|Photo by Francesc Guillamet|
Even more than it does for most people, elBulli changed Katie Button’s life. After leaving a promising career in biomedical research, she took a job waiting tables at Café Atlántico in Washington, DC. where she met several visiting members of elBulli’s staff, including maître d’ Felix Meana. Felix convinced her to do a front-of-house stage at elBulli, and while there in the summer of 2008, she fell in love not only with him, but with the cuisine that the restaurant produced. Before that season was over, she convinced Albert Adria to let her come back the following year as a stagiaire in pastry. Tonight, she and Felix, who are now engaged, open their new restaurant, Cúrate, in Asheville, North Carolina.
|Button and Abend during the interview at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge - Photograph by Felix Meana|
I was so nervous! When you meet him for the first time, he seems so serious. You feel in awe of him. And then see him outside the restaurant, and he’s so friendly. But you know what? He still makes me nervous.
As a server, did you interact with him much?
The first thing they teach you when you start working is how to come into the kitchen. You approach the pass, and have to stand at a certain distance from Ferran or Eduard or whomever is expediting. You have to clearly express what you want, and then move down the line and get a tray ready with plates. Then you wait. You look at the expediter. You repeat back what he’s saying. If you didn’t speak loudly or clearly enough—he would get upset. That was always Ferran’s thing. I would go up there and practically salute.
And once you were working in the kitchen, what was that like?
I was totally in awe of the organization. Everything was always where it should be, and there were times during service when you’d get into this a rhythm, with people moving seamlessly through the kitchen and bringing you what you needed even before you asked. The system they have in place is designed to make everything go easy.
Did anything ever go wrong?
The memory that haunts me is one night we had a dish that was a cassis rose, with a yogurt espuma. There were a ton of steps in it. Because the rose had all this freeze-dried cassis in it, it had this really thick creamy texture, like mayonnaise, before you froze it. So you had to make that. Then freeze it. Then take it out and let it come just to room temperature so that the texture was right, and then plate it. And if you didn’t time things right, it would either be too hard, or it would start to melt.
One night we had a ten top, and so a bunch of the roses started going out. And you know how when things get really busy the cooks start bringing out plates to the dining room? Well, Mateu sent me out, and as I was coming around the pass, my towel somehow brushed against the tray and knocked on rose off. All the other plates had gone out, so this table was just missing one rose. So what do we do? Because the replacement has to sit and defrost before it can go out. I was mortified. But Mateu handled it beautifully: he just kept microwaving it, one second at a time.
Were there any tasks you especially liked?
I loved working with chocolate. You know, we made something like 50,000 chocolates that season. But I loved that we tempered the chocolate by hand on the marble table top.
I know Cúrate is a more traditional tapas bar, but are there any dishes on the menu you’re creating that owe a direct debt to your time at elBulli?
There’s a Brazo de Gitano, which is an orange cake rolled up with a rum cream filling. It’s dusted with powdered sugar, but I’m going to be putting shards of sugared obulato [a transparent edible ‘paper’ that hardens when baked] all around it, so that it’s all white, and looks like it’s covered in sheets of ice. The obulato is a direct inheritance form elBulli.
As you go through everything it takes to open your own place, has it changed how you feel about elBulli?
More than anything I feel really grateful to have been there. It makes you feel like you can do anything.
About Lisa Abend
Lisa Abend is a journalist based in Madrid. For the past several years, she has been Time magazine’s correspondent in Spain, where she writes about everything from international terrorism, to climate change, to immigration, to costumed debt collectors (with, needless to say, a fair number of bullfighting stories thrown in for good measure.) As a freelancer, she has written on learning the Basque language for The Atlantic; on volunteer bit torrent translators for Wired; on the plight of Roma women for Ms., on prime minister Zapatero’s republican upbringing for The American Prospect; on the recovery of the Iberian lynx for National Wildlife; and on the situation in Western Sahara for The Economist. She contributes to several major American food magazines, and has written features on a Marrakech cooking school (Bon Appetit); on culinary travels through Extremadura (Gourmet); on a collective of grandmothers in Catalonia who preserve traditional cuisine (Saveur) and on learning to love pig face (Food and Wine). Her food writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, and the Christian Science Monitor. She hosts an episode on Andalusia in the third season of PBS’ Diary of a Foodie.
In a previous life she was a professor of Spanish history at Oberlin College. The Sorcerer’s Apprentices is her first book.
To see more interviews on her website, click here.