Four years after being declared Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation Awards, Mike Lata is back in the hunt, along with business partner Adam Nemirow.
The dynamic duo who launched FIG, Food is Good, a decade ago launched The Ordinary, an oyster and seafood hall on Upper King Street just three months ago.
This week, The Ordinary became a Beard finalist nominee for Best New Restaurant. That was on top of a GQ accolade last month as one of its 12 most outstanding restaurants in the country. The Post and Courier sat down with Lata last week for a conversation about The Ordinary.
Q. FIG put Charleston on the map in terms of local sourcing and farm-to-table. In what way do you want The Ordinary to be on the map?
A. Exactly the same way that FIG brought vegetables to the center of the plate. After a decade-long obsession and love affair with pigs, and butchering and fat and charcuterie, all of which we like very much ... there’s so much more to talk about with seafood than there has been in the past 10 years.
Since we all buy from Kimberly (Kimberly Carroll of Kimberly’s Crabs), we all buy from Mark (Marhefka of Abundant Seafood) and Clammer Dave (Dave Belanger), I think we’ll see a heightened level of awareness and appreciation for seafood, both wild-caught finfish and things we don’t necessarily capitalize on, like whelks and octopus locally. I think we will also embrace and grow our aquaculture programs in the form of oysters and clams.
Q. In the way that farm-to-table is leading to the rebirth of small farming, do you think a restaurant like The Ordinary could lead to growth in the seafood industry?
A. Yeah, the only thing that gets in the way is that anybody who wants to grow a vegetable and get a business license to sell it to a restaurant or a retail market can do so very easily. To put a rod and reel in the water and pull a fish out and sell it to a restaurant is much more difficult. Because the licenses are allocated and I think there is a finite number of licenses.
But I think the door in may be oyster farming and clam farming, or even harvesting wild oysters and clams. (It) seems to have been where there are some opportunities, or entrepreneurs have started to do their own thing. About six months to a year before we opened, people started coming to us and saying, “I just started to harvest oysters from Morris Island and Bull’s Bay all the way down to Beaufort and back.” Regular people who are looking for an alternative way to make a living — that might be a little more exciting than whatever their trained profession was.
... If you’re the kind of person who wants to work the land and have that kind of lifestyle, certainly now Charleston has become the place that you can come to. If you have the means to start, you’re going to have a good shot at having an impact. ... I would love it for seafood to be the same way.
People like Dave and Kimberly, who have been at it for a number of years, they’ve kind of turned their programs around to adapt. Their relationships with their chefs I’m sure are different than five or six years ago. It’s more of a partnership. I think now there is more of an opportunity for someone now to buy a 25-foot flats boat and go out to gig flounder, and somehow partner up with Mark Marhefka ... maybe that’s a possibility, where Mark can have the boat in his company and have the license and he could have employees.
I think the growing demand for peculiar things like whelks, even just getting local octopus. We’ve been using it here and it’s delicious.
Q. There’s a local octopus?
A. Exactly. Isn’t that crazy? They catch them with the crabs. So we do an octopus crudo here with local octopus. It’s fantastic. Whelks are pretty cool, too. They are sea snails. There are a couple of different kinds. The ones you see more often in Europe are smaller than what we have here. Ours are channel whelks, and they are closer to a conch than what I know as a whelk from eating in (European) restaurants. But they’re great. We grind them up and make whelk fritters; we’ve treated them like snails on a couple of occasions, poured them over garlic toast. Actually, they are pretty delicious and they’re cheap. Well, they were for a minute. All of a sudden, they’ve gone up in price.
Q. How is the concept of Ordinary personal to you?
A. There is a story I’ve told about how I did not like seafood. I went to Martha’s Vineyard very soon after I decided to drop out of college. I realized soon after I was there (working at the Black Dog Tavern) that it was a good choice, a good thing for me. I felt comfortable that I had enough talent (to be a cook). ... I made the right decision. I think I can compete against everybody else.
I knew as a chef I needed to be well-rounded, I needed to know how to prepare many different kinds of food. My biggest obstacle was I didn’t like fish. I would never order it at a restaurant; I didn’t like to eat it. If somebody served it at dinner where I was a guest, I might nibble on it. And I pretty much eat everything. So I forced myself every day for the entire summer to eat a piece of fish while I was working. So at the end of my shift, I would saute a piece of flounder, black bass, something like that, and I would just muscle it down. And this is the freshest fish you can buy. It’s coming right out of the water. And I just didn’t like it.
The following year — I had to take six months off to go somewhere else because it was seasonal work — the weekend I got back on the island, a friend’s father in a tournament caught a really big striped bass and brought it to our house. And he cut off a big piece for us and we cooked it — we were all cooks in this house. It was my first bite of fish in six months, and I took a bite and there was this aha moment. ... I loved it. And I started to fall in love with seafood.
