By ALEX PODLOGAR
Photos by John Gessner
MOLLY MCKENZIE IS in her element.
There are four forks at the place setting, and should someone feel overwhelmed by the proper time to use which utensil, McKenzie could probably set them at ease.
She peruses the menu in front of her. It’s eclectic, and the Sunburst Trout, thinly sliced but served raw, precedes the grilled squid dish of the second course. Before McKenzie can get to the dark chocolate custard with orange sorbet, she’ll dine on the rabbit braised with pimenton, garlic and white wine served as the main course. If her brow furrows or the corners of her mouth crease to betray any false sense of confidence, it is not noticeable. She knows to keep an open mind.
McKenzie is so comfortable in the fine dining ambiance of The Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst the server pours her a glass of wine as she settles into her chair. The wine, a Finca Montepedroso Verdejo from 2014, is described as “velvety with excellent volume, structure, and acidity, ending in a long and spirited finish.”
Molly is 11 years old.
THE TABLE OF 10, including Molly’s mother Fiona McKenzie, shares a good laugh at the moment. Consider the ice well broken. Quickly, the wine is removed from Molly’s setting and another glass is placed on the table. It too is a wine glass, but this time, it’s filled with orange juice.
Molly is a quiet little girl of 11, although she’ll tell you she’s almost 12. Her chestnut-colored hair is cropped at the shoulders, and on this night, the light makeup doesn’t quite hide the freckles underneath. She’s soft-spoken and she breaks into an effervescent smile when nervous, but she knows what she’s talking about. Her vocabulary, especially in this arena, can match those who are speaking at the front of the room.
That includes Chef Katie Button. The owner and executive chef of Asheville hot spots Curate and Nightbell, Button is the featured chef at Pinehurst’s Chef & Maker weekend event. The Saturday night Chef Dinner is the highlight of the weekend, and Button is the main attraction. The 110 people in the room are here to experience Button’s considerable talent, which is fully on display on the dishes placed in front of them.
Molly is among the most interested. She’s been to Curate. She’s reading Button’s cookbook. And she’s been cooking since she was 2.
“I want to be a chef,” Molly says.
KATIE BUTTON HAD NO SUCH CLARITY at 11. Growing up in New Jersey, Button was a serious student. She studied at Cornell and went on to earn a master’s degree in biomedical engineering before entering a PhD program.
But while her mind might have been focused on neuroscience, Button finally discovered her heart was in the kitchen, not the lab.
“I basically had no idea what I wanted to do,” Button says. “When you graduate from college (with a) chemical engineering degree, and you don’t know why you got that degree in the first place, and you’re totally lost and confused, what do you do? You just keep studying, because you can’t get a job and you interview terribly. So that’s what I did. I just kept studying. But I was cooking the entire time.”
A prestigious internship at Spain’s famous El Bulli eventually followed, and both Curate and Nightbell have garnered national attention, leading Button to a James Beard Award nomination, being named as one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2015 and television appearances.
Fiona McKenzie’s own culinary path has taken her from her native Australia, though Europe, across the United States and eventually to nearby Sandhills Community College, where she is an associate professor and department head of the school’s Culinary and Pastry Arts program.
Whenever the family travels, Fiona wants to experience the culture of the place. For the McKenzies, that includes food. A weekend trip to Asheville a year ago led them to try Curate, and Molly was hooked.
“Curate was super good,” Molly says. “I especially liked the croquettes.”
THE ORGANIZED CHAOS OF A KITCHEN tasked with serving four courses to 110 people is perhaps best left behind the kitchen’s Out door. While guests dine and the room’s volume crescendos with each wine tasting, Button and the Pinehurst culinary staff keep things moving.
Button takes a break from behind closed doors to emerge into The Carolina’s Grand Ballroom and introduce each course, but these are to be the extent of her appearances for the evening. Not that they are wasted appearances. Button speaks in paragraphs, and her allusion to the fresh trout as “happy fish” draws hearty laughs from an audience that feels no divide from the acclaimed chef in its presence.
The dessert course – formally named Crujiente de Chocolate y Kikos – signals the coming end of the evening. Waiting for her plate, Molly leafs through Button’s cookbook, Curate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen. There’s a blur of commotion at the chef’s door, and again Button appears. Whizzing to the right and between two tables, Button makes a beeline for Molly’s chair.
The little girl’s cheeks blush red, but the smile breaks wide. She beams. She glows. She moves to the edge of her chair. Her eyes sparkle even in the dimly lit ballroom. There’s a reason why.
“I almost started crying,” Molly says. “My mom and I had a little geek-out moment.”
“Molly looked a little nervous when I came out, but I think I was more nervous than she was,” Button says. “You have this wonderful little girl who has these huge expectations, and you want to make sure you don’t dash those expectations.”
Button tells Molly she’s glad the little girl is there, that it’s cool she’s there and especially great that her mom brought her to the dinner. Button wishes she could see that happen more often, that parents would bring their children to these kinds of events instead of opting for the babysitter.
“I don’t know why she would be nervous,” Molly says. “I’m just a little girl.”
Button asks Molly about the menu.
“Molly was obviously clearly into food, and the food I served that night wasn’t exactly easy dishes for a kid,” Button says. “It was pretty adventurous – we had raw trout, we had a squid dish, rabbit – but it was inspiring to see how much she was able to enjoy it.”
“The squid was my favorite, my absolute favorite,” Molly says. “Mom says to always keep an open mind.”
Button crouches down to get to Molly’s level in the chair. The two talk. They pose for pictures. Button looks through the book with Molly and signs it. The wine glass is refilled with OJ.
“(Chef Button) was just delightful,” Fiona says. “She didn’t have to come out. But she was so charming, and it was so kind and gracious of her to make a personal connection with Molly. It was a human touch that Molly will never forget.”
“Lots of times I’ll do events, and the food is great and you have all kinds of adults come up and tell you how wonderful it was and give these wonderful compliments and say these flattering things,” Button says. “And that means so much to me; I love making people happy through food.
“But to see that come from a little girl who still has her entire life ahead of her, who still has so much time to figure what she wants to do and what kind of person she wants to be – feeling like I’m a positive influence for her and for her mother to feel that I’m a positive influence for her, that’s the absolute best compliment I could ever get.”
Rather than the inside of the cover, Button finds a page deeper into the cookbook to sign for Molly. It feels more personal. And the chef who speaks so eloquently about food and the relationships it can create and inspire boils her career, her philosophy, her perspective – all of which this singular moment could serve as the perfect metaphor – down to a simple three-word inscription:
“Cook your passion.”
MOLLY TAKES THE BOOK TO SCHOOL at New Century Middle the next day. Every chance she gets, she looks through it again as the whims of other 6th-graders whirl around her. She’s devouring it, but holding it carefully in her hands. No doubt, every once in a while, perhaps to make sure it’s still there, she turns to the page Button signed.
“Cook your passion.”
“I’m thinking about what I’m going to make first,” Molly says.