Yesterday we left off the first part of our interview with Rustic Canyon executive chef Evan Funke when he was still at Spago, where he worked his way up the ranks during and after culinary school, and he'd just started telling us about not being able to walk anymore when we stopped. Sorry. Consider it intermission. Today we resume the story, in which Funke leaves Spago, journeys to Italy on a quest to learn the fine art of pasta-making, and returns to his hometown and to the kitchens of Santa Monica's Rustic Canyon. Turn the page for the rest of the interview, then check back later today for Funke's recipe for yellowtail crudo with kumquats.
Squid Ink: So you were at Spago until you couldn't walk anymore? That maybe needs some explanation.
Evan Funke: A good story but a gross story. They don't have mats on the line, just like we don't here. And I was wearing the clogs that Lee [Hefter] wore, because everybody wore what Lee wore. And I started to get varicose veins really badly from standing on my feet all the time on the wooden base. And one of them surfaced, and so I'm working the line one night and my shoe's all wet and I'm like, what's going on, did I step in something? And I look down and my clog is full of blood, just full of it. So I lift my pant leg up and there's just a geyser of blood coming out of my calf. Just sssss.
So I go into the office there and Ari [Rosenson, now chef de cuisine at Cut] is like, what the fuck is going on, you're bleeding like a stuck pig. So he cuts my pant leg off and duct tapes my leg closed and I went back and finished my Saturday night. We ended up doing like 500 covers or something like that. And then 2 weeks later I was done, I couldn't walk. It was February 13th, 2006, the day before Valentine's Day, one of the busiest days at Spago ever. And I called in and said, I can't fucking walk anymore, I can't come to work. I had surgery two weeks later and I was out. I was done. I was on my back for like a month. I had all my veins stripped out; they gutted my leg like a foie gras.
SI: A foie gras. Man.
EF: So after that I was kind of lost and I wanted to keep sharp, so I started writing recipes. My mom bought me a laptop and I started purging all this information that I'd learned at Spago. Because Lee told me one day if I wrote everything down I'd be a fucking genius. And I took it to heart: I wrote everything down. And then after I healed I started looking for jobs. So I thought, why don't I try my hand at culinary school. So I decided to go and teach culinary school. I nailed the interview. It was easy: butcher a chicken, talk about what you're doing and then make a dish from what you just butchered. Easy. So they hired me on the spot.
SI: Which culinary school?
EF: My alma mater [Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles]. That's inbred for you. And they needed only 2-3 years experience in the field. Amazing, right?
SI: When did you teach there?
EF: Maybe late 2006 early 2007. I was there for 12 weeks. Yeah. So I went in, I nailed the interview. I was basically straight out of Spago, I came from the toughest kitchen in Los Angeles if not the West Coast, and I was fired up. I was a highly motivated, highly skilled person. I would see the kids leave a dripping, disgusting pan of chicken on the top chef, dripping on all the mis en place and I would take it out and slam it on their stations and chicken juice would go everywhere, and I'd say, that's what my walk-in looks like, what the fuck do you think you're doing? And I got called in on the carpet. They said, you can't talk to these people this way. They're paying us to teach them. And I said, I am teaching them. I'm teaching them what it's really like out there. And the students rose up, they started rumors about me. They went to the president, they said, this guy's treating us like assholes. So I said, that's fine. You can have your job. I quit.
SI: And then what happened?
EF: I tried out for a sous chef job at the Avalon in Beverly Hills and ended up landing the chef de cuisine. I don't want to talk badly about the Avalon, but that was a fucking nightmare. So much red tape and politics, and you had to ask 10 different people if you wanted to change the cheese plate bread. So it drove me nuts. I was there for 8 months and it made me want to stop cooking. It was a nightmare. Even before I had a ticket to Italy, I said, I'm just going to go. I said, I'm leaving in January, here's my notice; I'm leaving.
I left in January of 2008 and then I found online this tiny little school in Bologna run by a brother-and-sister team, and I basically begged them take me on as a student. I told them I was a chef and I wanted to come learn pasta and I ended up going and it was a mind-blowing experience. I'd never been to Italy before. I was there 3 months. It was 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, for 3 months straight. I didn't know any Italian, just some gutteral kitchen Spanish. It just blew my mind: the simplicity, the hands-on, artisanality — if that's a word.
SI: It is now.
EF: It is now. I feel like George Bush. Everything is so farm-to-table. What we're trying to do here in America has existed for 1,000 years, you know. Just the abundance of the hams and the cheese and the produce, not so much fish in Bologna, but it was so amazing. It blew my mind; Italy blew my mind. I traveled as much as possible on the one or 2 days I had off, with a Japanese guy I met at the school, who I learned most of my pasta-making technique from. He was an amazing artisan, a pasta-making machine. There they roll out the sheets of pasta with a giant rolling pin, a big wooden table; it's just a beautiful process. It's a dying art, unfortunately.
We do it here as much as possible. I sent my apprentice Charlie Lucas, who's now my sous chef, I sent him to Italy so that he could learn how to pull the pasta in the Bolognese style. My feeling is that our pasta is some of the best in Los Angeles. Gino Angelini does it the right way. We do it the right way. Gino is from Rimini; he pulls pasta by hand. But there's not that many people who pull pasta by hand, because it's a pain in the ass if you don't know how to do it and if you don't have the space to do it. When you see tagliatelle on the menu it's pulled by hand, when you see ravioli, we're not using a machine. It's the real deal. The textural difference is amazing; you can feel it.
So when I got back from Italy I ran into Brad Metzger [of Restaurant Solutions]. I was still jet lagged, I said, I want to go to sleep, Brad. He said, don't sleep, go to Rustic Canyon. I came in, I was like 2 days on the ground. They'd already picked a chef after Samir [Mohajer] had left, they were ready to go. So I ended up doing a tasting menu: they wanted 2 or 3 dishes. I gave them 6 or 8. And they hired me right after the tasting. The rest is history. We do farmers market, California, the pasta, that damn burger.
SI: So how long has it been now?
EF: I've been here 2 years to the day today. It's been a long road, a really tough road. We finally have young but extremely talented crew, ruled under my iron fist. Which Lee gave to me. I give all the credit to Lee Hefter. I'll put this down on paper. Because he taught me those enduring principles that absolutely define the way that I run a kitchen today. I owe it all to him.
SI: You have the same aesthetic thing going on too.
EF: Well, I think it's the hair.
SI: Or lack thereof.
EF: No, I love that guy. So. There we go. I gotta get back to work.