Food & Drink

For Chef Mike Lata, Food Is Good. Really Good

Celebrating twenty years of Charleston’s FIG restaurant with memories of those crazy early days—and three recipes from the vault

Photo: Gately Williams

Chef Mike Lata.

“The house that gnocchi built” sits at Hassell and Meeting streets in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Chef Mike Lata says he’s heard this nickname for his restaurant FIG a time or two, and it makes him smile. Ricotta Gnocchi alla Bolognese has fueled many memories and happy return trips for diners at FIG, his much respected (and James Beard Award–winning) temple to Southern ingredients, which turns twenty this week.

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When I asked Lata to recall what he was doing twenty years ago, in April 2003, as he was about to open FIG (which stands for his motto: Food Is Good) with business partner Adam Nemirow, he said he needed to reflect back even further to the nineties, when he was a twenty-three-year-old chef de cuisine at Ciboulette in Atlanta. As a kid who loved food but hadn’t gone to culinary school, he remembers struggling to figure out what set him apart. This was before “farm-to-table” was a hip concept. One day, a farmer came to the back door. “Her name was Lucy, and I just started trying each variety of lettuce, tasting them,” he remembers. It was a light-bulb moment for both Lucy and Lata. “I pointed to one and told her, ‘That’s my favorite.’ She told me, ‘I sell to thirty restaurants, and here you are the only person who bothers to taste my lettuce right here with me.’”

The young Lata flashed back in time to childhood afternoons with his Polish grandparents, who grew a small garden in Massachusetts where he would pick beans and hoe potatoes. “My grandma would scrub potatoes in her porcelain sink, put them in a pot with water, take chicken stock and chicken, and make five meals out of it,” he says. “It was like watching the transformation from garden to the table, and I realized then what I had to offer as a chef: I remember what a green bean tastes like off the vine. I know to dip a rhubarb stalk in a can of sugar. I have all these taste memories that are warm and fuzzy. Maybe I can find the best produce from farmers and give that experience, of bringing back a memory.”

Lata went on to build relationships with farmers throughout Georgia and the Southeast, and the Anson Mills grain guru Glenn Roberts eventually convinced him in 1998 to move to Charleston and work at Anson Restaurant, where the Lowcountry’s farms set his imagination abuzz. After creating a name for himself as a chef who deeply understood fresh produce, he started to think about opening his own place: “I thought, I’m going to open a restaurant where I don’t import any seafood, but only use local catch, cook from the local markets, and let the menu breathe through the seasons.”

A spread of dishes at FIG.

He moved to France for six months to cook at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and then returned to Charleston, and to his business partner Nemirow, ready to rock. “It’s funny to think about now, the idea of having no money and trying to finance a restaurant, but when you’re twenty-eight or twenty-nine, you’re like why not?”

When FIG opened in 2003, the kitchen didn’t have a walk-in cooler. “So every delivery that came in from a farmer was going to be processed for that day’s menu,” Lata says. “We were a rag-tag team of cooks that would receive, process, write the menu, educate the back of house on how to cook it, the front of house on how to sell it, and then open for service.”

Inside the dining room at FIG.

The young chef and his team played and experimented. They bumbled along until in 2006, when “A guy named R. W. Apple from the New York Times put us on the front page of the food section,” Lata says. The day the piece came out, Lata was in the kitchen by himself. “The phone started ringing. I walked over to the reservation book, which was all scheduled by hand at that point, and I sat on the phone for the next two and a half hours fielding calls from L.A., Alaska, Maine, everywhere. We filled up for the next two months.” It was almost too much—“Out of the next fifty or so services, forty-five of them were disasters. We didn’t have the means to store the amount of food we were serving.” But the team created new systems and stayed afloat. In 2009, Lata won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. “We had been living hand-to-mouth that whole time,” Lata says. “I think we still didn’t have a walk-in refrigerator when we won.”

photo: courtesy of fig
Lata with local purveyor Abundant Seafood.

