Mike Lata’s Fresh Culinary Philosophy

We’ve partnered with a host of talented bloggers from around the web to let you in on some of the stories behind the wide range of talent at this year’s festival. From profiles and interviews to recipes and previews, follow along for the inside track on all things AFWF.

Next in our series of dispatches, Tim McDiarmid (of San Antonio’s Tim The Girl) talks with chefs Mike Lata and Monica Pope about their fresh culinary philosophies. First up? She checks in with Mike, Chef/Partner of Charleston, SC’s FIG and The Ordinary.

Courtesy Charleston City Paper | Jonathan Boncek
Join Chef Mike Lata
4/26: Demo | Let’s Get Pickled!
4/26: Rock Your Taco
4/27: Panel | Sound Bites: Music & Cooking

Tim: When and why did you become passionate about using locally sourced ­ responsible ingredients/food?

Mike: I was promoted at a very young age as a Chef. I really didn’t have much of a repertoire or anything to fall back on so I felt like with local foods, when I found the freshest most beautiful products, I would have a fighting chance.The romantic part of it is I kind of stumbled into something very exciting at a very early time in my career, so all of my formative years were spent learning how to integrate local products. It’s the only way I know how to cook now.

Tim: Is there one event or moment that inspired/embraced the career path you are on now?

I started cooking when I was very young. I was always interested in being in the kitchen with grandma, learning. When I was in high school, culinary school was an option but I decided to follow another path – broadcast journalism. Two weeks into my first semester, Julia Childs was giving a lecture at the same time I was supposed to be in my class, Intro to Logic. I decided to ditch class and go see her. She captivated an audience of 300+ people for 2 ½ hours with Q&A.

The gist of what she expressed was how beautiful her life was, living it through food as it relates to people, culture and pleasure. I realized I should listen. This reignited my path to becoming a chef. When I walked out of that lecture it was the last time I set foot on that campus. I went back to Boston determined to be a chef.

Tim: What prompted Charleston?

I enjoyed the farmers market that had just started in Atlanta, an organic co­-op of 30 farms around the state. I visited the farms on my days off and became friends with the farmers. This became a big part of my identity. It was 1993/4, and there was no such thing as “farm to table.” Everyone was cooking with protein and sauce, and vegetables were an after thought.

A director of operations in Charleston recognized the need to put someone in his flagship restaurant to develop a farm to table, or a locally sourced program. He offered to pay me double what I was making in Atlanta, so at 25 years old I decided to take that deal!

Tim: So you like it there.

I didn’t at first, Atlanta was exciting and had a great music scene. When I came to Charleston, the food scene was very boring, at least through the lens of someone in their twenties. It took me four or five years to really appreciate the city. I opened FIG in 2003, and that was my first time having a real sense of community. I invested myself and my resources to open a restaurant, and the community embraced it. Roots started to sprout pretty quickly. Every year my fondness for the city grows exponentially. It’s a pretty amazing place.

Courtesy of Urban Food Life

Tim: What is your creative process when coming up with new dishes?

On the same lines of what inspired me as a young chef: find the best products and don’t mess it up. That is still my philosophy today, but of course, twenty years later, I do have a repertoire, a style. The food is still very simple. I get inspired by a cookbook, a dining experience, an ingredient that walks into the door, or a farmers dish that they have made for their family with their produce. Inspiration comes from all places.

Courtesy of Bon Appetit

Ultimately I look at the ingredients and the ingredients have to be represented. We have one central ingredient for each plate that the ideas are based around and we go from there. There is technique, but a top priority when coming up with dishes or ideas is that we want to you feel invigorated, happy, and not full. We want you to leave satisfied and feeling incredible. We do a good mix of portion size and freshness; we try to keep the acid levels playful and bright and uncomplicated. We try to give you a wholesome experience, a wholesome meal. We don’t want you to have to try to figure out what you are eating. We believe it should be about enjoying the company you’re keeping and the delicious food you’re eating while also being surprised by how well-balanced it all is.

Tim: How do you balance your career with your personal life?

There is a balance, it’s about stretching yourself thin, and it’s difficult. I have a 3-year-old son. I left work today because I had one window of opportunity to see him today and that was to get him from school. There were other things I could have done, but I am 41 and I am not going to NOT see my son.

Some things fall to the wayside and some projects take longer. To make a great cuisine, you have to be in the kitchen all the day. The only thing that stops you from doing it 24 hours is you have to sleep. I don’t feel like its a balance at all, it’s incredibly challenging. So I do a good job (as a father) four days in row but then I have to turn my back for a few days and focus on work. Everybody has to. You can’t try any harder. You have to put as much stock into being a good husband and father as to being a good chef and that’s a hard thing to do.

Tim: What would you like to see happen with food and restaurants in the future, and how would you like to be part of that?

The more independence we have, the better. I think as you get older you start to grow tired of trying to prove yourself to the world. Once you you feel you can stop worrying about the world collapsing around you, you don’t chase every opportunity and can start to really evaluate the way you spend your energy and time.

You can let go of things that don’t matter, focus on cooking, mentoring and being the best version of yourself. It seems a little bit lopsided that the better you get, the harder time you have to do the things that got you there. How do you turn that model upside and get back to simplicity of just waking up in the morning with a good focus on just a few things. Maybe that’s semi-­retirement but for me, it’s being able to think freely and focus on my work and cooking.

Tim: What are you most looking forward to about the Austin FOOD & WINE festival?

I am looking forward to getting to know Austin and its culinary community a lot better. I only have a little time to discover what is so great about Austin and I look forward to taking advantage of that. We are hopefully going to go upset the two-time taco champion, we are working hard.

Tim is a chef, writer & consultant transplanted to San Antonio from NYC.