Chef Mike Lata has undeniably become one of the South’s most talented and recognizable chefs over the last decade. His two restaurants FIG and The Ordinary are among Charleston’s best, and trying to secure a reservation at either place oftentimes takes weeks. Aside from the accolades (and there are hundreds of them), and the awards, including Mike’s win of the James Beard Foundation: Best Chef Southeast award in 2009, there is something else this Massachusetts native has done impressively well. During his years in the industry, he has fostered a small army of extremely talented culinary protégés that have gone on to do some pretty impressive things.
When asked who his mentors were, Mike Lata surprisingly told us he didn’t really have one. He did not have the typical chef upbringing, i.e. having a mother or grandmother who loved to cook and inspired him with lifelong family recipes. There was also not a direct path to and from culinary school. Instead he heard Julia Child speak while in college and decided that he wanted to cook. He traveled around a good bit and then landed jobs in places like Boston, Martha’s Vineyard and New Orleans before eventually heading to Atlanta.
It was during his time in Atlanta where he learned by extreme observation and trial by error. He was lucky enough to be in a place where he witnessed many of the key elements of what it takes to run a good kitchen. Things like order, structure, and discipline. He also learned a lot about what not to do as a restaurant owner and vowed not to make similar mistakes. Mike’s love for the land really blossomed while in Atlanta and he was active in the Georgia Organic Grower’s Association among things.
When asked about being a mentor to his chefs and cooks, he doesn’t think he was particularly that good of one. Clearly he is wrong. Each of the chefs we profiled have similar things to say and it is obvious that Mike’s influence is significant to the chefs they are today. His cooking philosophies have now been imprinted and instilled in all of these chefs and each and every one of them said the same things over and over:
• Simplicity often times makes for the best dishes
• Always be better than the competition
• Be resourceful and relentless
• Most importantly, cook directly from the market, the farms and the waters that surround you
They also all agree that Mike is extremely hard working and should be proud of how far he has come.
We caught up with a handful of chefs that have worked under Lata, and learned what they had to say about his influence on them. Here is a snippet of some of the influences Mike Lata has had to the culinary landscape in Charleston and beyond.