My whole career I’ve had my eye on vegetables. ... So it’s always been our goal at FIG and restaurants I’ve been in the past to look at the carrot, look at the kale, and say wow, should we puree this, eat it raw, should we shave this, should we eat it whole, what should we do with this? Here’s this vegetable in its natural state — what is it telling us to do?
And I think in some ways seafood is the same way ... not just buying it for a specific menu item but getting your hands on it, tasting it, looking at it; you know, what we should do with this? Or this is just so fresh, let’s not cook it at all — before the health department told us we couldn’t serve raw fish.
You can’t predict these days with the regulations and the weather how much Mark will bring in on his boat. Let’s say he is flush with mackerel and we can sell only so many mackerel entrees or mackerel cakes or fresh mackerel preparations, so we then pickle the mackerel to get two or three extra days out of it, in the way of escabeche.
So we kind of use the same preservation techniques — some curing, some smoking — but here’s the catch: We’re going to buy as much as we can, but if we limit ourselves to what we can sell in one particular way as an app or an entree, we will only be able to buy so much until the next time he goes out. So we try to extend that. Say he goes out every week for three days, you want to have his product in the restaurant continually for lots of reasons, because it’s fun, because it’s premier. Not to discount the work we have been doing with Lowcountry Lobsters and Crosby’s Seafood; those guys have a very big impact on our menu. With Mark we have a fisherman-chef relationship.
... He brought me a banded rudderfish, which I had never heard of before. And fish that I had heard of but not cooked before, like skipjack tuna. He brings us these species, and we find ways to use them.
Because we’ve done this work with Mark, we’ve kind of raised awareness about other species out there. We’ve offered to pay Mark a premium on these species to make it worth his time to burn the fuel to get these fish. As a result, all up and down the East Coast now, other docks are pulling in and selling species that were definitely trash fish. This a movement that’s happening slowly in other coastal towns and areas, but I like to think we were pretty quick to capitalize on our relationship with people like Mark to say, let’s not just rely on grouper and snapper.
So now we have these people going our of their way to create a product that is ... an expression of the palate of the Lowcountry. The “merroir” of our area (is) ... if you’re coming into Charleston from somewhere else, you’re going to taste food that tastes like (here). And you don’t get that in New York, not Chicago, as much as you do in a small town.
Q. Did you see an opportunity for a new type of seafood house, as opposed to the traditional, mostly fried fare that was typical of the area for many years.
A. As far back as 2008, I knew that with the Beard nomination and subsequent award that there was an opportunity for a chef to hang his hat on a fish and seafood concept.
... Part of me is definitely a craftsman, that’s what got me started in the business, and part of me is definitely entrepreneurial. As a chef, you always have to compete, you always have to be thinking, what can I get people talking about? Because there are so many of us out there. Let’s say we’re all good cooks, the playing field is totally level, how do you become more successful? And put yourself in a position to maintain and elongate your career in a very difficult profession. To spend your entire youth honing your skills and burn out by the time you are 35 years old is pretty rough.
The single biggest reason is, you have all these people producing this great product, and you’re on the water, and every single person is asked, “Take me to the best seafood restaurant in town.” Hotel guests are asking their concierges, tourists are asking every merchant this question. What makes me smile is that I really feel that I knew the people of Charleston wanted to be proud of the answer. ... There was a gap for a foodie-type seafood restaurant.
I think people want to be really proud, maybe in the same way like what Husk has done for Southern food.
Q. Where did the name The Ordinary come from?
A. Like Food is Good (FIG), it was the most unpretentious name, and it wasn’t about our cooking but the pleasures of the table, it was about food as a community, culture and the one thing we have so much in common. We wanted to create a neighborhood bistro, good food in an environment that was warm, friendly and professional but not pretentious. That was a new kind of fine dining.
The Ordinary was discovered in a book that we were all reading about oysters and their place in New York’s history, how oyster bars were big in Manhattan. In that book they reference a place called Holt’s Ordinary. That restaurant had an oyster bar. “Ordinary” is a British term for a tavern, a public restaurant that serves regular meals. With this concept, we wanted to do something of the same ilk as FIG and its approach to inclusiveness, like a brasserie is to a community. Anyone at anytime could come in and enjoy themselves. Although people think we are expensive, our oysters are all boutique — curated oysters. We’re not just buying Gulf oysters that I can get for 25 cents apiece. These oysters are from people like Clammer Dave all up and down the East Coast, so they come at a premium.
But we have a bevy of small plates that are much less expensive and as inexpensive as anywhere else in town. We wanted people to be able to come in and have a beer and fish sandwich, or a caviar service. To come in and have some smoked pate and a glass of wine and maybe a bowl of clams.
