CHEF MIKE LATA KNOWS THE FOOD THAT BINDS A COMMUNITY STARTS WITH THE LOCAL PURVEYORS
The sun was barely peaking above the marsh grass as Mike Lata’s pickup truck appeared down the long dirt road. A small cloud of dust announced his approach, winding through fence gates and drainage ditches toward our cooking grounds along the bank of Bohicket Creek. Our cooking fire had been burning for a good half hour and was now a solid bed of coals just waiting for the meat and the talents of its deliveryman. From the back of the pickup we unloaded two whole “steamship rounds,” the entire rump and leg sections of a Jersey steer raised right where we stood on Rosebank Plantation. This was a Wadmalaw Island cow who’d gone by the name Link and who was soon to be the center of attention of Lowcountry Field Feast, a fundraising banquet benefitting local nonprofit Lowcountry Local First.
We’d begun in earnest the day before, offloading an assortment of cooking gear including cast iron pots and various fire tools and making final plans. We would roast Link’s haunches vertically, hanging from a piece of wire and spinning them around while they dripped into pans set below. The fact that none of us had ever attempted such a method with so much as a chicken let alone two fifty-pound hunks of dry-aged beef destined for two hundred paying guests? Well, that made Mike a little bit nervous, perhaps even more so than the three-foot copperhead that crawled across his foot as we cleared away the brush from our rudimentary fire pit. But it was an exciting plan, that felt all the more daring after Internet searches for “string roasting” yielded little beyond amateur fireplace cooking blogs and a descriptive passage from a work of Charles Dickens.
Locavorism And Farm-To-Table
Celeste Albers, the resident farmer who’d supplied Link the cow, brought by some useful cinder blocks and a couple of cold beers. We chatted while waiting for J.B. McCarty, a local championship barbeque guru in charge of Link’s brisket and ribs. Celeste told us that our fireplace, a simple stacked wall of timeworn bricks on the edge of a manicured lawn, was the last remnant of a slave cabin hearth. The simple brick construction took on additional meaning for us with that news, and like the meal being prepared, suddenly fit unquestionably into a larger context utterly at home beneath the twisted oaks of the Lowcountry. As we cooked and conversed into the evening and the next day, I began to understand that Mike Lata was at home as well, wholly in his element.
Mike’s not a Lowcountry native. He grew up in Massachusetts and worked in Charleston before moving to Atlanta and back again. He returned for the love of food—or more specifically of food and place. And under the thrall of Celeste, who effortlessly tied these elements together. Celeste’s face, like that of her husband, George, is lined with creases of toil, testament to a lifetime of hard work on shrimp boats and the black soils of Wadmalaw.
As much as anything, it was Celeste who inspired FIG, a restaurant so intertwined with trends of locavorism and farm-to-table that it’s easy to overlook the fact that Mike Lata all but invented the concept in Charleston. Before he and business partner Adam Nemirow opened the space in 2003, the idea of a kitchen dedicated to sourcing its ingredients from the surrounding landscape was as foreign as its West Coast progenitors. It is arguably the most celebrated and important restaurant to ever shape the cuisine of Charleston, giving rise to perennial local favorites EVO Pizza and The Glass Onion (both begun by former FIG employees) and providing broader influence upon every local chef who followed. In many ways, Charleston should credit Lata with the turn toward a truly Southern terrior, in ingredient as much as recipe, and the attendant fame that followed. And he credits Celeste with showing him the way a farmer and chef could work together, a whole effort transcending the individual parts.
An Interdependent Community
The backbone of that concept is the network of local purveyors, and there is no one that Mike Lata holds in higher esteem. “Most of our producers,” he says, “would say that we support them as much as they support us,” a concept based on the interdependence of community. For the folks at FIG, the truck that comes to the back door is an extension of family, and they are treated as such.
