Chef Katie Button is no stranger to accolades. The co-owner of Curate and La Bodega has earned four James Beard Award nominations, along with national recognition on esteemed lists, like Food & Wine’s “40 Most Important Restaurants of the Past 40 Years.” But last week, she earned yet another massive career achievement — cooking at a White House State Dinner, welcoming Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
At the Wednesday, Oct. 25 dinner, Button served two courses and dessert, beginning with a farro and roasted beet salad with butternut squash soup and ending with a hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake.
We talked to Button to hear more about the experience. Here’s what she said:
Q: What went through your mind when you first received the invitation to be the guest chef at this White House State Dinner?
Katie Button: Well, I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe it, basically. And I just was like, wow, this is an opportunity that you don’t miss. And how did this opportunity come to me?
The James Beard Foundation worked with the State Department and created a culinary corps. And last winter, I got an invite to be a part of the culinary corps, and it was about being able to be a part of events and things like that in collaboration with the government. But I didn’t quite know exactly how that would play out until I got the call.
When you’re at work and someone tells you the White House is trying to get in touch with you, you’re like, “What?” It was amazing. And then when they asked me to do this dinner, I was just blown away.
And I was nervous, for sure. My initial reaction was — I was nervous, but they were super reassuring. I mean, their team is incredible. Their executive chef, Cris [Cristeta] Comerford, and their executive pastry chef, Susie Morrison — both women, which felt really special to me — just really made this whole process of me feeling like I could deliver a meal like that possible.
Q: What it was like to be a part of this all-female team?
First of all, they’re incredibly professional. I went up weeks before the actual dinner and prepared, with their help, a tasting menu for the First Lady, giving options on each course. And then she selected from that tasting the best dishes for the dinner. From that point, I had sent up to the White House recipes and things like that as the basis for these dishes that we were going to have. And then they really helped me create it and execute it and pull it all together on Wednesday.
Q: What was the collaboration process like, working with White House chefs and the First Lady?
They were there as the best support team you could ever imagine.
I’m just coming in with the dish ideas and recipes, but they’re the structure and the backbone. That’s what makes it all come together. They’re the ones leading and orchestrating.
And then, the First Lady was the driving force of the inspiration for the dinner and the selection of the dishes and what it actually would be. And that process was wonderful because she tasted things, she loved things, and she gave feedback.
It’s the highest level of feedback you could ever receive. But it was incredible, and she’s an incredible person and an inspiration.
I’ve cooked a lot of events. This one, though, particularly — I’ve never been more nervous in my life. This one takes on a whole other level.
Q: What did it mean to you to be able to tie in elements of Southern Appalachian cuisine on an international level?
For me, food starts with the producers, right? The farmers and the people putting the passion into raising and growing or creating the base ingredients of all of the dishes that get made. If that side of things is incredible, then it’s so much easier on the cooking side to make delicious food. I think one thing about Asheville that was very apparent from the moment that we moved here was the bounty of independent small farmers and their relationship with the restaurant industry, others, and the community members. And it’s been kind of the basis of our restaurants.
We wove in a couple of ingredients or nods to the history of the region. Sorghum syrup showed up in a couple of places in the vinaigrette on the salad and also in the glazing of the vegetables with the braised short ribs and also then threw in some popped sorghum on that beet salad for crunch. And it was so fun to watch the White House team learn that you could pop sorghum.
Using the sarsaparilla root is a little nod to the history of foraging. I feel like I have learned the most about foraging from members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians here. There are very important skills that were kind of always a part of the people who lived here. Some of these things got lost and I think that there’s a lot of focus and energy right now of trying to regain and reeducate on some of the importance and understanding of the ingredients that just grow naturally around our area.
Q: How did you feel after the last course had been sent out?
Well, first of all, relieved that it was done. But the most incredible moment was after the last course was sent out, they brought myself, the executive chef, and pastry chef out into the middle of this room. This incredible, gorgeous room full of over 300 of these super prestigious individuals, not to mention the President of the United States and the First Lady and the Vice President — all these incredible people, and they bring us up to the stage.
And Dr. Biden and Jodie Hayden from Australia very publicly thanked the three of us and announced me as the guest chef. People applauded. A lot of people stood up in applause. I got a thumbs up from the President and I was feet from him, you know what I mean? And, like, a direct nod of appreciation. It just was an incredible moment.
Q: Did you do anything to celebrate afterward?
I honestly went back to my hotel. I was exhausted and hungry because, when you cook an event, it’s really hard to then sit down and eat. It’s just too many nerves, right? And honestly, I needed to get out of the space of the event to finally let my nervous system calm down so I could actually fall asleep. Otherwise, I think I would have been up all night. So I went back to my hotel and I asked them where I could eat at 11:30 or whatever time that was. They named one of the oldest bars in D.C., Old Ebbitt.
And I actually ended up running into some of the chefs who had helped plate and cook there, and they said it’s a favorite of the Secret Service and others. I was really getting the true White House experience by also landing at their evening “grab a beer and a bite to eat” spot.