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Chef Mike Lata reflects on his acclaimed restaurant FIG’s 20th anniversary and Charleston’s evolving culinary scene

Chef Mike Lata reflects on his acclaimed restaurant FIG’s 20th anniversary and Charleston’s evolving culinary scene
April 2023

The Massachusetts native and his restaurants have earned numerous James Beard nominations and awards, as well as the hearts of local foodies

CM: How did you and Adam meet? 
Glenn Roberts, who owns Anson Mills, was the director of operations at Anson restaurant. He caught wind of me doing this [farm-to-table] work in Atlanta and wanted me to do it at Anson. So I came and implemented a seasonal menu. I met Adam at the tail end of my tenure there. He was the manager; I was the executive chef. 

CM: What motivated the two of you to open a restaurant of your own?
I wanted creative control. I wanted to create a menu that was small and breathed through the seasons in the market. Adam was equally as eager to express a similar philosophy with wine-making—not just going to the big distributors but finding smaller, highly allocated wines that were not expensive, but curated. 

CM: What was the Charleston dining scene like when FIG opened?
There wasn’t a restaurant where you could walk in wearing jeans and a sweater and feel like you’re having a curated experience. It was Charleston Grill, McCrady’s, and Carolinas—fine dining was fine dining, and there was nothing in between. SNOB was probably the closest thing to what we were trying to accomplish, but even back then, as young idealists, we wanted to be a little bit more edgy. We would change the menu every day. No walk-in [refrigerator] Deliveries came in that day; the menu was written that day; food was prepared for that service. The employees were taught what the menu was, both in the front and back of the house, for that service, which was incredibly labor intensive.

CM: How did the model change as the restaurant evolved?
We bought a walk-in. We learned how to prepare ourselves to be cooking with an idea for the week and then plugging different species of fish or vegetable here and there, so we could develop some consistency—still having a rotating menu that portrayed a sense of time and place, but where we weren’t flying by the seat of our pants all of the time. It took a long time. 

CM: Where did the restaurant’s name come from? Was Food Is Good first, or was FIG first?
Fig was first. We sent a list of potential names to lots of people. A woman I was dating at the time, her dad responded, “Fig is the best, but it should stand for Food Is Good, because I know how you want to have a connection to your community and the culinary heritage of wherever you’re cooking.” When he said that, it was like, Oh that’s actually perfect.

CM: When did FIG really break out for the first time?
ML: Shortly after we opened—about two and a half, three years—we got a write up from The New York Times that was stellar, and it changed the restaurant almost overnight. It coincided with the first year of the [Charleston Wine + Food] festival. So this wave of momentum came towards us, and we capitalized on that momentum. We grew the team, started reinvesting in the business. And then one foot in front of the other for the next so many years.

CM: You and Adam opened your second restaurant, The Ordinary, in 2013. What effect did that have on FIG?
ML: Before The Ordinary, it was not uncommon for me to open and close the restaurant—on the line every night, or expo. This was a pioneering effort up [at The Ordinary], and I said, “Adam, I believe that Jason [Stanhope] and the team can hold down the fort. I believe the goodwill we’ve built in this town will provide me with feedback if we stumble at FIG. So I’m gonna go up to The Ordinary, and I’m gonna make sure we can get this thing off the ground properly.” 

CM: Jason Stanhope became the executive chef of FIG in 2014. How did you and Adam know he was the right one to take over the kitchen? 
If I had a soul mate in the kitchen, it’s Jason—our sensibilities, our cooking style, and technique. We were born one day apart—10 years and one day apart—and we have this connection. I don’t know how much is nature versus nurture, but I think they both had a heavy hand.

CM: After 20 years, FIG remains one of the top restaurants in town. What’s the key to staying fresh and relevant?
There is no greater purpose than consistency. Always improve. Cook with honesty and integrity. Do we follow trends? We pay attention to them, but I think that passion and consistency and product quality have always been hallmarks of our operating style. If you look at the arc or the quality curve of the restaurant, it’s been an upward slope, I think, since the first day we opened till now.

CM: The last three years have been exceptionally challenging for restaurants. How did FIG navigate 2020 through 2022?
We thought we were going to lose the restaurant for the first three months, like everybody else. Then, when it came time to ramp up, the question was how do we act like leaders in the community? We decided that our menu would only consist of local foods, whether that was four things on the menu or 12. All of the money that we were going to take in was going to go back to our [supplier] community immediately. And then we had to be so employee focused. We went into the pandemic thinking that we were great employers.... We believed that we had a competitive wage we offered over time. We always tried to make sure people felt like they could take time off when they needed it. But the reality was, what good was back then is probably not good today, and we needed some adjustments.

CM:What does the picture look like going forward?
We now have data from a good year of business for the first time in three years, so we have the metrics to see how we’re actually doing, how can we now continue to move the restaurant forward instead of just playing that day-by-day mentality. We’ve reorganized. We promoted Jill Schaffer to be chef de cuisine, to give Jason more freedom to help move the needle in bigger, more important ways. So she’s going to be shouldering more of the day-to-day operations.

CM: Looking forward, are you ever tempted to open a third restaurant?
Yes, but TBD. Creatively, who doesn’t want to have a blank canvas? But I think that more isn’t always better. 

Read additional articles on Mike and get a couple of his recipes:

Hail to the Chef
Crab Rice
Pickled Shrimp Toast with Harissa Mayonnaise