Chef Mike Lata – FIG, Charleston, SC and Coddled Sea Island Farm Egg with Stone Crab

Charleston, South Carolina.  It is one of our favorite destinations.  Known not only for it’s history, Southern charm and beauty…Charleston is home to some of the best chefs and restaurants in the country.  What is it about Charleston that makes it such a special place?

There are few cities in the United States that have really prominent food cultures.  We just came back from New Orleans, which arguably, has one of the most distinctive food cultures in the United States.  Charleston, with its Lowcountry cuisine, is another city that combines its African and Caribbean influences along with Southern heritage and local ingredients to create its own unique flavor.

How Charleston became one of the top food destinations in the country and the cuisine of the region were a few of the topics we discussed with Chef Mike Lata of FIG when we met with him a few months ago.

Sitting next to FIG’s board listing the evening’s menu

Lata is the Executive Chef and Partner/Owner of FIG, which opened in 2003.  Chef Lata is the 2009 winner of the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast (he was also nominated for the award in 2007).  In addition to other television appearances, articles and accolades, he appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef in a battle against Jose Garces in 2010.

Lata was also one of the first chefs in the Southeast to work with local growers, purveyors and suppliers in an effort to bring the best and freshest ingredients into his kitchen.  He was inspired to do this while working as the Chef de Cuisine at Jean Banchet’s Ciboulette in Atlanta from 1993-1998.  In 1998, Chef Lata made the move to Charleston where he became the Executive Chef at Anson, bringing his farm to table philosophy with him.

In 2001, Lata journeyed to France to study French cuisine at Michelin Star restaurants in Southern France and Burgundy. It was this trip and the inspiration of the Charleston region that shaped his culinary style; dishes that are European in influence combined with the best local ingredients.  FIG stands for “Food Is Good” and that is a real understatement when dining at FIG.

When Lata first arrived in Charleston in 1998, he said the food scene was stale.  Every menu included salmon, grouper and tuna.  People dining in Charleston also wanted Caesar Salad and Crab Cakes, so that is what was on every menu.  However, that was soon to change with some of the up-and-coming chefs.

By the early-to-mid 2000’s, Charleston began to receive recognition for its emerging culinary scene.  Chefs like Bob Waggoner and Louis Osteen were gaining notoriety.  A few years later, Mike Lata, Sean Brock and Ken Vendrinski were just a few of those noticed by The James Beard House.  This year, Chef Craig Diehl of Cypress, was one of the finalists for Best Chef Southeast.  The Charleston Food and Wine Festival has also been a great success, celebrating it’s 6 year anniversary this year.  Lata said there was a real competition beginning to emerge among the chefs.  “There was competition, yet camaraderie; a kinetic energy.”

Dining room at FIG

Charleston became even more popular when “food became a national pastime.”  Even non-food publications and magazines like Architectural Digest and Golfing Magazine were featuring Charleston chefs and restaurants.  There was national exposure to the city and their food scene.

In addition to this new exposure, Chef Sean Brock was focused on saving the original seeds and Heirloom varieties of plants from the region and preserving them with the help of Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills.  Meanwhile, Chef Lata was working with local fisherman to discover alternative fish that most of us have never heard of, like Banded Rudderfish.  “If you are trying to use sustainable fish, you cannot rely on household species like grouper and snapper.  These species have been susceptible to overfishing, are heavily managed and quite often, not available from Charleston area waters.  Fisherman can’t do anything with the fish they are catching if the chef can’t use them in the kitchen.”  This chef prefers to work with these local fisherman rather than import fish from someplace further away.

The tourism boom brought clientele that was culinarily savvy.  Lata said they could be more creative in the kitchen and restaurants began to replace the Crab Cakes and Caesar Salads on their menus with innovative dishes using local produce, meats and seafood.  “This was exciting when combined with the rediscovery of the culinary heritage of the region, the port culture and the native Gullah cuisine.  Charleston’s cuisine is one of the most identifiable on the East Coast.”

“You cannot replicate these types of cuisines and experiences in cities like New York, Boston or Washington.  Charleston has the history, beauty and natural resources.  In New York, you have technique driven food, but the food does not taste alive.  It is beautifully prepared, but not (regionally) inspired in its flavor.”  Lata said that in cities like San Francisco, the food is more casual, but there are better ingredients, so it tastes better.

“Charleston’s cuisine has the sensibilities of both sides: California style with the simplicity of the South.  The quality of ingredients we have available here is incredible.  The local eggs that we (the chefs) use are brilliant.  The yolks are bright yellow.  The same with the oysters, they are salty and taste like the ocean.  There is a deliberate palate with the flavors of the shrimp, crabs and local seafood.  Charleston has a taste that no other town has.  I know when I am home.”

