He's an imposing bearded presence as he navigates his way down Arizona Avenue at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, inspecting the puntarelle that will end up on the menu at his restaurant, Felix. At a broad 6 feet tall, Evan Funke shops with a bit of a swagger and is a large figure on many levels. The local vendors call him "the mayor" behind his back.
Felix just celebrated its first anniversary, and it's not any easier to secure a reservation today than it was on day one. Bon Appetit calls him "the pasta whisperer," and declared his the best pasta they ate in 2017 in the United States.
By his own account, to say Felix has been a success is an understatement.
"I'm sometimes flabbergasted by the sheer volume of people," Funke says. "It makes it difficult, because we want to extend a complete experience — true, warm, genuine hospitality to 350 people on a Monday night. Our clientele expect the best and I expect the best. I've learned a lot, including patience, in this last year."
He credits his team, who trained for five weeks before the doors even opened. "I'm just one guy," he says. "This restaurant runs because of the team and their heart behind it. It's also our vendors and farmers."
Funke grew up in a family of five kids in Pacific Palisades. His father is Academy Award–winning special effects photographer and cinematographer Alex Funke, whose work ethic inspired the chef.
But his greatest inspiration for his Casalinga-style pasta making has always come from women.
"The connection to a mother figure, in addition my own mother, has been a strong theme throughout my life," he says. "There has always been a strong woman who has guided me at some point. Somehow the women I have attracted into my life have shot me in the right direction."
Funke was two weeks away from heading to Marine Corps boot camp when a former girlfriend talked him into going to culinary school instead. It made sense, as he reflected on his love of food and fond childhood memories around the dinner table. He worked at Spago and dove into the kitchen lifestyle with reckless abandon, discovering his passion for pasta.
Funke — who had never traveled alone outside of the United States — moved to Bologna and immersed himself in the Bolognese style of hand-rolled pasta making with one of the world's masters, Alessandra Spisni. He was fascinated with how the region's specific pasta shapes were made; he sat in Italian alleyways making orecchiette the way it's been done for generations. He was determined to bring that knowledge back to his climate-controlled pasta lab. The 12 different pasta shapes on the Felix menu are divided into sections — north, central, southern and the islands.
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When he returned home, he consulted for various restaurants and eventually opened and closed the ill-fated Bucato in Culver City.
Enter Janet Zuccarini and the Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, run entirely by women; she reached out to Funke to launch Felix on Abbot Kinney in Venice.
"Janet completely understood me and the feminine side of making pasta, which made us connect. There are not a lot of men who make pasta in Italy. It's the social aspect of the gathering of making pasta by the women of the house. They sit around the table, listen to bad Italian pop music and make tortellini.
"Minus the bad pop music, that's how it's been for centuries," Funke says. "I have a great connection with that, and I want my restaurant to feel like a grandmother's house and instantly familiar."