Mike Lata: Charleston's Most Influential Chef? (Slideshow)
September 25, 2013
Chef Lata has served as a mentor to some of the city's best chefs
Andy Henderson, soon to open Edmund’s Oast
Andy Henderson credits his culinary style directly to the years he spent under Mike Lata’s wing. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of Charleston, he landed a job at FIG and worked there for the four years leading up to Mike’s James Beard Award win. It was during this time he learned what has become a norm for him and the kitchens he leads. Practices like “expecting perfection and settling for nothing less”, simple is best, every good dish starts with proper technique, andfresh is the only way,” he said. Andy’s best example? “Take the tartare dish that has 12 ingredients and each is assembled and seasoned independently,” he said. “Combined together, the final product ends up tasting so delicious because each step was done perfectly. That is magic and that is what Mike teaches you.” Andy recommends that any young chef start their career with someone like Mike, who worked side-by-side with Andy and taught him everything he knew. Andy has enjoyed seeing Mike continue to grow and succeed over the years and hopes he can be half the chef that Mike has become.
Andy’s favorite dish at FIG: Anything with Triggerfish or Softshell Crab
Chris Stewart, The Glass Onion
For Chris Stewart, it was easy to pinpoint the biggest impact from working with Mike Lata. “He was the first chef that believed in me,” he told us. To this day, Chris is amazed by how trusting Mike was of him. “He let me butcher animals, order the food, etc.,” he said. “He really gave me the go ahead to do it all.” Chris was in good company while there—Matt McIntosh, Glenn Christianson and Ricky Hacker all working side by side. It was a powerhouse of future great chefs. Chris greatly appreciates Mike’s trust and support as a young chef, and he admired his focus on sourcing high quality ingredients. Everything was cooked with honor at FIG and the product was the shining star on the menu. “Someone once told me a good cook can make shoes taste good, but who wants to cook shoes? I want to cook good food,” Chris added. And that he did and still does today. At The Glass Onion, Chris was one of the first in town to do black board specials; now you see them everywhere. He also took a risk with doing the first all-natural, no hormone menu—another trend you now see in several places. Chris was able to apply those practices and beliefs that Mike instilled in him and take them to do things that were cutting edge but simple in approach.
Chris’ favorite dish at FIG: Fish (he started out as poissonnier at FIG), but it was hard to pick one thing.
Mike’s favorite dish at the Glass Onion: Boudin balls
Glenn Christianson, Heart Woodfire Kitchen
Glenn Christianson was one of Mike Lata’s original line cooks at FIG when it first opened and in essence has seen it all. The restaurant was still under construction, and he learned what it took to build a place from scratch and do it on a limited budget. At the time it opened, FIG was a pioneer and one of the only places serving fresh-from-the-farm food. Now this style of cuisine is not only found on seemingly every block, it is almost a requirement for all good restaurants. Glenn took the experiences he gained at FIG from opening a place from scratch, to his connection to the farmers, and applied it into almost every aspect of his new restaurant Heart Woodfire Kitchen. “The star is the ingredient at a good restaurant, not the chef. That is what I learned from Mike,” Glenn told us. He also credits Mike with more than inspiration for Heart, he also indirectly influenced his move to California. “Mike gave me a cookbook from Zuni Café to look at and after I got that book, I wanted to move to California.” It’s there he met his life and business partner RaeLynn Vasquez.
Glenn’s favorite dish at Heart: Tartare
Mike’s favorite dish at Heart: Crème Mustard Greens
Matt McIntosh, EVO
Matt McIntosh might have only worked for Mike Lata for only a few months and in a part-time role, but the impact that working at FIG had on him was significant. First, the job gave him a chance to do something other than bake bread, a job he held at Normandy Farms when he was not at the restaurant. Then he was around an awesome kitchen team and a great leader. Matt learned what it took to do things on a shoestring and watched how hard Mike and the team worked to make it happen. “Everyone there was so passionate, it was hard not to be completely inspired,” he told us. Matt also met his future business partner, Ricky Hacker, and the two joined together to open EVO, one of the city’s top casual dining establishments. He along with his wife, Mike Lata, Adam Nemirow (Mike’s business partner), and Celeste Albers founded Slow Food Charleston, which was the first organization in the area really focusing on supporting the buy local movement. He continues to apply these beliefs and practices to what he does today at his small restaurant and appreciates the knowledge he acquired on how to do things on limited resources—but always doing them well.
