers or written a note, but it was an easy choice: I wanted to support you. And if there’s anything that I know how to do, it’s open a restaurant.
KB: Despite your modesty and humility, you gave me first the opportunity at Café Atlántico—the first position I ever had in a restaurant. Then you gave me my first paid position as a cook in L.A. Then you helped with the recommendation to work at El Bulli. Then you helped with the opening of our restaurant. Now you’ve nominated me for this amazing prize from Robb Report.
JA: You have tremendous drive. You came into my life unexpectedly and started moving down a path. You moved to L.A., then went to El Bulli, and then came back to the U.S. and, throughout it all, did what you needed to do to succeed. You also took a huge risk.
You moved to this small city in the South and opened a Spanish restaurant. I love that—it’s how we revive the economy, and it’s the future of American cuisine: bring good food to small towns across the country. You’ve been incredibly successful, and success empowers everyone in our family—I feel like you’re part of our family, and this is the way to keep all of us moving forward, by sharing our successes and failures. And I love your cooking.