Cúrate will be Asheville’s newist Spanish tapas bar, and it’s currently under construction within the walls of the former Asheville Area Arts Council building at 11 Biltmore Avenue. The team behind the new venture comprises two generations of Buttons (mother Elizabeth, father Ted, daughter Katie) and one Felix Meana (Katie's fiancé), who together form Heirloom Hospitality, LLC.
Elizabeth and Ted moved from New York City to Asheville last year with the intention of opening a restaurant in these mountains. Meana and Katie followed shortly thereafter to assist in bringing the plan to fruition.
Katie and Elizabeth, who have the most back-of-the-house experience of the group, will form the backbone of Cúrate’s culinary team. Diners can expect to see them turn out what is fairly familiar in the world of traditional tapas: croquettes, patatas bravas and plenty of jamon. Then there's the unfamiliar — dishes like rossejat, a traditional thin noodle dish made in a fairly similar way to paella.
The restaurant will serve an all-Spanish wine list in a brightly lit space filled with art from local names like Gabriel Shaffer and Shawn Oldham. One wall will be living — that is, completely filled with plants, from floor to ceiling.
Little of this is worth any preemptive gushing. Until the smell of saffron is actually wafting from the open kitchen, who’s to say that this particular restaurant can make waves in Asheville’s fairly saturated culinary landscape?
With nothing yet to taste, it’s the background of the owners that merits the most attention. For example, when one of Cúrate’s major players is to be flown early next year to Las Vegas to help José Andrés open two restaurants, it's time to sit up and take notice. Andrés, a culinary heavy-hitter who's widely credited with bringing the tapas concept to the U.S., enlists the help of the Spanish-born Meana to fine-tune his dining service staff. Armed with that knowledge, it's certainly tough to imagine that Meana is not good at what he does.
And that’s not even the most interesting detail that lies within the groups collective resumé. To wit:
The aforementioned Meana was a health-care provider in the Spanish Army, speaks three languages and was the Chef de Rang (a front-of-the-house manager, of sorts) at Spain's El Bulli, the world-renowned showcase of Ferran Adrià's cuisine.
El Bulli, with its three Michelin stars, is considered one of the top restaurants in the world, chef Adrià one of the world's best chefs. He was one of the first to play with science and food in a culinary genre that many call molecular gastronomy. What Meana learned at El Bulli, as well as José Andrés’ renowned Minibar in D.C. (called a “shrine to avant garde cuisine” by the New York Times), he'll bring to perfecting the service at Cúrate.
Minibar is where Meana met his future wife Katie. No slouch herself, she graduated from Cornell University with a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, then went on to complete a master’s degree at L´École Centrale in Paris, France. Just before entering a neuroscience PhD program in Stockholm, Katie had a change of heart which led to a major shift in her career path. She realized that food was her true passion, and that realization eventually landed her at El Bulli, at the revered Adriá’s hearth, where she interned as a pastry chef.
Though Katie’s abrupt change of vocation startled her family, they were supportive, says Katie, who’s only 27. It’s hard to imagine that Katie’s dad Ted, a former airline pilot that graduated from SUNY with a degree in chemistry, wasn’t just a bit put off, at least initially. However, culinary proclivities appear to be a family affair — Katie’s mother Elizabeth has two diplomas from the French Culinary Institute and an Advanced Certification from the International Wine Center of New York. It leaves little room to quibble about her daughter’s chosen path, which clearly mirrored her own.
"As I’m sure you can imagine, my parents were shocked when I told them that I didn’t want to complete the PhD program," says Katie. "The truth is that my heart wasn’t in it, and really hadn’t been in it for a long time. The time that I spent in Paris completing my masters in biomedical engineering and doing research on genetic anomalies among lung-cancer patients, my heart was ... in cooking."
Any frayed nerves appear to be soothed now — all four are diving headfirst into making the family business one of hospitality.
I get a preview of that hospitality in a conversation over a platter of cheeses, marcona almonds and fig jam in the family's den — for now, the family lives under one North Asheville roof. Talking about the plans for Cúrate, and the steps that led them to the point at which they find themselves, I can’t help but ask Meana and Katie what it was like to work at El Bulli. After all, to succeed there is to prove that one can stand the heat of one of the top restaurants on the planet, under one of the world's most demanding chefs.
"It was intense and amazing at the same time," says Katie. "I think that I'm a little bit in awe that I was accepted to do it, first of all, and that I did well while I was there.”
At El Bulli, says Katie, only 50 people dine each night. However, a veritable army of staff attends to their every whim. It's much like a ballet, says Meana, whose tenure at El Bulli spanned five years. It's so well-choreographed that guests have absolutely no idea of the intense pressure behind the scenes, and witness only a carefully scripted sea of calm.
So, what's it like keeping up that act? "It's a terrible experience," deadpans Meana. "It's like you're in the army," he says, adding that many people don't have what it takes to complete the intern program. "For me, it was great, but for many it's too much pressure," he says.
Though discipline, one would at least hope, will prevail in Cúrate's service staff, the dining experience will not be one of rigidity. The Heirloom Hospitality group is adamant about the fact that they are not trying to build a temple to haute cuisine in the midst of down-to-earth Asheville.
"One thing that we want to make clear is that we're not re-creating El Bulli in Asheville," says Katie. Nor do they have an army of paid workers and interns at their beck and call — or, for that matter, 50 guaranteed guests a night with eternally deep pockets. "Not even New York has El Bulli," adds Elizabeth Button.
But they've still got talent. Though not a one of the group would claim to be the next Ferran Adrià, it's clear that they have managed to cull a thing or two from the experience of working under his tutelage.
Take for example Katie's "liquid olives," which I had the opportunity to sample at a Women Chefs and Restaurateurs gathering. They are alchemy to those who aren't accustomed to the amalgamation of science and food. Olive purée is dropped into an alginate bath to create a liquid-filled sphere that bursts on the tongue. They’re, technically speaking, really cool.
But, they aren’t traditional tapas, and, therefore won’t be turning up on the menu. Bells and whistles are not a part of Cúrate’s master plan. “We’re not serving what they're calling molecular gastronomy or anything like that," says Elizabeth. "We're serving comfort food from Spain."
Katie does say that she intends to utilize some of the skills that she learned as a pastry intern at El Bulli to Cúrate. And, the family concedes, there will be occasions to bring out some of the more intricate preparations from time to time.
"We will have time to play with that, but for now we want time to see who we are and what we're doing in town," adds Meana. "We don't want to do everything at once."
What they want to do, simply, is provide solid Spanish food. “We want to bring a taste of Barcelona to Asheville,” says Meana. If, from time to time, pulling out all the bells and whistles helps to build a better tapa, so be it. "I think that what we want to do is use the techniques that we learned only when they enhance the flavors of the dish and we can't think of a better way to get that end product without it," says Katie.
Though the group will use the wealth of local foods available to them in this area, they’ll also be importing some items from Spain — something Ashevillians can look forward to.
Elizabeth says that she hopes that, eventually, local farmers will be able to provide some of the specialty produce that the Cúrate kitchens will utilize. It’s in keeping with the vibrant culinary scene of this town, she says.
“I feel so excited. I knew that we picked the right town, but it’s always reaffirmed. This is such a great, great town,” she says.
“Asheville’s growing, and we’re just excited to be a part of that community and growth,” adds Katie.
For more information about Cúrate, visit heirloomhg.com or the restaurant’s Facebook page.
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org.