Matt’s favorite dish at FIG: Chicken Liver Pate or the Fish Stew
RaeLynn Vasquez, Heart Woodfire Kitchen
After RaeLynn Vasquez met future business and life partner Glenn Christianson in California, the pair moved across country and landed in Charleston. Glenn, having previous experience at FIG, encouraged RaeLynn to apply for a position. She started out staging a few times and then was hired to work there full time. It was there that RaeLynn learned that no matter how busy you were, that every dish should be flawless. She admired Mike Lata’s disciplined approach and appreciated his high expectations for his team. “Consistency in that level is hard to manage but Mike built a solid culinary program and every dish we did was expected to be perfect and precise,” she told us. RaeLynn drew inspiration from Mike’s love for ingredients when concepting her restaurant Heart Woodfire Kitchen and learned to focus on fresh and local as much as you can. Looking back on her time at FIG, she appreciated all of the time Mike spent teaching her; showing her the proper ways to do things. “He shared recipes and was very forthcoming with knowledge. You rarely find chefs that take so much time and mentor so well, Mike is one of those rare gems,” she added.
Raylene’s favorite dish at FIG: Chicken Liver Pate, Tartare or the Farro Risotto
Ricky Hacker, EVO
A Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate, Ricky Hacker loved FIG at first bite. Once he found the place, he reached out to Mike Lata and staged for a few days before being offered a job. This was six months after FIG opened and he would then spend the next year and a half there. Mike not only became an incredible mentor, he was a great friend. “Mike treats people like he would want to be treated, and you never really felt like you were below him,” he told us. “He always made you feel great about what you were doing and only helped you get better at where you were with your skills. He valued the bare bones, almost cheap way things were done at FIG in the early days, because it helped him get through it with the opening of EVO with Matt McIntosh, a chef he met working the line at FIG. Matt and Ricky would talk about their long term vision and lucky for the two of them, it was one in the same. Ricky appreciates how hard working Mike and his partner Adam Nemirow were and still are today. “They made things happen from hard work instead of big money backers,” he said. Ricky loves heading back to FIG as he knows it is a guaranteed good meal. He also calls on Mike frequently for advice and feedback and appreciates knowing that he is not the only one that from time to time second guessing what they are doing.
Ricky’s favorite dish at FIG: Chicken Liver Pate, Beef Tartare and the Roasted Beets that made Mike famous.
Mike’s favorite dish at EVO: all the salads available and a pizza to share
Weston Fennell, Limehouse Produce
Not having the years of training and experience as others had, it was Weston Fennell’s tenacity that landed him a job at FIG. He desperately wanted to work for Mike Lata so he asked his farmer friends like Celeste Albers to put in a good word for him. Being persistent paid off and he became sous chef soon after Chris Stewart left to open The Glass Onion, a role he then coveted for over three years. Weston especially liked the culture established by Mike. “Everyone there took ownership and pride in their work and had major integrity for every dish they put out,” he told us. He learned through Mike how to teach and do so without yelling or demanding, but leading by example. “There were never any flying pots or stuff like that,” he added. He also appreciated the steps that were taken to ensure that every dish that left the kitchen was as perfect as it could be. Being a part of the FIG team for more than three years, he also met all the local farmers and can basically tell where any product now comes from, something extremely useful at his role at Limehouse Produce.
Weston’s favorite dish at FIG: Chicken Liver Pate and any perfectly cooked piece of fish
There are many other chefs who have been influenced by Lata, like Jeremy Fox, executive chef at Rustic Canyon in Calif., Taylor Garrigan, executive chef at Home Team BBQ, Courtney Tomer, chef at Home Team Kitchen, and John Amato, who owns The Foodie Truck in Charleston. Mike has also trained several female chefs who have gone on to do some cool things. People like Arienne (Air) Casebier, who is processing manager and chef for Clammer Dave. We also remember the day Brooks Reitz started working at FIG and eventually became general manager of The Ordinary. There are also his two current chefs de cuisines, Jason Stanhope and Geoff Rhyne, who have been longtime loyal staffers for Mike, and are well on their way to making huge names for themselves in Charleston and beyond.
Mike Lata has mentored and guided Charleston’s culinary development and growth over the years and was a big reason for it becoming one of the top cities in the world for food. It doesn’t get any better than that!