In the kitchen with Chef Lata

Lata is committed to the local farmers, suppliers, and fishermen.  “What happens in the kitchen is what ties us all together.  Many of the farms would not exist without the support of the chefs.”  He cites a story from one farm in particular, Keegan-Filion.  Originally, they wanted to sell frozen chickens to the chefs since they had a smaller chicken operation and were only able to process their chickens twice a month.  The chefs banded together and over a 6 month period, the farm was able to sell enough chickens that they could process and deliver them fresh weekly.  He credits the Filions with being willing to diversify and work together.

FIG may have been the first restaurant to change its menu daily based on what was available.  Lata has even been known to pull a dish or two from the menu in the middle of dinner service if it isn’t right.  “Cooking is a craft.  It is an art.  Food should transcend the experience.  The effort is on the best ingredients, but you also have to rely on putting it out hot, seasoned well and cooked properly all while being prepared in a chaotic environment.”

The time between the harvest and the plate is critical to this chef.  “Every minute it is out of the ground, it is exponentially less dramatic.”  He lets the ingredients tell him what to do.  Is the kale tender enough to be a salad?  If not, then it may need nothing more than a quick saute.  “Conceptual and convoluted dishes and ideas make it more difficult.”  He prefers rustic, very direct food.  If you love beets, why would you want to taste anything besides the beet?

Lata says that his cooking straddles between two influences: the grand cuisine of Europe and his time spent in France along with the newer generation of cooking Americana.  The Romantic ideas of peasant cooking in Nice and the Italian Riviera pull at his heartstrings, therefore, he cooks with the passion from that area which translates into his food.  However, he says, “I also want to stay with what is relevant and where we are now.  I want to be sure we are representing our region properly.”  I don’t think there is any doubt that Lata and FIG are doing just that.

Thank you so much to Chef Lata for taking the time to meet with us.  FIG is not to be missed when you travel to the Charleston area.  It is a very special dining experience.

Chef Lata shared a recipe with me for my readers that exemplifies his talent for putting incredible flavors together using the best local ingredients, Coddled Sea Island Farm Egg with Stone Crab.

A coddled egg cooks over parsnip puree

Stone Crab Claws from Kimberly’s Crabs in Charleston

Use fresh, local organic eggs (as I did) in this recipe (unless, of course, you have access to Sea Island eggs).  I happened to have Stone Crab Claws in the freezer from our visit with Kimberly of Kimberly’s Crabs in Charleston, but you can use lump crab meat that is available at your fishmonger.  I substituted fresh Lady Peas for the English Peas, since they are no longer in season here.  This was a beautiful dish that would be perfect for a brunch.  Every bite was bursting with flavor from all of these wonderful ingredients.

Top the eggs with the crab meat, peas and prosciutto

Finish the dish with Parmesan-Truffle Cream


If you have never been to Charleston or are interested in returning, On the Road culinary adventures will be going to Charleston in November.  The details will be released shortly.  We hope you will join us to experience this delightful city with it’s fabulous restaurants and culinary heritage!

* Top photo of Chef Lata is courtesy of FIG

Coddled Sea Island Farm Egg with Stone Crab


8 6-8oz ramekins or small cocottes

8 locally sourced eggs
1 pound picked fresh stone crab meat (you can substitute lump crab)
1 cup English peas, blanched (I substituted Lady peas that were cooked for about 10 minutes)
4 thin slices of country ham or prosciutto, julienned (I used prosciutto)
1 cup parmesan-truffle cream (recipe follows)
1 quart parsnip cream(recipe follows)
3 Tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon fresh snipped chives
Sea Salt
I loaf of brioche, sliced and lightly toasted

Parmesan-Truffle cream:
1 cup heavy cream
2 oz piece parmesan rind
2 drops of black truffle oil
Pinch salt

Parsnip cream:
2 cups parsnips, peeled, diced
1 small leek, white part only, diced
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
Fresh bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt


For Parmesan-Truffle Cream:
Combine all ingredients and simmer lightly for five minutes and let stand till cool. Strain, reserve.

For Parsnip cream:
Combine all ingredients and simmer very lightly until all ingredients are tender. Remove bay leaf and puree in blender until silky smooth. Place the parsnip mixture into a small pan and cover with plastic wrap. Keep warm.

Preheat oven to 325. Place the ramekins in a deep casserole and fill it up with hot water halfway up the sides. Put 2 ounces of parsnip cream into each ramekin. Crack a farm egg into a coffee cup or ramekin one at a time and slide it onto the parsnip cream. When all the eggs are in, place the casserole into the oven. The eggs should take about 8-10 minutes, they are finished when the white is firm and the yolk is runny. It is important not to leave the kitchen during this time. The eggs can go from perfect to overdone in a matter of seconds.

In the meantime, melt the butter in a nice sauté pan. Swirl it around over medium hat until it begins to foam up and brown. Add the picked stone crab, the peas and country ham. Warm through and season with salt and finish with the snipped chives.

When the eggs are done, divide the stone crab over the top of each mixture, top with the Parmesan-Truffle cream and sprinkle with a touch of sea salt. Serve with toasted brioche.

Recipe courtesy of Chef Mike Lata – FIG, Charleston, SC