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.
... 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.
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. 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.
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).
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 ... 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?
... He (Mark) 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. ... 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.
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 once typical?
A. ... 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.
Q. Where did the name The Ordinary come from?
A. 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.
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. 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. ... 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. 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. 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 ... 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.
It’s kind of like having a wine list.