Q. Does The Ordinary cast a wider net for fish and seafood sources beyond the South Carolina coast?
A. We knew going into it that we couldn’t live off the local supply. Just like we can’t do at FIG, there are times of the year there is nothing available. So how do we best express the merroir of Charleston and have a constant stream of other products in the restaurant? The reality is, the way things move these days, anything from Virginia, Massachusetts or Maine, it’s not very difficult. The people we purchase from all are — the companies are so small they are just a phone call away, they are small relationships. It’s not like we’re brokering with the big seafood houses. These are relationships we have been working on for awhile. I would say The Ordinary has an emphasis on East Coast seafood.
Q. Is there anything on the menu that is an homage to Massachusetts?
A. Definitely the chowder. It’s exactly how we make chowder in New England. Six ingredients. We make it every day. That and the lobster roll.
Q. How often is the menu changing?
A. We come up with preparations, a repertoire of menus. Say there are 35 things on the menu, which there is, let’s say there are 50 things in our repertoire. ... Yes, we print every single day. There is a number at the top of the menu that indicates how many days we’ve been in service.
Q. You’re a big supporter of sustainable seafood. What is the most intriguing species that you’ve worked with?
A. Oysters. When we thought of opening a seafood restaurant, the increasing regulations and the difficulty of finding local fish — at times it’s difficult to find anything; at FIG, we struggled at certain times of the year, but we’ve made it happen. But if the future is going to become more difficult, the idea of opening a seafood restaurant and creating what we would like to make an institution in Charleston, what’s the landscape going to be like 20 years from now? Well, oysters are one of the most sustainable items to have on your menu. Well, let’s build a restaurant around sustainability, things we can count on. That’s why we call it an oyster hall. That’s why there’s a lot of shellfish on the menu. Because nobody is talking about shrimp being threatened, and clams and oysters and lobsters. And octopus, and things like that. That was the tree trunk of the concept, and finfish filled in the gaps. And those things can actually come and go a lot more than everything else can without affecting the menu too, too much.
So then my attention started turning toward oysters, and me wanting to become an expert, an aficionado. The coolest thing about oysters, a lot of people who are pretty well-educated hadn’t really put this perspective, but for the most part, from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the same species ... with a couple of exceptions. So it’s the equivalent of somebody growing a chardonnay grape in Nova Scotia and well as Apalachicola. What makes all those oysters different is how they are harvested, how they were raised. Most importantly where they live in the water and the kind of water they live in. If you get oysters from Martha’s Vineyard, they are incredibly salty as they are way out in the ocean. If you go way back in the Chesapeake, you have all these tributaries, a lot of fresh water coming in, the flavor changes completely, and the same with Gulf oysters and how they taste.
It’s kind of like having a wine list. And the more I learn, it’s not just the way they taste, it’s their uniformity, how the producers are handling and grading them. We have a culling process of our own before we allow the oysters to hit the bar. So our guys can shuck with confidence all day long.
Q. So how do the Lowcountry’s oyster clusters stack up in flavor compared with other oysters along the East Coast?
A. For an oyster roast, a steamed cluster is like the most unique thing. Nobody else steams clustered oysters. If you get it just right, and it’s barely steamed open, and they are still holding all that sea water in their belly, you get a burst of salt. And I think that defines what a steamed Lowcountry cluster tastes like. Very high salinity. And they are pretty meaty. Well, not always.
Q. So far on the menu, what is rising to the top as a customer favorite?
A. From our sales mix last week ... what you can get from the raw bar and our triggerfish/swordfish schnitzel. Second to that, we do a combination of fried oysters and beef tartare. The lobster roll sells well. The oyster sliders are popular. But by design, we are putting a lot of emphasis on the raw bar and having that be the heart of the restaurant. We’re serving like 6,000 oysters a week.
Q. How did you come to this building (a former bank), and how is the neighborhood working out?
A. For now, we have the parking next door, and I think that has been the blessing. But that will go away soon, as soon as they start construction on the hotel. We bought the building from the development company, and we have exactly 3 feet all around. We’ll have a parking garage behind us.
We put a bid on a couple of other properties that didn’t work out.
Q. This far uptown?
A. No. We tried to get (the former) Joseph’s for the original concept, a tiny oyster bar. That fell through. I think enough people knew we were interested in a property and kept coming to us, and finally the company that is developing the hotel contacted us to lease the building. But all the while, it’s been in Adam’s and mine business plan to buy a property. So we turned it down. We did not want a lease. So then they said, well, make us an offer. So we made and offer, and they accepted it.
Knowing there would be a 300-room hotel next door gave us the confidence we could weather the first couple of years and might be a good long-term plan for us.
Frankly, the building is a little understated, but we have achieved our goals. And we wanted to exercise our craft in a sexy space. These days ... rarely do you see a restaurant that is not overdesigned.
Like a grand restaurant, the places that have something about them, I think The Ordinary is our version of that.