Asheville: The ‘Foodtopia’ of the South

Dessert from The Nightbell / Donated photo

It’s no secret that Asheville has acquired a stunning reputation for its many desirable dining options.

Whether guests prefer to dine-and-dash at one of the signature food trucks, or choose a leisurely sit down in a dining room, Asheville has all the options covered.

Leadership Asheville Forum invited two of our most influential culinary leaders to address our stellar ranking as the “foodtopia” of the south.

Katie Button, owner of Cúrate and Nightbell, and her husband chose Asheville to open a restaurant in the summer of 2008. Sure, they liked the beautiful mountains and rivers, but there were also farmers markets and a thriving culinary scene. “I took a course in demographics and learned that people in Asheville eat out more per capita than people in New York and other cities. We decided this was the place for us, and it was the best decision we ever made,” Button said. Cúrate opened with great success in March 2011.

“Everybody wanted to talk about Asheville. It was this amazing little sanctuary with interesting independent businesses, which it always has been. What really drew us here was discovering how successful independent restaurants and shops were, lucrative for entrepreneurs. Lacking an abundance of available professional positions, young people have to find their own way, and it’s resulted in the creation of a uniquely interesting community,” Button said. With a total of 140 employees of her own, Button said she and other independent restaurant owners she knows recognize the necessity of providing support such as a living wage and health insurance for their workers.

Joe Scully, co-owner of the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village and Chestnut downtown, said the philosophy he and business partner Kevin Westmoreland embrace is analogous to an equilateral triangle. “One of the things that informs everything we do is our core values. We all know restaurants are low margin, but we thought we could evenly balance benefits to our guests, our employees, and our ownership. That may sound like a gross oversimplification of a rather complex business with lots of moving parts, most of which are people, but it has really worked for us,” he said.

Giving back is typical within the community in their industry according to Scully. “I think that’s a big part of why it has expanded the way it has, and why it feels so good. We too have over a hundred employees. Whether or not you cherish your memory of him, Mr. Obama put us in a position where we were ‘encouraged’ to offer health insurance to our employees.” Scully and Westmoreland decided that employees would like the idea if it were affordable. They set a threshold of $50 per pay period.

“It tightened our margins, but it also informed the same thing about Asheville, giving back, and growing something that has value and quality in the form of food, and wine, and farmers which are all part and parcel of our philosophy,” Scully said. “I think sustainability is very important. Most of Asheville’s best restaurants are giving in to recycling and composting. “Danny Keaton of Danny’s Dumpsters uses a technology for composting that doesn’t require segregating the meat scraps, so the foodservice workers don’t have to think about separating them every time before throwing them out. It puts us in a position where we can create less waste, and increases the sustainability of what we are doing in the industry.”

So how did these culinary giants get where they are today? It took the now enormously successful Button years to understand the meaning behind the expression “putting good money after bad.” Being the fourth in a matriarchal line of talented cooks should have given her a clue, but it took Button a considerably long time to find her true heart’s desire. At the age of 18 she was good at math and science, but after college she knew she would need to select a career path, so she studied chemical engineering at Cornell University.

“Somebody told me that if you get a degree in chemical engineering you’ll never spend a day without a job. I didn’t even know what chemical engineers do, but I said let’s study that and secure my future. I struggled through classes in ‘fluid dynamics,’ which I despised, graduated from college, and applied for jobs that hired chemical engineers. I was interviewing horribly because I still didn’t really know what a chemical engineer did,” she said.

Button decided to continue on the same academic course. “If I keep studying, I’ll be so qualified somebody will give me a job. I then earned a masters degree in biomedical engineering, but I was fortunate because I chose to do it in Paris,” Button said. She spent much of her time there cooking. “After all it was Paris, the city of love and food. I taught myself all these classic French techniques, like how to make puff pastry on the floor in my apartment because I didn’t have enough counter space. It was wonderful.” It was in these moments that Button had her first inkling of what she really wanted to do.

But, she temporarily digressed. “I went on to work in a lab in Baltimore doing neuroscience research, and applied for a Ph.D. to qualify for a better job.” Two weeks before it was supposed to start she dropped out and redirected her focus into food. Doors with opportunities immediately opened, including meeting Felix whom she would later wed. 

Bourn of a failed acting career is his travel through the foodservice industry, said Scully. He has been working in restaurants since 1977, and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. “In 1982 I was in New York doing a play on 4th Street, and I got a job at a place called ‘Eat.’ It was the kind of place where you would stomp your feet when you entered the kitchen so the rats would scurry away. I was always working in restaurants during the day and performing at night.” Scully, a bass, said he still performs. “I’m working with the Asheville Symphony Chorus for a New Year’s Eve presentation.”

Scully compares Asheville to the mythical utopia Shangri-La, both being protected on all sides by mountains. “In 1999 downtown was really rough, but I could see something special here. I ended up moving to Asheville in May of 2000, but wasn’t sure what I would do. I had been the executive chef at the United Nations, a $13 million food service operation, and there wasn’t anything comparable here at the time,” he said.

Scully bounced between several positions before being invited to manage Chelseas & The Village Tea Room in Biltmore Village, first as a consultant, then as a permanent manager and chef. When the owner of Hathaway’s across the street decided to retire, Scully and Westmoreland bought the property. They were able to remodel it for under $70 thousand by doing most of the work themselves.   

“Coming to Asheville, being able to do quality work making craft food that’s real, and working with the producers of that food has been a real privilege for me, and I’m grateful,” Scully said.

Photograph by Mark-Ellis Bennett:

3663 – Katie Button, owner of Cúrate and Nightbell, with Joe Scully, co-owner of the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village and Chestnut downtown gave their presentation at Leadership Asheville Forum.