Lata credits farmers for FIG’s success. The people who grow the food that brings up so many memories for his diners. He rattles off the purveyors who have paved his way with lettuce, shrimp, fish, mushrooms, and cauliflower: “The whole GrowFood family; Pete Ambrose; Celeste Albers; Spade and Clover; Clammer Dave; Barrier Island Oyster Co.; Tarvin Seafood; Crosby’s, Abundant Seafood; so many others.” He in turn found an outlet for these farmers and fishermen and raised up a new generation of chefs along the way. In 2015, the chef he trusted to take the reins at FIG, Jason Stanhope, won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast.

These days, Charlestonians don’t always remember to make a reservation early enough, but they know they can still snag a bar seat and make a new friend over a cocktail and dinner. The dining room is usually booked and great for people watching—the night before his performance at Charleston’s High Water Festival, locals saw the musician Beck there. When G&G editors host guests like last year’s Made in the South Awards food judge Al Roker and his wife, Deborah Roberts, we take them to FIG. And as for the gnocchi that some say built the whole place, I know a Charlestonian who was proposed to just after finishing that dish; another who orders two as soon as they sit down; and one New York friend who, when I text him about coming back to visit Charleston, he responds with 🥲 to recall the single tear he spontaneously shed the first time that puff of ricotta melted on his tongue.

Here, from the vault, Lata shares three treasured FIG recipes, including Ricotta Gnocchi alla Bolognese.

Warm Shrimp and Radicchio Salad with Pancetta and Tomatoes

(Yield: 4 servings)


    • 1 tbsp. olive oil

    • ¼ lb. pancetta, sliced thin and julienned

    • ½ lb. white shrimp, peeled and deveined

    • 1 head radicchio, sliced ¼-inch thick

    • 1 bunch green onion, thinly sliced

    • ½ pint grape tomatoes, halved

  • For the vinaigrette

    • 2 oz. sherry vinegar

    • 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

    • 2 shallots, minced

    • 5 oz. good-quality canola oil


  1. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, stir together olive oil and pancetta and cook until pancetta starts to become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add shrimp and continue cooking until the shrimp are nearly done and the pancetta is crispy, about 2 minutes longer. Add the radicchio, green onion, and tomatoes to the pan and quickly toss to warm through. Be careful not to get the radicchio mixture too hot, as it will over-wilt and become too soft. 

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together sherry vinegar, Dijon, and minced shallots. Slowly stream in the canola oil, whisking constantly, until emulsified. 

  3. Transfer radicchio mixture to a large bowl and add some of the vinaigrette to taste. Season with salt and pepper. Divide into four salad bowls, carefully arranging the shrimp around the salad. Serve immediately.   

Skillet-Roasted Cauliflower with Mustard Butter

(Yield: 4 servings)


    • 2 tbsp. water, plus more as needed

    • 2 tbsp. whole grain mustard

    • 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

    • ½ lb. (2 sticks) cold butter, cubed

    • Juice of 1 lemon

    • Coarse kosher salt, to taste

    • 2 heads cauliflower

    • 2 tbsp. canola oil

  • For garnishing

    • ¼ cup capers, rinsed

    • ¼ cup parsley leaves

    • ¼ cup celery heart leaves

    • ½ cup toasted breadcrumbs

    • ½ cup thinly sliced radish

    • Sea salt, to taste

    • Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

“This is the kind of dish that garnered tons of fans in FIG’s early days,” Lata says. “At one point we sold so much cauliflower that it became one cook’s full-time job to prepare it. Deceptively simple but well crafted, the texture of the cauliflower and acidity of the sauce made it one of the more celebrated dishes we made. So much so that, years after it has been removed from the menu, people still ask us for this recipe today.

As a young chef, I felt like this dish was potentially pedestrian in its concept. But I also learned that our guests sometimes like the simplest things—regardless of how it affects your ego. So, for those diehard FIG fans, here you go! (And our egos may have encouraged us to fancy up the original a bit).”


  1. Preheat oven to 350˚F. 

  2. Combine water and both mustards in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and quickly whisk in the cubes of butter, one or two at a time, until creamy and emulsified. Remove from heat and season with lemon juice and salt. If you have an immersion blender, you can blend the sauce to help stabilize the emulsion. Have some warm water on hand to lighten it up as the mixture tends to thicken. Keep sauce warm while you prepare the cauliflower.

