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Culinary Philosophy from Charleston Chef Mike Lata

The Harper Way July 22, 2014 | By Andrew Harper Staff

Chef Mike LataNew Englander Mike Lata took an “easy little road” from the Boston area to his current home in Charleston, where he serves as chef and co-owner of FIG and The Ordinary. After stints in Martha’s Vineyard and New Orleans, Lata spent five years in Atlanta before he was recruited to work in Charleston in 1998. The James Beard Award winner “fell in love with the South, and fell in love with eating Christmas dinner in shorts and a T-shirt.” Lata explains that he “was doing farm-to-table cooking back in the nineties in Atlanta when nobody was doing it.” The chef went off on his own after successfully implementing a local-food program at acclaimed Charleston restaurant Anson. Lata worked a series of odd jobs before finding additional backers to assist in creating his own restaurant concept. Since opening FIG in 2003 and The Ordinary in 2012, the chef and his restaurants alike have received (and continue to receive) praise from sources like The New York Times, FOOD & WINE and Southern Living.

The chef took the time to talk and philosophize about Charleston, local foodways and the small American food cities that you may be missing right now. Enjoy the following interview from the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival with an Andrew Harper staff member.

Mike Lata's demonstration at the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival Andrew Harper staff

Interview with Mike Lata

Andrew Harper Staff (AHS): Your restaurants are both located in Charleston, but you hail from New England. Flavor-wise, I know that you add Old Bay to your Saltine crackers at The Ordinary. Do you bring any other New England flair to your food in Charleston?

Injecting some of New England felt very personal to me, and I thought it was important. I think it is important.

Mike Lata: I feel like I started cooking locally a long time ago. That’s all that I’ve known; that’s all that I’ve done. So, organically, the food that I create becomes regional because I’m just buying from farmers and am inspired by their foodways. I’ve never been Southern, my food has never been Southern – although we do Southern things. It’s the same philosophy as French-Mediterranean and Spanish-Mediterranean cooking, which is strikingly similar to the cooking that we have in the South. Long-cooked greens, a little bit of protein, a lot of other stuff, like rice. You know, like gumbos and jambalaya and a lot of the other rice dishes and things like that. Just trying to stretch the protein like peasant food in Italy – the pasta makes a little bit of protein go a long way. The food here is kind of the same thing.

To answer your question (Laughs), I’ve been in the South, cooking the food of the South for so long that it felt like I needed to put a little bit of myself and where I am from into my food. So, when we opened The Ordinary, I started putting lobster on the menu because it’s sustainably harvested, it’s easy to get, and, when you have a seafood restaurant, it’s hard to buy just local because you’ll have no local stuff at some parts of the year. Then I did a lobster roll and a New England-style clam chowder. I started layering all these things that I grew up with on the menu at a time when the South was being hailed as the new culinary Mecca of the United States. Injecting some New England felt very personal to me, and I thought it was important. I think it is important.

AHS: So, outside of Charleston and New Orleans, what’s your favorite food city?

ML: You know, I went to Portland recently. People compare Charleston to Portland, maybe because of the size and the fact that it was a late-bloomer. There are a lot of grassroots things happening in both cities. I spent a couple of days in Portland and I found it to be pretty awesome and exciting.

I don’t have any “big cities.” I like going to New York, I like eating in New York, and there’s a lot to glean from those experiences and a lot to enjoy. But what really strikes me, what really pulls my heartstrings, is going to communities that are a little bit smaller, where all the restaurants are buying from the people around them. Then, like Charleston and Portland, when you go into those towns, you can taste the city everywhere. As opposed to New York, where some guy’s thing might be flying in langoustines from Australia, some guy’s thing might be farm-to-table, some guy’s thing might be food with super ethnically infused flavors – you’ve got a much larger palette in New York but less focus.

In these smaller towns, they tend to be more focused. When you go to Italy, you go to Rome, you’re like “Oh, yeah, this is great.” You taste the food, and you’re like, “Well, I like it.” Then, you go to Montepulciano. You spend two days there and you eat at the restaurants there and you leave and you go, “I know what the food in Montepulciano tastes like, and I know what the food tastes like in each restaurant that I went to in Rome, but they weren’t the same.” Because they’re importing their stuff; the food’s coming in from everywhere to support that dynamic metropolis. In the smaller little villages, they’re growing and raising and producing and cooking their food that is from there. And you taste that. In Charleston, you have that, and in Portland. You have that a little bit in Boston, too. Portland, Maine, as well. So, those are my favorites.

AHS: With these favorite destinations in mind, where will your next vacation take you?

ML: As much as I say that I love the mountains – and I do – I live at the beach and it seems like vacations at the beach...There’s something about it where all the stress goes away immediately. When you’re in the beach, on the beach, near the beach, and, although we live on the beach in Charleston and work and raise families, etcetera, that overtone is there. When we have our days off and we go to our beach, or we travel just a little bit north or south to Wilmington or Savannah or Beaufort, there’s something relaxed about being by the ocean. It is certainly the most efficient way to strip stress off of you. I love the mountains, and I love lake houses, and I feel the same way there, but there’s something about it. I love going to the Caribbean. I love going to any beach area.

AHS: “The most efficient way to strip stress off of you.” I’m going to use that. (Laughs) Okay, so, you’re a Charleston evangelist. Outside of your own restaurants, where would you tell people to go? Or are you not giving away any local secrets?

ML: I’m happy to spread the love! Restaurants with personality, in my mind, are really what stands out. There are bandwagons, there are formulas, but, at the end of the day, true expression is what we like to see the most. There’s a restaurant called Butcher & Bee. It’s a sandwich shop. It’s quirky. It’s not perfect, but it’s so good. And it’s different. They’re doing something – it’s a sandwich shop, period – but they do pop-ups. The space is always interesting from a culinary standpoint. People come through to cook. They cook with fishermen. They do really interesting things other than just make really good sandwiches. So, I like that.

You leave Charleston knowing why the food in Charleston is so good.

AHS: Anything else you’d like to add? Maybe a “Come visit Charleston” ad?

ML: When you come to the best restaurants in our city, and you have two to three days to hit five restaurants, and you do your research or whatever – and, of course, FIG and The Ordinary should be on there (Laughs). . . But, say this woman wants to become a crabber. She comes with her first catch to the restaurant and says to us, “This is my first time doing this. Are you interested?” And, if it’s good, we (a) coach her and (b) help her by introducing her to our peers. So, the best purveyors get passed around to the best chefs and restaurants. When you go to each one, you get to see the cuisine through the interpretive hands of all the different chefs using the same ingredients. You leave Charleston knowing why the food in Charleston is so good.

Enjoy other posts from our Summer Food and Drink Series.

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