Platelist: Chef Mike Lata

In chef Mike Lata's kitchen, Mother Nature - and her bounty - is in charge.

November 11, 2010, 8:03 AM

Dec. 7, 2010 — -- Chef Mike Lata may be the headliner at his restaurant, Fig, but his sous-chef, Mother Nature, rules the kitchen.

Each fall, winter, spring and summer, the menu at the Charleston, S.C., restaurant changes to reflect what's being pulled fresh from local soil, seas or pastures.

"I couldn't imagine being in this business and not having that connection to the seasons," said Lata, winner of the 2009 James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast.

Seasonal, local delicacies are harvested from Lata's own backyard, the South Carolina coastal area known as the Low Country. Dishes are anchored to the region with names like John's Island Tomato Tarte Tatin, Keegan-Filion Farm Chicken Liver Pate, Caw Caw Creek Suckling Pig Confit and Anson Mills Farro Piccolo.

While each season has its highlights, Lata is usually ready to move on to the next one, especially in mid-winter when cabin fever sets in.

"In February or March when you see a turnip you want to kick its a** because you're tired of cooking winter vegetables," Lata said. "Then you get to experience the renewal of spring. When springtime comes around the restaurant entirely changes."

Lata grew up as a latchkey kid in Massachusetts, often creating his own meals. When the family visited his paternal Polish grandmother, he was thrilled to pick vegetables in her garden and help her prepare them in her kitchen.

"I'd pick the beans while she boiled the water and got the pasta ready or whatever. And we would go from there. Everything was so detailed and so wonderful. And you could tell. It was a joy every time she would make something," Lata recalled.

Over the years, he dabbled in a variety of businesses, from flipping burgers, to hauling trash to the dump. He gained a strong work ethic from his father and an appreciation for the learning that comes only from one's own mistakes.

"My father has a great work ethic and he taught me a lot," said Lata. "At first, he preached to me a lot about things I didn't understand; things like taking the time to do something right the first time."

Lata attended college briefly to study broadcast journalism but soon quit. "I realized my heart was into cooking," Lata said. He held down a series of restaurant jobs from Martha's Vineyard to Atlanta.

"I got my first chef job when I was 23," Lata said, recalling his days in Atlanta. "My shift didn't start till four. I realized there was so much to learn, with the butcher in the daytime and pastry chef in the daytime, that I would just go down there and ask, 'Can I be in the kitchen? I won't punch in.' I did that for a year every day."

Try some of chef Lata's recipes HERE

Success Built on Deep Relationships With Local Food Suppliers

That attitude convinced Lata's boss that he was up for the challenge of running the kitchen. Lata was thrilled to accept the offer but, with no repertoire of his own, he was flummoxed by how he could make his mark. Then he thought back to some of the happiest moments of his life, the time he spent cooking with his grandmother.

"I thought about my childhood, the vegetables in my Grandma's garden," said Lata. "I was back there pulling potatoes, smelling them, picking the beans off the stalks. So I said, 'I guess I really love vegetables. Let me see if I can find some local farms.'"

It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. The newly-formed Georgia Organic Growers Association, GOGA, consisted of 30 organic farms throughout the state. The leader took Lata under her wing and he quickly came to know the growers and their produce.

"I'd be spending the night drinking mead with the growers on their farms outside Atlanta and fishing for bass in their ponds. Every day off, I was out there with those people. It was a great network."

It was also a great lesson that he carried with him to Charleston, where he has developed a deep knowledge of local food sources and a strong relationship with suppliers.

"You start selecting the best ones from the best growers and developing relationships where they remember from last year where to pick your kale," said Lata. "You realize that what you're putting on the table is a true expression of your work and where you live."

Which brings it all back to Mother Nature and the seasonal food that dictates the menus that have made Fig famous.

"Although my food is straightforward and described as being simple, we go through so much to make sure that we pick the vegetables when they're ready, not before, not after," Lata said. Later, he added, "If you gave me a box of Roma tomatoes in December, I don't think I can do anything with it. How can I make a meal out of this garbage food? This is not good. (It's) from a hot house, picked green. It doesn't inspire me. It has no flavor. It has no texture. Why would I even approach this?"

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