Mike Lata was one of the first chefs in Charleston to embrace the "locavore" food movement, creating dishes out of ingredients from local farms and in gardens. Now the movement is a nationwide trend, and Lata has received recognition for not only using local products, but creating exceptional meals from them.
The James Beard Foundation named him the Best Chef in the Southeast in 2009, a culinary honor equivalent to winning an Oscar.
Lata will make a trip south to appear at Saturday's WineFest Public Tasting at Honey Horn, the culmination of the multi-day Hilton Head Island Wine & Food Festival.
He'll be cooking a favorite dish as part of the Outdoor Cooking Pavilion, which will feature about 10 local chefs. He's serving as the Bon Appetite celebrity chef, brought in by the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce in a boost to the national credibility of the festival.
Lata, a New England native, discusses his cooking philosophy, the origins of his restaurant and life as a James Beard Award winner.
Question. You've become known for cooking with local ingredients. When you first started the restaurant, were there that many other people in the Lowcountry doing what you were doing?
Answer. Not really. But now there are so many chefs and cooks cooking locally. I don't believe it's a fad. I believe it's an awakening. Back in 2003, when we opened FIG with the ever-changing chalkboard menu, it was news. We might just get 10 pounds of fish from someone and 10 pounds from someone else. So in the middle of service, fish preparation might change. Everything would come in and out the same day.
I came to Charleston from Atlanta in 1998 (to cook at Anson Restaurant) and did a farm-to-table program for several years. That's how I got my reputation.
Q. Were people skeptical of the concept when you first opened FIG?
A. I think the consciousness was there. And the demand was there. When we opened, we opened with a bang. The locals really embraced the concept.
Q. How has your life changed after winning the James Beard Award?
A. It was pretty dramatic. You get invitations to travel. We finished up last year probably doing 18 to 20 events between September and December. Sometimes I was out two or three times a week. At the end of 2010, I decided to cut back a bit. I'm a hands-on chef, and I wanted to be back in the kitchen. The restaurant was already doing well and the recognition really stepped it up a notch, but the travel has been what's really changed for me.
Q. How are Charleston and the Lowcountry being received in the culinary scene?
A. It's definitely on the map. I think every single month of the year in 2010, a different food or travel magazine was featuring Charleston. The food magazines are read by everyone in the industry. For a market the size of Charleston, I'm sure we have a reputation comparable to somewhere like Portland or even New Orleans at this point. We went from a B market to an A- market in about 10 years.
Q. Why is that?
A. Food has been a hot topic. Gastro-tourism is a big thing now. I think there was a shift when (Hurricane) Katrina hit; the people who came to Charleston to work and even the people who may have thought, "Perhaps New Orleans isn't the coastal town I want to visit." At that time, Charleston was primed to receive that attention, and we capitalized on it. Charleston's first Beard Award (for best chef in the Southeast) was in 2008 and then we won three years in a row. (Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill in 2008 and Sean Brock of McCrady's in 2010). We're a very competitive little town. We're all friends, a lot of the chefs, but we're also all trying to make a name for ourselves.
Q. What will you be cooking at the WineFest demonstration?
A. I was in Italy last October and I was inspired by a dish I saw there. It's a poached or roasted veal dish covered with a sauce made from tuna and capers. We'll do that, and I'll see if I can sneak something else in, which we'll probably just decide on the way down.