  3. Turn the head of cauliflower upside down. Cut off the rounded edges to the right and left of the stem and reserve for another use (I like to make cauliflower “rice” with these scraps). You are now left with the center of the cauliflower. Cut lengthwise into even “steaks” about 1-inch thick. A large head should yield 2 or 3 pieces.

  4. Coat the bottom of a 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet or nonstick sauté pan with canola oil, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and set over medium heat. One piece at a time, add cauliflower steaks to the pan and cook until sizzling and golden brown. Transfer onto a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil and repeat until all the steaks are browned. Transfer to the preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes, just until tender enough to pierce with a fork. Arrange cauliflower seared-side-up on a warm platter and drizzle with the warm mustard butter. Garnish with capers, parsley, celery leaves, toasted breadcrumbs, and thinly sliced radish. Season with coarse sea salt and a few turns of freshly cracked black pepper. 

Lamb Bolognese with Ricotta Gnocchi

The dish that earned FIG the nickname “the house that gnocchi built.”

(Yield: about 7 servings)


  • For ricotta gnocchi (makes about 75 pieces)

    • 1 lb. drained ricotta

    • 1 egg, beaten

    • 50 grams (about ½ cup) freshly grated Parmesan

    • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

    • ¾ tsp. salt

    • 90 grams (about ¾ cup) 00 flour, plus more for dusting

  • For Bolognese sauce

    • 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

    • 1½ tsp. crushed red pepper, or more to taste

    • 1 small red onion, diced

    • 1½ tsp. minced garlic

    • 1½ tsp. ground toasted fennel seed

    • 1 carrot, peeled and diced

    • 3 oz. pancetta, ground (or very finely chopped)

    • 1 lb. ground lamb

    • ⅔ cup white wine

    • 1 (28-oz.) can San Marzano plum tomatoes, pureed in a blender or food processor

    • ⅓ cup heavy cream

    • Coarse kosher salt, to taste

    • 6 oz. butter, cut into small pieces

    • 1 bunch fresh mint

    • 1 bunch parsley, finely chopped

    • Grated Parmesan, for serving

    • Sea salt, to taste

The dish that earned FIG the nickname “the house that gnocchi built.”


  1. Make the gnocchi: Combine ricotta, egg, Parmesan, nutmeg, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until just incorporated. Add flour and beat on medium speed for 90 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and beat for 30 seconds longer, making sure the flour is fully incorporated. Cover bowl and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour. Very lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Work in batches to shape the gnocchi. Using two large spoons, form a medium-sized ball (quenelle) of dough and drop it onto the lightly floured work surface. Using your fingers, gently roll dough into smooth logs, about ½-inch in diameter. Cut logs into small rectangular pillows, each weighing about 13 to 15 grams (½ ounce). Gently roll each pillow on a gnocchi paddle, taking care to maintain a very plump, light pasta. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and chill until ready to cook.


  2. To cook, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rapid boil. Working in small batches, drop the chilled gnocchi into the boiling water and cook just until they start to float, about 3½ to 4 minutes. Remove from water with a slotted spoon and finish in the lamb Bolognese sauce as directed below.

  3. Make the sauce: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine olive oil and crushed red pepper; toast over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add red onion and cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, ground fennel, and carrots and cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, until carrots just begin to soften. Add pancetta to the pot and cook, stirring, until the fat has melted. Add ground lamb and cook until browned, breaking up the meat thoroughly with a wooden spoon so that no clumps form. Once the lamb has browned, stir in wine. Bring to a quick boil, then stir in the pureed tomatoes. Return mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Cover the pot and simmer for 45 minutes. Stir in cream and continue to simmer for an additional 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt. When ready to serve, stir in butter and several sprigs of mint. Bring to a gentle simmer to melt butter and infuse mint. Stir in cooked gnocchi, thinning the sauce to your desired consistency with pasta water. Finish each plate with a pinch of finely chopped parsley, grated Parmesan, and a sprinkle of sea salt.