Katie Button and Vivian Howard never imagined they'd end up in the spotlight of North Carolina's culinary revolution. But fierce determination and passion landed them there. "I come from a generation of wonderful women cooks," Button admits. "My mom was the first to do it professionally, so I don't think being a chef really came as a surprise."
Howard is equally straightforward: "I had become really fascinated with traditions in this region that I saw dying. I think Southerners are notoriously good storytellers, and I think it is a big part of our cooking."
These two ladies have developed a loyal following as their varied culinary achievements, fueled by an unstoppable drive, continue to encourage and enlighten fans who come in droves to sample their cuisine.
Button laughs when asked about her trajectory from neuroscience PhD candidate to celebrated chef. "It starts a bit before that, the whole story," she says. "I grew up with a mother who had a catering business, so I was cooking with her a lot. I just didn't think of it as a career path."
She figured a degree in chemical engineering from Cornell would help her find her professional way. But it didn't, so she continued her education with a biomedical engineering master's in Paris. "I wasn't superexcited or happy about what I'd been studying. I was a little bit lost and confused."
What she did love to do was cook, which took center stage in the City of Lights. "I cooked the whole time I was there!" At the age of 23, right before her PhD program was to begin, Button did an about-face. "I kind of ended up realizing I was looking at the rest of my life doing research, so I quit my PhD before it started and began looking for a restaurant job. I had a passion for food and I loved cooking, so I went door-to-door with my resumé."
That passion led her to celebrity Spanish chef José Andrés' avant-garde Washington, D.C., restaurant, Minibar. She began as a server, spending her days off working in the kitchen. Button eventually landed a coveted spot at the famed restaurant elBulli. "It all happened superfast. That opportunity came up, and I was like, 'Yeah! Of course.'" Along the way, she met her husband, Felix, who worked as service manager for elBulli.
"Working in the front of the house [at elBulli] was an amazing experience because I learned that I wanted to get into the kitchen," she says. "So I worked hard and got into the kitchen that following year. It gave me a lot of confidence." Forced to toil with chefs who were more experienced, she learned quickly that it was important to have detailed recipes and systems in place. "Nothing was left up to chance," she says.
She took those lessons back to Asheville, North Carolina, where she launched two successful restaurants — Cúrate, which opened in 2011 and focuses on Spanish tapas, and Nightbell, which Button describes as "a small-plate restaurant focusing on regional Appalachian cuisine" and began operating in 2014. Last year, along with Genevieve Ko, she authored Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food From an American Kitchen.
"At Cúrate, we get to focus on traditional Spanish tapas, and we keep striving for that perfection in our menu," Button says. "We're putting in a vermouth bar, with sherry cider and vermouth on tap." Button describes a favorite dish, escalivada — Catalan smoky grilled vegetables. "The tradition is it's cooked over wood, so it has all the flavor of the smoke."
One could say Button's detail-oriented academic and culinary background helped her garner the title of Food & Wine Best New Chef. But she suggests that working with others helped. "I definitely collaborate with people and ask questions and get their advice," she says. "At my dinner [Celebrating Spain] with Seamus Mullen and Alex [Raij] and Juan [Loaisiga], I'm looking forward to seeing their interpretations and visions of things."
Vivian Howard has found happiness in the place she most wanted to leave. "I just really didn't want to be here," she says, referring to her hometown of Kinston, North Carolina. "I always wanted to live in a city. I wanted to have Chinese delivery, walk somewhere other than to the car."
Howard left Kinston for boarding school at the age of 14 and ended up in New York City, where she worked at several renowned restaurants. But it was Viv's Kitchen, an underground soup catering business she ran with her now-husband in their Harlem apartment, that led her back home.
"It started with friends and then just grew, based on word of mouth. After work, I'd make soup, and on our day off, we'd go around the city and deliver it." Things went so well that a client offered to help them turn it into a legitimate brick-and-mortar spot. "We went back home to tell my parents, and they were horrified. They never thought I'd actually settle there."
Her parents offered to help the young couple open a restaurant anywhere in North Carolina, and even though there were some strings attached ("it became clear that 'anywhere' was anywhere in this building that they had already purchased in downtown Kinston"), the opportunity was too good to pass up. So they moved back home.
Since then, Howard has been unstoppable. She and her husband, Ben Knight, opened Chef & the Farmer in 2006, hoping to transition some of the town's displaced tobacco farmers into local produce farms. She began updating some of the region's specialties. One product of this was blueberry barbecue chicken, which put Howard on the culinary map. "I gained my cooking voice," she says.
In 2013, she set out to document regional traditions she thought were dying. What began as an idea for a documentary film ended up as A Chef's Life, a PBS series focusing on North Carolina's low country, which won a Peabody Award.
"It's very honest," she says, before letting out a boisterous laugh. "When we were first doing it, it seemed so far-fetched. I mean, we were making a show about rural eastern North Carolina, a part of the world nobody cares about, and I was a chef nobody knew."
Now she's a TV star, owner and chef of two restaurants, and author of a highly acclaimed cookbook, Deep Run Roots. But Howard remains refreshingly down-to-earth, hoping her message to the partying South Florida crowd will be just that. "Simplicity is quite difficult to pull off. Humble ingredients can be incredibly tasty."
Guests attending the SOBEWFF events hosted by Howard are in for surprises. "One night, I'll be serving a version of eastern North Carolina fish stew served with quail eggs poached on top. The next day, it will be baked butter beans with garlicky squid and a hush puppy, kind of a riff on baked beans, also kind of like a seafood cassoulet."
Howard is a master at elevating simplicity and making others take notice. "I've never let my location determine the quality of my work or the scope of my reach," she says. "What we've done here, in one of the four poorest congressional districts of the country, is really frickin' hard."
Katie Button will appear at:
Paella and Tapas by the Pool With José Andrés
7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, February 23, at SLS South Beach, 1701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $175 via sobefest.com.
Celebrating Spain: Dinner With Seamus Mullen, Alex Raij, and Juan Loaisiga
7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, February 25, at COMO Metropolitan Miami Beach, 2445 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $250 via sobefest.com.
Vivian Howard will appear at:
Wine Spectator's Best of the Best Dinner
7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, February 24, at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $350 via sobefest.com.
A North Carolina Sisterhood: Dinner With Ashley Christensen, Andrea Reusing, Gavin Pera, and Ryan Cross
Part of the Taste Fort Lauderdale Series. 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, February 25, at Burlock Coast at Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale, 1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $250 via sobefest.com.