For nearly ten years, Mike Lata has been the chef of Charleston, South Carolina's FIG, a pioneer that's played a major part in making the city one of the most important contemporary dining destinations in the country. Lata's work there earned him a James Beard Award in 2009. In a few months, he'll be following up his farm-to-table flagship with The Ordinary, an oyster hall that will showcase the region's seafood and aim to apply the nose-to-tail spirit to products from the sea. That means finding underused species and collaborating with purveyors to try to bring something to the table you might not be able to find elsewhere. In the following interview, Lata talks about FIG, his plans for The Ordinary, and competitiveness within the local community of chefs.
For those that may not be familiar, can you run through the story of FIG?
FIG opened in April of 2003. I opened it with my business partner Adam Nemirow. Adam runs the front of the house. He's got his team of servers, managers, and cocktail specialists, and I focus on culinary development and all that stuff.
The reason behind FIG is that I had been doing — and let's call it what it is — farm-to-table cooking back in the 1990s in Atlanta. I was brought to Charleston by a restaurant, and I started working with Glenn Roberts, who now owns Anson Mills, on starting a farm-to-table program at the restaurant in Charleston. After a few years, I was ready and certainly ignorant enough to open the kind of restaurant I wanted, with a seasonal chalkboard with the best available products. All of this sounds kind of funny today, but back then it wasn't. Eventually, the restaurant caught on, and gradually, through lots of hard work, the restaurant got better and better. We turned into the restaurant in town that was a bit different from everybody else.
What did the Charleston dining scene look like at the time?
There were lots of lower end mom-and-pops, delis, chain restaurants, and high-end places. There wasn't much in the middle. There wasn't a community restaurant where people could come and break bread and eat food with integrity that wasn't going to be ridiculously expensive. We carried that torch for a long time, and as the country became more and more familiar with farm-to-table and that caught on, we worked to be competitive, unique, and an asset to our purveyors. We're feeding people with some wholesome, delicious food. It's not always low calorie, but it's a great product.
What would you say distinguishes your restaurants and your cooking, since farm-to-table and all those terms have gotten just a little tired.
This may come across the wrong way, but to answer this I need to compare us to other restaurants. We've developed a brand and developed a lot of goodwill in our community. Our community is big enough and diverse enough to the point that we don't really need to have a national presence to keep the restaurant thriving, although the tourism helps and we love it. When you walk into a restaurant, you have certain expectations: there might be someone in your party that is very picky, you might be on a first date — you have all this baggage, and what you're hoping for the best possible experience. Over the last ten years, we've honed our systems so that we are wildly consistent. If you're choosing between us and some other remarkable restaurants in this city, and you pick us, we are going to honor that decision and make you feel welcomed to be here. We are not going to put any pressure on you and we are going to work to give you the experience that you hope for.
When you make that connection with a customer and you see that working, you sort of stop worrying about being competitive as a chef or a restaurant or needing to stand out. We're about creating experiences. I think about a place like Gramercy Tavern that's been around for years and years and is about giving you an experience. You're going to see and enjoy the years of hard work that have gone into that operation. That's the sort of thing that I think most defines us.
You describe how you've been doing this for a decade, so do you feel in any way strange about the amount of national attention Husk and McCrady's have gotten in the past year
No, because it's a great story. At first, it felt a little weird, because that was basically the next level. We were working with farmers and fishermen, and then they basically bought a farm. We were buying pork from local producers and then they started raising pork. Sean kind of went to the next level with all that stuff. We didn't know how that would end up, but he has turned into such a great spokesperson for so many positive things about our city. He represents all the wonderful things of what a chef can be at a local and national level. If anything, I'm more confident in what we do now and very happy about their success. We've done quite well with press, but they've bested pretty much everyone in the Southeast in press. I'm proud of them, but we've gotten our share and feel we are an asset to our community.
Let's talk about the new project. First, how'd you come up with the name The Ordinary?
A lot of people would probably agree that naming a restaurant is an extremely painful process. Once you start thinking about words and start looking at all these Google documents and doing all this research, it gets crazy. But I was looking through this book, and I saw the word "ordinary" and learned that it's a type of restaurant that serves a fixed meal at a fixed price at a fixed time. It's old school England. That resonated with us and was enough. There will be some element that pays respects to the meaning of the word, but I'm not exactly sure what it's going to be.
We do have a brand of service and cuisine and we're definitely going to take that anywhere we go. What do we want to create over there? We've upgraded FIG several times over the years, but we've never been able to apply all we've learned to a new place and have it materialize — that's inspiring. The concept for a seafood restaurant comes from my growing passion for seafood cookery living in a coastal town and getting to know these purveyors. They are going to help create a restaurant that is unlike any other on the East Coast. The relationships and these stories combines are going to create a special experience.
What about the food?
The focal point will be on seafood from the region, especially some things which aren't given much attention yet, but there will be some diversity in region, as well. I want to sort of explore "merroir" and show how it tastes and indicates where you are. Also, it'll be nice to see those differences as we work up the East Coast. A lot of people are and have been doing excellent meat and charcuterie and nose-to-tail, but I want to apply that same approach to seafood cooking. We want to really dig in and explore species that people are rediscovering, and that's really interesting. I don't mean this with any disrespect at all, but a lot of seafood restaurants aren't culinarily driven. I mean that there is room to do something more creative and edgy in that oyster hall style.
We're going to explore the Japanese way of killing fish humanely, for example. There are lots of regulations now, so I tell my guys to bring me everything they can. We'll cook it, taste it, and if it's right, I'll work to create demand for new species. Rudderfish is one example, which over the last six or eight months has become popular.
What's the most recent projected opening date?
Our construction schedule has it finishing the first week of December. We're on time, but whether we decide to take an extra week or if the holiday schedule will affects things I'm not sure. We'd settle for the first week of January, though, since we want to make it right. Ideally, no later than that!