As Link the cow approached a burnished crackling brown over the fire, I learned from Mike that not only is he enamored by the products of our Lowcountry grounds, he is especially inspired these days by the fruits of the sea. His new restaurant, The Ordinary, could be called an oyster hall, if that’s not too casual a term to apply to such a disciplined enterprise. “I spent years scraping the town for secret sources of local provisions—and much of that was seafood,” Mike told me as we continued to prep and monitor the feast. “I started working with Mike Marhefka [a celebrated local fisherman] and Kimberly Carroll,” who raises local crabs. His demeanor straightened as he stared hard across the table. “She gets up every three hours all night long during the soft shell season to get them just right. Do you understand what kind of dedication that is?” He went back to slicing carrots. “Most of all, seafood is the last frontier. It’s all wild, foraged—these people are foragers of the sea. And there’s not much other wild food out there. Almost all countries have coastlines, and those create cuisines based on that relationship with the wilderness of the ocean.”
Straight From The Water
As much as anything, this is what drives The Ordinary. “What can a seafood restaurant be to Charleston?” he asked. “Because there is no comparison between oysters straight from the water and oysters shipped and stored.” He pointed toward Bohicket Creek. “You’ve eaten an oyster straight from the water—it’s not the same. So why is no one in Charleston paying attention to that? We need to raise the bar.” So just as he did with FIG, Mike Lata has set out to redefine the cuisine of Charleston in a way that he considers necessary and important, the collection of purveyors “scraped together” over so many years now coalesced into a new family of mutual interests.
So The Ordinary is anything but routine. The kitchen breaks down whole fish that are purchased before Marhefka’s launch even makes landfall. Much of what they serve was previously unknown to even the best chefs in the community. Several years ago, Mike began using the then underutilized triggerfish, and that concept of sourcing the fringe of the catch has delivered additional finds. Butterfish, rudderfish, and porgies populate the menu in season, and little goes to waste. There are crunchy fried shrimp heads at the bar, and grouper cheeks and fish “chops” (bone-in) dot the menu. Sometimes there’s a rib cage fried so crisply it shatters delightfully between one’s teeth, and the stew is made of fish heads, of course.
“I always thought that seafood lent itself well to my particular talents,” Lata told me. But more than that, it has become the central target of his impressive focus. He continually examines and refines all aspects of a process, and he prepares a particular dish as a fluid progression from the initial outlay of creativity and inspiration to the grit of portioning, inventory control, and the logistics of handling and preparation. “I think that many young chefs are often attracted to novelty, to things pushed in the media,” he worries. “But without building strong foundations, success is often temporary. They get attention but fall into a trap. A little success pulls them onto the road for appearances, and that’s all a big party—fun for sure but not a way to find lasting success.”
Sharing The Gift of Success
Mike focuses on the details, enslaving himself to consistency. The message, and the lesson, is one of sober endurance. While many chefs ply a road toward media adulation and pop stardom, Lata prefers a different measure of success. His focus remains food and the business of providing it to the community he calls home. For a chef this passionate, cooking is merely a gift, one to be shared.
We served the entire carcass of Link to the banqueteers of LLF Field Feast with the help of an entirely volunteer FIG crew. From the servers who have become such familiar faces over years of dining there to the bartenders led by Brooks Reitz. “It’s how we give back,” one of them shot to me across the plating table. Celeste was there too with a heartfelt speech about the importance of local support. When Mike was introduced it was as the night’s chef but also as a community leader, a businessman whose efforts to cultivate good food have left behind connections between people that persist even in his absence. There were diners who knew the purveyors through the menu at FIG and other chefs eager to tap into this local community of resources.
I asked how he kept from being seduced by the spotlight. “Why not chase the national press and awards and attention?” I suggested. His answer wove through his keen interest in golf and the joy of time spent with his fiancée, Emilee, and their young son, Henry—and then he stopped suddenly and took a swig of beer. “Do you realize that we just cooked a whole calf born and raised on this piece of land in a fireplace that once warmed the food of plantation slaves?” He let that sink in a bit and then finished the thought. “I run a business, and that business provides for not only my family but all of the employees and purveyors who support it. They support us and we them.” That seems the perfect definition of community. Mike Lata’s community is undoubtedly Charleston.