Ring the Bell 6

Nightbell’s Katie Button

In the time-tested battle of art versus science, right brain versus left, it’s nearly always the left—that mathematical wizard and conquerer of quadratics—that wins in the game of success. But for Asheville’s Katie Button, it was the art of cooking that conquered her brain to win her heart.

In truth, it was always the kitchen that called Katie’s name. It runs in her blood: her mother ran a catering business; her grandmother raised bounties of veggies in her small Conway garden; her great-grandmother was a renowned home cook. But practicality called: Button pursued a career in chemical engineering and flourished, first at Cornell, then on to a masters program in Paris. It was in Paris that Button’s mind began to change. “I wasn’t really excited about what I’d been studying, and I cooked the whole trip,” Button remembers. “Looking back, that was the turning point for me. I spent my entire student allowance on ingredients!”

Still, it wasn’t until she was about to begin her PhD in neuroscience that Button turned away from those obligations of traditional success and followed the dream she never realized she had. “The catering thing was something my mom did from home, and I just never thought of cooking as a career opportunity for myself—I thought of it as more of a hobby.” Just two weeks before her program began, she stepped away and into the restaurant business.

From the first moment Button’s slip-resistant shoes touched the floor, she knew she was home. She worked her way up in the tough culinary allies of D.C., NYC, Spain and LA, first in the front of the house as a server, then in the back as a cook.

“I was doing well in my PhD in sciences, but if felt like I was trudging along. It felt like so much effort to get anything done,” Button says. “As soon as I got into the restaurant industry, it seemed like doors and opportunities kept presenting themselves.”

In a path fortuitously lined by fate, Button hopped from one prodigious role to the next, finally landing in Asheville, where she opened her distinguished eatery Cúrate in 2011. Just 3 years later, Button was ready for the next challenge. “We wanted a space where we could be creative and venture into more regional products and include the history of the region,” she says. And so the spark that would become Nightbell was lit.

Take a turn down one of Asheville’s more innocuous streets, climb a set of surreptitious stairs and enter the bricked, rustically chic home of Nightbell. Curated Appalachian cuisine pairs with painstakingly prepared cocktails. The vision was always the same, but the format has shifted over the years. “In the beginning, we opened Nightbell as a cocktail bar,” Button notes. “I think I was nervous about owning and operating two full restaurants. Opening it as a cocktail bar was a great transition.”

Now Nightbell is much more than a cocktail bar. Here, Button has reimagined the most classic recipes born in the crooks of our mountains with modern Asheville flair. “We found our excitement, our energy within the Appalachian region and cuisine,” Button says. “What I see is a cuisine that was created out of a tradition of use and not wasting anything… It’s through that lens that we create our menu at Nightbell.”

That menu is rife with Southern favorites, chock-full of local ingredients and native elements, and held at the mercy of the changing seasons and Button’s palate. Some of the menu’s items, like the burger, remain year-round: Apple Brandy beef and Benton’s bacon, Thomasville Tomme cheese, house b&b pickles, lusty monk mustard and maitake mayonnaise rest atop a housemade grit brioche bun. Even the seemingly simple menu items are layered with Ashevillian folds, like the local Farm & Sparrow bread made with regional, local flours and grains, served with butter swirled with sorghhum (the syrup of the South) and rendered chicken fat. The cocktail program borrows from the menu—literally; you’ll find the same housemade, locally-sourced ingredients in the drinks as in the food.

Things continue to change for Button. She can now add “cookbook author” to her resume with the release of her Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen cookbook this October (CurateCookbook.com). 
Those changes can be seen in Nightbell, too; with the menu, of course, and with the design as well, as furniture is rearranged, tables added, curtains drawn. “If you knew Nightbell before,” Button promises, “then you need to come back in.”