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From Market to Menu: An Interview with Chef Evan Funke of Rustic Canyon

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By Eli Sussman/Special to LAist

Walking through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, Rustic Canyon's Chef Evan Funke’s movement brings to mind Ray Liotta’s iconic stroll through the Copacabana in Goodfellas. Similar to in Liotta’s portrayal of Henry Hill, everyone seems to know and love Chef Funke as he’s greeted enthusiastically with high fives and hollers from farmers, peers and friends alike. Chef Funke moves from stall to stall with an unassumingly cool focus. Conversing in both English and Spanish and sporting heavy tattoos, he emanates a unique California-esque dexterity. In a way perhaps only a California chef can, he selects products with concentration and passion while exuding the same casual disposition one might have picking a T-shirt to wear for the day.

LAist had the opportunity to walk the Santa Monica Farmers' Market with Chef Funke as he spoke about his ongoing passion to gain a better understanding about weather and farming, how his family had its land signed over to them by General Vallejo, his sort-of side hobby as a knife craftsman, and why whispering into a young cook’s ear “I’m disappointed in you” can be that much more powerful than yelling.

LAist: Immediately when you come to the market and you begin checking out the produce, what is going through your mind?
Funke: Any great cooking is 80% ingredient and 20% technique so it’s really important to touch everything, smell it and just take in the market.

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How important is it to your cooking to have a strong understanding of the weather and seasons? And how do you go about doing gaining that knowledge?
Studying the weather and actual growing seasons, talking to the farmers and asking them questions about what’s going on at their individual farms gives you a better sense of actually what’s going on in California and how the weather is affecting the growing seasons. So it’s important to ask them directly. The menu at Rustic changes really every day according to what’s coming out of the ground. The Italians call it cooking close to the ground and we try to employ that as we tailor a menu.

You sometimes will walk the market with Chef Zoe Nathan from Huckleberry. Since Rustic Canyon and Huckleberry have the same ownership and are in close proximity, do the restaurants ever share product?
Absolutely that does happen. But most of the time I do the buying for Rustic Canyon only. It’s a close personal and professional relationship. Zoe is a great chef and Josh is a restaurant mastermind. And he’s going to continue on that path. He’s got some great managers in place and he’s got some great chefs and hopefully we can continue to build on that.

Can you tell the LAist readers about the Outstanding in the Field event Rustic Canyon recently took part in at Ocean View farms? What was on the menu?
It’s actually a community garden in Venice. So this time we made Sweet Corn Agnolotti. We did James Burch’s apricots with Radicchio, goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts and honey rosemary vinaigrette. We did a Farro salad with a bunch of farmer’s market vegetables and a yogurt raita. And we did a whole fried fish with eggplant caponata. And Zoe did pies. And it was so absolutely rustic canyon. In that sense we gave everybody what we are all about. Outstanding in the field is just a great time to come out and eat and celebrate the farm.

Can you speak to your demeanor in the kitchen at Rustic Canyon? What is your approach when problems arise?
Through the training I received from Lee Hefner at Spago, he taught me enduring principals that define the way I do things today. I learned how to lead and motivate people. He taught me how to extract the best out of people. That for me is the most challenging thing about being a chef. It’s not the cooking. The cooking is the easy part, the joyous part. For me, the challenge is to get these young men to do this very hard job that is very physically taxing and demanding and I expect the best from them.

How do you motivate your staff and keep them sharp?
That’s the challenge on a day to day basis. To stay inspired to inspire them to do their absolute best and beyond. So how do I translate that to someone? Any means necessary. You have to play to people’s strengths and weaknesses. If you take someone who’s green, they don’t necessarily have that kitchen etiquette to feel sorry and have accountability for his mistakes. He’s not going to think about it, so I need to put that in his mind. Sometimes people need to get screamed at, other times people need that whisper “you are disappointing me” and sometimes that’s more powerful than yelling at them.

In your kitchen you are in charge so all are held accountable in the end to you. But where do you go for constructive criticism, inspiration and staying fresh?
Lee [Hafner, Executive Chef at Spago]. Hands down. I go to Lee when I need serious advice. This business you have to be very resilient in your problem solving techniques. And there are a slew of problems every minute of the day. Lee is my mentor. That’s why I know how to do what I do - because of him.

The life of a chef can be all consuming with exceptionally long hours and days that blend into the next. How do you relax, cut loose and unwind in LA?
I don’t (laughs). Honestly, I read a lot. If you were to ask me what my hobbies are, I’d say cooking. My father always told me if you can find a job where you can make money and absolutely love what you do that’s the best place to be in life. It’s all consuming for me and sometimes to my detriment but I recently redid the handles of some antique knives with beautiful wood and I like to think I’m good with my hands.

Right now, as you are tasting various peach varieties from Fitzgerald Farms, can you let the LAist readers know what specifically are you looking for as you taste items at the market?
Just the optimum flavor…I mean Fitz is a bit of a mad scientist when it comes to stone fruit. And this is something you need to just taste and smell.

Can you speak about your deep connection to the farmers themselves and their farms in relation to your restaurant and the food you put out?
I’m a huge farmer advocate and I love to talk to them about what they do and their craft. Having a good relationship with the farmer is so fulfilling to me and it also builds accountability. Farmers know who is cooking, I know who is growing. The farmers have the hardest job. My job is completely simple. All I do is take it home, cut it up, season it and put it on a plate. These guys do the magic. The first seasoning is in the soil. The different nuances from farm to farm that is transferred into the end product. Every single farm has a different flavor level and profile. That’s why we buy from so many farms. So we can play on those nuances.

To begin to understand Chef Evan Funke, all you need to do is watch him taste a peach at the Fitzgerald Farm truck. Watching his eyes as he intensely focuses on drawing the flavor from the fruit, he listens to the farmer discuss maximum flavor (an “eat today”) as well as an explanation of shininess relative to ripeness. He isn’t just being polite and humoring the farmer, he is studying and hanging on ever word. Listening fully to gain knowledge from a respected farmer, who has information Chef Funke can absorb and then apply later to his cooking.

It is apparent that Chef Funke loves to cook and is a great student of the many intricate details that farming necessitates. All facts lead to him being in a kitchen turning out seasonally focused food for many years to come. But after hearing his great reverence for farming and his close connection to the craft, it is easy to imagine one might find Chef Funke, (perhaps decades from now and miles removed from the kitchen), crouching on his knees with his hands deep in the earth, working close to the ground and still as content and self assured as he is today.

Eli Sussman is one half of the Freshman in the Kitchen duo. LAist spoke with him in April 2009 about his own cooking adventures and philosophy.

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Previously on LAist: From Market to Menu: An Interview with Chef Akasha Richmond; An Interview With Chef Ben Ford; An Interview with Chef Neal Fraser