From Issue Two of the Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today and shipping is on us.
Mike Lata cooks seafood better than anyone else in the seaside foodie haven of Charleston, because he has the seafood nobody else can get. His restaurant, The Ordinary, an airy space in an old bank building downtown, serves a brightly colored ceviche of vermilion snapper brought to the dock that morning or the day before. Picturesque plates of unusual species like amberjack, triggerfish and rudderfish dot tables. The cream of the crop, local oysters rich with the ocean’s brine, emerge from the kitchen topless, baring their meaty white flesh like exotic dancers.
Lata approaches running a restaurant as a slightly less severe version of war. The 44-year-old from Massachusetts has a marine’s build and a general’s savvy, which is why an entire generation of Charleston chefs call him mentor. He’s built them up the hard way both here and at his other joint, FIG, expecting 14- and 16-hour days of piss-and-vinegar slogging, plus the desire not just to outwork, but to outsmart the competition. That’s the way he did it, skipping class in college to hear Julia Childs speak, forcing himself to eat a different piece of fish every day when he worked at a seafood joint and hated fish, outworking everyone to graduate from line cook to chef de cuisine at one of Atlanta’s top French restaurants, then parlaying that experience to doing exactly what he wanted to do: catching the wave early on of building a restaurant buttressed against the best, freshest ingredients around.
But Lata’s a family man now, and overseeing in-house operations suits him well. “If you’re a chef and you have kids, you better have somebody else in your organization [helping out],” he says. “Because you can’t give 100 percent. This town, we’ve kicked out a lot of cooks.”
In one facet of his business, however, Lata remains a frontline brawler. You have to be a tough son of a bitch to get your hands on the supply of fresh, local seafood in the town where, in 2009, headlines blared “Commercial Fishing Runs Aground.” (The Post and Courier blamed “a perfect storm of wave after wave of tighter federal fishing restrictions, on top of escalating costs and competition from cheaper imported seafood.”) While other chefs settle for lump crab from Indonesia and salmon farmed in Nova Scotia, Lata’s become a pro at hooking Charleston’s dwindling small-scale purveyors.