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Mike Lata and the rise of the farm-to-table ethic in Charleston

Veggie Boy

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You can't explore the modern history of local food without encountering the legend of Celeste Albers. These days, the Wadmalaw farmer raises chickens, cows, and pigs and is famed for the freshness of her Sea Island Eggs, but back in the '90s, she grew vegetables, amazing ingredients that made men like Mike Lata weep. "Hers were the best vegetables I'd ever seen in my life. She was unbelievable at it," Lata says.

Back in 1997, it was Celeste's vegetables that persuaded the young chef to relocate to Charleston. "I walked in the fields with her," he remembers. Impressed with her results, he decided right then and there that moving here was the right thing to do.

At the time, Lata was living in Atlanta where he'd made a name for himself as a wizard with the veg. Hired at 22 to lead the kitchen at Ciboulette, a restaurant that was started by the legendary French chef Jean Banchet, Lata says he had the fundamentals but no repertoire and loads of exotic ingredients. Fusion was the flavor of the moment, so the kitchen was stocked with fancy Asian fruits and wonton wrappers. "All these things — I had no point of reference," he says. "As a budding Francophile, the research I'd done on French food was that it was simple stuff, things like leeks and carrots." So he stripped the kitchen of anything that didn't make sense and decided that he would focus on making the most basic things — like onions — delicious.

"I didn't know what the hell I was doing," he remembers. "I had one of those conversations with myself as to how I wanted to be branded as a chef, what direction did I want to take my career? I said, 'I'm going to be a vegetable chef,' and that was back when cuisine was more about the protein and vegetables were a second thought."

The idea that better ingredients would lead to better results on the plate came naturally. And the best ingredients seemed like they should come from nearby farms. Lata began contacting farmers in Georgia, taking his camping gear along with kitchen crew members out to area farms on his day off, catching fish in farm ponds and staying for supper with the farmers. Relationships grew. He became close friends with guys like Nicholas Donk of Crystal Organic Farms. And his experience with locally grown ingredients blossomed. At Ciboulette, he became so good he hosted dedicated vegetable tastings — degustations. This was 1996-'97. CNN showed up to one dinner that not only had seven courses of vegetables but also seven courses of vegan options for those who didn't want any meat or animal products getting anywhere near their food. With the national media attention, veggie boy had arrived.

Meanwhile, in Charleston, Glenn Roberts, who now grows and mills heirloom grains at Anson Mills, was consulting with local restaurants, driving around the South, sourcing fresh vegetables, making connections, and spreading the gospel of resurrecting sustainable local foodways. He'd go to Georgia and pick up food from the Georgia Grown Co-Op, meeting farmers like Ann Brewer and Donk. Garibaldi's Management was looking for a chef who could do farm-to-table food at their restaurant Anson, located in the Market. Roberts met Lata through Donk and thought he might be the guy for the job.

"His vegetable degustation that he did weekly was so diverse and phenomenal that he got national notice," says Roberts, who adds that Lata was virtually unknown before that. "He appeared from nowhere doing this phenomenal food."

The proverbial carrot stick used to lure Lata to Charleston was Celeste. Roberts took him out to Wadmalaw to see her farm. "She was just starting herself," says Lata, who made the jump, moved here, and found himself working a billion hours a week, missing the action of Atlanta, and hating Charleston, if only because he had no time to get out of the kitchen and get to know his new town.

At the time, Albers was growing exclusively for Anson, but it wasn't long before she also struck up a relationship with Frank Lee at Slightly North of Broad and started generating buzz among the other chefs in town. She sold produce at the farmers market in Marion Square, which was still an eyesore with an old, decrepit bandstand where the hobos slept. "We'd have to push the winos out of the way to set up," Albers says.

There weren't many other options for buying fresh produce. Limehouse Produce supplied the bulk of stock vegetables to restaurants, but not the boutique stuff that Celeste was growing.

Andrea Limehouse, who came to Charleston from England and married Jack Limehouse, says the produce business when she arrived in 1979 was in the midst of rapid change. Farmers used to bring their fresh produce to the auction block at the corner of Savannah Highway and Wappoo Road in West Ashley. Then it would be loaded onto trains and shipped mainly to Northern markets, where they didn't have the same seasonal availability. But then small grocery stores turned into supermarkets, and produce started being distributed via tractor trailers rather than rail, and the auction went away.

In the '70s, there weren't any restaurants in Charleston, says Limehouse, except for maybe Henry's on the Market and a couple of others, until an influx of European chefs arrived on the heels of the Spoleto Festival. Suddenly, Limehouse says, "There was a big push to bring in products that are mainline now, but at the time nobody had heard of radicchio, white asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, portabellos." Limehouse scoured the country to source these ingredients.

Frank Lee remembers that European influence. "The big push was, you buy the very best and you don't screw it up. That meant you'd go wherever you could to get whatever was best: lamb, salmon, halibut, or crab. The more exotic, the better."

After chefs like Franz Meier and Phillipe Million established a rather sophisticated eating climate at places like Colony House and Million, a wave of locally grown chefs came to prominence, guys like Lee, Louis Osteen, and Donald Barickman. They had a different approach. Osteen dared to elevate humble grits into a fine dining ingredient and put them on the menu at Louis's Charleston Grill. It wasn't long before collards, mustard greens, field peas, and sweet potatoes — the bounty of our local fields — followed. Lee remembers traveling to France for a cook's tour as a young chef and meeting Paul Bocuse, who gave him profound advice. "He said, learn your technique, apply it to your region, and don't copy us." Lee took that advice to heart and has been following it ever since at Slightly North of Broad.

