Q & A With Rustic Canyon Chef Evan Funke: Quitting Massage Therapy & Firefighting for Cooking + Learning the Ropes at Spago
Evan Funke, executive chef at Rustic Canyon, is as locally sourced as much of the food he puts on his plates. The chef is third generation California, went to culinary school in Pasadena, and came up through the ranks of Wolfgang Puck's kitchens. So it seems fitting that he found a home at Rustic Canyon, the Santa Monica restaurant that is only a few miles from where Funke grew up.
On a recent afternoon, Funke sat down to talk about his food, his family, and his route to the kitchen. Turn the page, and then check back later for the second part of the interview and for Funke's recipe for yellowtail crudo with kumquats, chiles and mint, most of the ingredients for which you can get where Funke gets them, at the Santa Monica farmers market. If you're going tomorrow morning, here's a grocery list: a handful of mint, a basket of kumquats, a few red jalapeños. Say hi to the chef if you see him. He's the one with the Lee Hefter haircut and the German word for cook (kochen) tattooed down his arm.
Squid Ink: So you're from around here, right?
Evan Funke: Pacific Palisades. I'm third generation Californian. We used to have some land, it was a vineyard in Sonoma. The land was granted to my grandfather from General Vallejo of Mexico. So old California family. I love this state; it's awesome. We have all the best produce, we have the best weather.
SI: And how'd you get into cooking?
EF: My mom had to cook for five kids and I kind of learned those rudimentary skills at her knees. I mean, she'd cook the staples, like goulash and mac n' cheese and hunter's chicken, so I grew up eating very well. And it was actually the mother of an ex-girlfriend, a Sicilian mother, who really inspired me to take up the knife and go to culinary school. Because I'd done a lot of things: I'd studied to be a firefighter, I was a massage therapist for two years, I sold vitamins, I sold gym memberships, I was a towel boy, I mean I did a lot of other things. I was always very good with my hands. My parents sent me to art school when I was like 10 years old; I was painting oil paintings by the time I was 12. My whole family's artistically talented. My brother's a composer, my other brother's a DJ, my sister's has worked for Versace and Louis Vuitton as a buyer. My dad's a four-time Oscar winner.
SI: Oscars for what?
EF: All three Lord of the Rings, Total Recall, he's got three or four BAFTAs, a couple Golden Globes. There's a lot of chefs who I admire, but he's really the only one I aspire to be like because he's the absolute master of his craft. And to have such a handle on one's craft is really all I want to do.
SI: So there's a reason why you guys live in this town. You went to culinary school...
EF: I went to Cordon Bleu Pasadena and two months into it Wolfgang Puck had these one-time events where the students could go and get paid and gain some experience, yadda yadda yadda. I think the first one I did was the Oscars. I was amazed by the giantness of it all, the massive quantities, the Volkswagon-sized tilt skillets and steam kettles. I did a couple and I wanted to work there so bad because it was Wolfgang Puck. My mom always said, you're going to start at the bottom, you're going to start prep. And I was like, nah. I'm going straight to the top, ma, don't worry about it.
So I actually got my first job by breaking down library tables. We had put out like 3,000 salads, and chef Michael Beglinger, who owns Larchmont Larder, he was the chef who gave me my first job, he was the sous chef there. And he said, hey Sparky -- he used to call me Sparky because my name in German, Funke, means spark -- break down all these tables. So there were like 200 tables. He said, I'll be back in 15 minutes, I want them all done. I want the floor swept. So I did it, all by myself. He said, great job, can you slice smoked salmon. I said, sure, no problem. Never, ever sliced smoked salmon in my entire life. I made a go of it, slicing it to order for people at a buffet. So I'm nailing it, I don't know what the hell I'm doing. So he walks up to me, you slice it better than I do. Basically I have a job, like 2-3 months into culinary school.
So my education at the school took a backseat, because I was working full-time, double time at Wolfgang Puck Catering. I would do like a 36 hour stretch without sleeping, because I would do like 20 hours in the kitchen, go home, take a shower, and then go to Pasadena and do 8 hours of school and go back to the kitchen. My instructors were like, it's such a good thing that you're a darn good cook because that's the only thing that's saving your ass. You'd be failing. I was never there. So I did 2 years at Wolfgang Puck Catering, and I was the first cook to get recruited to go to Spago from there. After I left there, that kind of became the seed farm for Spago cooks. I started heating garnish for soup as like the bitch station in the pantry. Gradually I worked my way through the four positions in garde manger and eventually became chef de partie, and eventually after 2 1/2 or 3 years eventually got my buttons and I was there until I couldn't walk anymore.
Right. Of course this is where we end the interview, the second part of which will be posted tomorrow, along with a recipe.