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Ditch the Toque, Grab the Bike: Charleston, SC Chefs Who Love to Ride

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock
Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

On June 22, Bon Appetit’s Grub Crawl is heading to Charleston, SC, for hour upon hour of eating, drinking, and Southern hospitality. To give you a sense of what you’re in for, we’re presenting stories co-produced with Bon Appetit.

They are not technically a gang. They don’t have a special graffiti tag or handsign, but they do have cool rides, leather jackets, and a need for speed.

For four Charleston, SouthCarolina chefs: Mike Lata, Matt McIntosh, John Ondo, and Nico Romo, riding a Ducati motorcyle out of the kitchen is the perfect tonic to long days of ordering, prepping, managing, and hot nights on the line.

“When you are riding a motorcycle, your universe is very small. You have on your helmet, and you can’t hear much other than your breathing, so you have your eyes and the way the bike feels,” explains Lata, chef and partner of FIG and The Ordinary. “In my business, you’re micromanaging, macromanaging, and you rely on other people. But when you ride, you make the ride. And maybe everybody who rides says a version of this, but it’s true: it’s ultimately you and the machine.”

Lata sold a Harley-Davidson to start FIG, and when the restaurant eventually turned a profit, he purchased a Ducati. He’d tired of the Harley culture and was looking for something else. He found that something else in the Italian motorcycle, a machine he calls the most mechanical and graceful bike on the market.

“Mike Lata turned me onto Ducatis,” says Chef John Ondo of Lana Restaurant. “It was love at first sight and sound. I heard that open clutch, that rattle, and I thought, ooh, I have to have that.”

Ondo already was into riding, owning BMWs and a Triumph, but now he calls his bike his “Italian girlfriend.” And so does his wife.

Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock
Photo by Jennifer Hitchcock

The chefs at one time or another have all enjoyed a ride together, and they like to get out of town, well, fast. Some of their best rides have been to and through the North Carolina mountains, but for the most part, Sunday rides are the norm, enjoying country roads and marsh views out on Johns Island, the road to Edisto Island, or north to McClellanville. The goal is to ride, but there is a bit of socializing too.

“The camaraderie is similar to the kitchen,” says Matt McIntosh, chef of Extra Virgin Oven and its sister, EVO Craft Bakery. “I started with vintage Honda bikes, and as long as I’ve been riding–8 or 9 years–I try to ride at least once a week. It’s great when it works out and I get to ride with these guys.”

“I started riding when I turned 30,” says Nico Romo of Fish. “I thought I was a little less crazy so I would be a much better rider.” A quick pause. “That may be still a problem, but I am ignoring it,” he continues with a laugh. “It’s freedom. I call it a brain wash. You think about everything and nothing at the same time. You just look at the road and just focus on the road.”

Not everyone has to love motorcycle culture, but if time spent on the open road provides these talented chefs with the peace of mind to continue whipping up some the best food in The Holy City, then we’re on board with the bikes. Just grab us a helmet and be sure they are packing a picnic of their delicious cuisine for the ride.

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