3/15/2013 01:41:00 PM

The Ordinary's Mike Lata on Charleston's Food Evolution

Photo by Gately Williams
Last week we explored some of the most promising food cities in the U.S. that may not be on your culinary radar. Of them all, Charleston is exceptionally poised to be the next heavy-hitting food town and with the Charleston Wine & Food Festival going down earlier this month, the amount of big league talent in town has never been more visible. One of the hottest chefs around is James Beard winner Mike Lata, chef/owner of FIG and the two-month-old seafood shrine The Ordinary. Lata isn't a native, in fact he hails from New England and has cooked in kitchens in France, Atlanta, Boston and New Orleans but has lived and worked in Charleston for the last 15 years. We spoke to Lata recently about Charleston's culinary evolution and how seafood may be the new charcuterie/nose-to-tail trend of the future. Check out our chat with him below.

Zagat: How has the food scene evolved in your 15 years in Charleston?

ML: 15 years ago, there were "A" markets like NYC, Boston, maybe Philly, Chicago and San Francisco, you know, where there was “big talent.” They were pretty much exclusive to finding things that were considered to be “progressive” or using progressive techniques. Everything outside of those big cities was left totally in the dust. And I think we’ve seen in the last five or six years with all the attention that food and chefs get and with the internet, a lot of these areas are starting to pick up. What jump-started Charleston is that we have a very savvy clientele both locally and the tourist clientele that comes in from wherever - their tastes were a little more sophisticated and that allowed us to branch out. Couple that with the resources that we have with the seafood plus we have a really long growing season so we’re able to have fresh produce all year long. 

As the whole country was ready to explode, Charleston had the biggest engine, the most horsepower and the ability to capitalize almost immediately. So I think it was very easy to provide an authentic experience with what we can find and procure and the relationship we have with the proximity to the farm and the ocean. We were poised for it to happen almost immediately. 15 years ago when I got here, there wasn’t a local food movement at all. And even in a coastal town it was very much farm-raised salmon, tuna from anywhere in the world, and maybe the occasional grouper or snapper that came from these waters. But really back then it  wasn’t about cooking local it was kind of a pretty prescribed experience that you’d get from a fine dining restaurant - filet mignon, caesar salad, crab cakes. But now it’s just completely different.

Zagat: Besides your own work obviously, who are the most important/influential chefs and restaurants right now?

ML: How much room do you have? You’ve got chefs like Craig Deihl at Cypress, Sean Brock at Husk, you’ve got Josh Keeler at Two Boroughs Larder that is making a lot of noise. Kevin Johnson at The Grocery, Jeremiah Bacon at The Macintosh. And then you have the small offshoots like Butcher and Bee, a funky, progressive kind of sandwich shop that’s a lot more than just that. You’ve got Robert Stehling at Hominy Grill.  I think if you group all of these chefs together and look at what they’ve done it’s pretty amazing. You’ve got three Beard award winners and half a dozen semi-finalists. And they’re absolutely world class cooks and chefs in a very small proximity. It’s like a little baby Manhattan but you can walk from the UWS down to the Financial District in 15 minutes. And we’re all kind of pushed together on this little peninsula. 

Zagat: I know chefs hate talking about trends. And at this point the whole local seasonal thing isn’t a trend, it’s the status quo. But would you say there are things going on in Charleston right now that are unique to the area?

ML: You hit the nail on the head -  [the local seasonal thing] - that’s just the way things are done now. If you want to put an interesting perspective, 15 years ago when I started to cook, none of this is happening and I was a product of my environment until I was forced to make a change for my own professional direction. I took a path less traveled by cooking local, I believed that was the way of the future and now the kids cooking with me at my restaurants, that’s all they know. As far as they’re concerned, the sky’s the limit on what you can find, what you can forage for, coax from the fisherman, farmers. What’s become commonplace is this really healthy perspective that there are no limits to what you can and how deep you can dig. Because it’s lasted even a generation of cooks now, I think that’s it has totally cemented that there’s all these kids learning to cook this way and they’re going to do it even better than we did. That’s an ongoing movement that will continue to provide interesting results with all kinds of areas in the culinary field from historical cooking to experimental.

I think from a consumer standpoint, when you talk about trends, I think there’s a seesaw. So I think when things got real molecular, there was this that one camp that couldn’t get enough of it and that’s all the press wrote about and the gut reaction from the rest of us was - let’s go the other way, and let’s just do good cooking. And I think that the molecular aspect  - now that was a trend -  but what came from that was a lot of progressive thinking and techniques that did trickle down to all of us. We all have circulators now, some of us but not really me, use liquid nitrogen - it does have its place in the kitchen. Definitely not a must but in commercial applications that aspect of that trend the definitely helped. 

Zagat: What made you want to open a seafood restaurant?

ML: Why I think we wanted to open a seafood restaurant was that there weren’t a lot of people applying the same kind of energy to seafood as there were to charcuterie and whole animal programs. 

That became a very big thing that lasted a while and is still going on. A lot of chefs hang their hats on being able to take down a whole animal and consider that their identity. Consumers can only handle so much of that. How much pig fat can you eat? In an increasingly health-conscious town and dining community like Charleston with so many allergies and what not, I think that we’re pushing to cooking more wholesome food, and not lacking butter and things that make restaurant food a little different from food at home. Wholesome food, great sourcing, lighter food but things that make you feel better when you eat it. When the diners leave they feel satisfied and possibly invigorated that they had a really nice meal and don’t need to be rolled out in a wheelbarrow from consuming big portions of protein and pig fat. 

Zagat: Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

ML: No not at all. I think a lot of chefs for whatever reason have to kind of “strike while the iron is hot.” Our equation has been slow and steady, it’s been let’s create a concept and create a place where we can get better every day and try to take it day by day and when the opportunity arises to do something new that’s interesting and fun then I would take a look at it. 

I wouldn’t take a fish shack on the beach though off my radar - that would be a nice respite from what we do every day, to do something very simple. We’d like to do offshoots of The Ordinary in a small oyster bar setting but that’s yet to be determined.

1 comment :

  1. My wife and I are really looking forward to trying out The Ordinary in April! We know it will be just as delicious, if not more, as FIG. The press surrounding The Ordinary and Mike Lata has been exciting to watch. However, you do have to wonder about a guy who doesn't give any credit to his partner or any of the staff at The Ordinary. We all know he is a master at his craft, but someone should tell him that a little bit of humility can go along way.