KATIE BUTTON, 36
KATIE BUTTON RESTAURANTS, ASHEVILLE
The headquarters of Katie Button Restaurants is perched on the seventh floor of a tower at the heart of Pack Square, overlooking most of downtown Asheville and Katie Button's two restaurants: Curate Tapas Bar and Button & Co. Bagels. In the lobby, a massive frame displays clippings detailing some of Button's biggest accomplishments: a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award and for Best Chefs in America, and one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs of 2015. There's a symbolic feeling about her business office being elevated, although the chef herself remains grounded. After all, her life almost took a completely different course.
In her mid-20s, the Conway, S.C., native was set to start a Ph.D. program in Washington, D.C., after earning a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and a master's in biomedical engineering in Paris. But something didn't feel quite right.
"When I was first thinking about what I wanted to study in school, there's all these people saying what types of degrees you should get in order to get a job, be successful," Button says. "To tell you the truth, I was kind of just pushing myself through all these things. I wasn't super passionate about what I was studying."
She was cooking as a hobby, a skill she picked up from her mom, who had a home-based catering business. "I had thought, 'Oh, this is just what life is: You work, and you study something hard, and you grind through it, and you have your hobby that gets you through the grind.'"
Button quit the Ph.D. program and entered the culinary world. But nothing came easy. Without restaurant experience, no one would hire her. "Most people kind of laughed at my resume," Button chuckles. "It was like, you know, 'Ph.D. dropout.' I think I even had my GRE scores on there because I had no professional experience at a restaurant."
Her break came with a server job at a Jose Andres restaurant in Washington, D.C. Andres is a Spanish-American chef who helped popularize Spanish-style small plates, or tapas, in the U.S. "Once I got my foot in the door, it just rolled from there."
She went on to work under world-renowned chefs in New York, Los Angeles and Spain, where she lived for nearly two years. With backing from her family and her husband, Felix Meana, an expert in restaurant management and consulting, Button moved to Asheville and opened Curate, a Spanish tapas restaurant, on...