Kevin Butler

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurant: Devotay (Iowa City)

Experience: Amelie’s (Charlotte, North Carolina)

Chef Kevin Butler’s visceral entry into the culinary world began in a meat locker next door to his childhood home in the small town of Durant, Iowa. There he cleaned butcher saws, grinders and knives after school—the first in a series of odd jobs that would ultimately lead to his career as a chef at the Iowa City Spanish restaurant Devotay. There, his mastery of crusty paellas and aioli-swiped tortillas earned him a nomination for Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef Midwest 2012. Later that year, Butler left Devotay to hone his baking skills in North Carolina at Amelie’s—the French bakery responsible for some of the on-screen treats in The Hunger Games. Here, Butler discusses survival skills, liquid smoke and Kentucky ham.

What dish are you most famous for?
The Spanish paella that I learned how to make at Devotay. I infuse the rice with saffron and I like to use a variety of proteins: spicy chorizo, squid, shrimp, mussels. I’d often use chicken, too, because good poultry was widely available in the Midwest.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Sauces, by James Peterson, which is all about classical and contemporary sauce making.

What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Garlic, because it’s so versatile. It can be really spicy and hot, or it can be cooked and mild. More and more people are avoiding gluten these days, so at Devotay we would also use garlic to thicken sauces.

Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
I always have a bottle of liquid hickory smoke in my pantry. I use it in everything: in pickled peppers, in barbecue sauce, on roasts and in marinades. It also allows you to add smoke to unexpected things, like crème brûlée, ice cream, flourless chocolate torte or caramel.

What is your favorite kitchen tool?
A Gethmann Knife Works 10-inch chef’s knife. This guy hand-makes knives of all sizes and shapes and names them after family members. Mine is the “mom” knife, and it has a nice wooden handle that fits my hand really well. It’s a $50 knife, so if you drop it you don’t feel like you’re out a few hundred bucks.

If you could open a dream project, what would it be?
A restaurant on a farm in the Southeast, so I could go to the coast and get fish easily, but still have enough pasture to raise goats, cows and pigs. We’d only be open one night a week and the menu would depend on what was coming up in the garden and what animals were ready to harvest.

If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
A lot of seeds to grow food. I’d also bring salt, and use it to cure whatever meats I found along the way. Oil would also be good to help prevent spoilage—canola would be perfect to coat food and keep oxygen from getting in there. And I’m not very good at making fire, so I would bring a Bic lighter.

What’s your favorite beer?
I’m from Iowa so I mostly drink crappy cans, but there is a brewery there called Toppling Goliath that makes a very in-your-face IPA called Golden Nugget. I really enjoy it.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I eat a slice of Kentucky Legend ham every time I open the refrigerator. It’s just a really nice cured ham that toes that line between smoky and sweet. I have a dog and she and I share slices all day long.

Do you have a favorite iPhone app?
The Professional Chef by the Culinary Institute of America. It’s 50 bucks, but it’s worth it. It has so many hours of videos, demos and resources—it’s such a useful app.