But getting those local ingredients proved difficult. "It was hard," remembers Albers. "Nobody knew organic, nobody was selling direct to restaurants. They would buy from Limehouse. Why would they want the hassle of buying direct from a farmer?"

But the hassle was part of what Lata loved about what he was doing. It was the only way to get exactly the kind of quality he wanted. Instead of woody spears of mature asparagus, he wanted tender, young shoots of growth. Rather than big, tough collards that needed hours of braising, he preferred younger leaves that needed only a quick sauté. It was a new approach to sourcing ingredients, yet at the same time it was an ancient approach to cooking. It was called farm-to-table.

"They called me 'veggie boy,'" recalls Lata ruefully. "Other chefs made fun of me." He remembers one colleague in particular dismissing his reverence for the perfect heirloom carrot. "He told me, 'I'd just as soon get a carrot delivered perfectly diced. It's what I do with it as a chef that matters.' I remember that conversation. I'll never forget it," Lata says.

Soon other chefs came on the scene like Michael Kramer at McCrady's, who had similar preferences. Competition increased and so did demand, but the options were still limited. In addition to Celeste, there were other farmers like Dan Kennerty, who grew specialty items like squash blossoms, Red Russian kale, raggedy jack greens, field peas, and the like.

This direct-to-restaurant selling was a new thing, and farmers quickly learned that chefs had particular demands. Lata says he would spend a lot of time giving feedback to the growers so they knew what he was looking for. First, they had to handle it properly after it was picked, which meant not only picking the arugula but washing, spinning, and boxing it up before delivering it. They also had to taste it.

"When you bring something to my restaurant," says Lata, "the first thing I do is taste everything. We'd peel back the corn and eat it. If it wasn't delicious, we'd see if we could do something with it, like use it in a soup or another dish, but I'd tell the grower that if it wasn't sweet next time, I wouldn't buy it."

Those demands from Lata came with a healthy dose of respect. "I was trying to help them learn not only how to grow for me, but how to do good in our market by satisfying chefs in our town."

Celeste has a legendary story about one particularly demanding chef who not only wanted the potatoes to be tiny and perfect but for deliveries to be made earlier in the day. His lack of respect for the amount of work she conducted and the time it took to pick and pack food for delivery made her so mad she stopped selling to him. But Lata's demands weren't unreasonable like that other chef's. "Mike's demanding," she says, "but you can make him happy. You can please him with good quality product."

On Saturdays, Lata became a fixture at the farmers market in Marion Square, spreading the gospel of fresh, local food before there were many followers.

"There was no local chicken, pork, beef, or eggs," says Lata. "And every fish on every menu was flounder and grouper. There was nothing outstanding about the ingredients."

Frustrated with Charleston's focus on standard catches, Lata went to Dan Long at Crosby's Seafood and asked if there was anything else. Soon, Lata was buying triggerfish and featuring it at Anson.

By 2001, Lata says the buzz about local foods had finally taken root, but at this point he was ready to feel more invested in what he was doing. "I was 28 and 29 and felt limited growth," he says. "I wanted to become a partner [at Anson], but they said no." So he moved on, leaving Charleston altogether for a European adventure.

After spinning his wheels in Europe for a bit, Lata returned to Charleston in 2003 and teamed up with Adam Nemirow, who worked with Lata at Anson and shared his philosophy on food and wine. The two opened FIG, a pure farm-to-table restaurant whose menu changed daily based on what was available. "As the owner, I can take the risk. I can decide to change the menu every day. I can decide to stop making deviled eggs if I want and take the cauliflower off the menu."

New farmers lined up at the back door, peddling their produce, and new ingredients were becoming available all the time. Emile DeFelice started raising pigs at his Caw Caw Creek Farm in 2003. Mark and Annie Filion of Keegan-Filion came to town with fresh chickens.

In the last five years, you could say the local food movement has reached critical mass. Lata and Matt McIntosh of EVO started a local chapter of Slow Food, raising awareness through events and dinners. Menus around town tout their sources as a badge of honor, and diners have become very familiar with names like Celeste Albers, Shawn Thackeray, Mark Marhefka, Maria Baldwin, Joseph Fields, Sidi Limehouse, and many more.

At Husk, a restaurant that's received national acclaim for its approach to sourcing ingredients solely within the South, Executive Chef Sean Brock has a blackboard system that highlights every single producer featured on the menu for that day. That kind of support has only increased the confidence of local farmers, who feel like they can take the financial risk that comes with farming. Chefs like Brock, with his big operations at Husk and McCrady's, can buy excess supplies of tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers and make use of them by crafting pickles, hot sauce, and the like.

Over at FIG, Lata has become more than a mere veggie boy to be scoffed at; he has helped usher in a movement. Today, every hot new restaurant and young chef is putting a lot of focus on vegetables, and Lata is fine with that. He's happy to see suppliers like Billy Haynes of Blackbird and Shawn Thackeray on Wadmalaw making a good living out of growing great produce.

One of Lata's favorite days of the week is the Wednesday when Haynes shows up with his truck full of produce. He's worked with Lata for seven years. In the beginning, he didn't know quite what the chef wanted. "He might bring me iffy turnips," says Lata. But over the years, Haynes learned a thing or two and started understanding what chefs are looking for.

"He'll stop at the Columbia farmers market on his way down and pick stuff up. He can identify great quality now and bring it to you," Lata says. "The great thing about those guys is that they're so willing to work with you. It's a really easy relationship."

As for Haynes, the respect goes both ways. "Mike has been the best," he says. "He's kinda demanding, but I think he helps push us into trying to get it right. He'll say, 'This isn't gonna fly, guys.' He's expecting a really good, high-quality product." 

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