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Los Angeles Chef Evan Funke Is an Unabashed Localist … and We’re Here for It

This June marks 20 years of my unexpected left-hand turn into the world of Los Angeles. As a 20-something sommelier from New York City, I didn’t know much about Spago outside of soup cans and frozen pizzas, but my job there quickly morphed into yet another undergraduate curriculum and then some. For those of us that graduated from Wolfgang U. in the 2000s, we’ve coalesced into a unique alumni association (or parolee group) that parallels LA’s emergence into the national food scene. One of the brightest lights from that era is undoubtedly Chef Evan Funke; his long arc from garde manger at Spago to chef-proprietor at Mother Wolf and Felix is itself a story in both mentorship and mastery.  

Felix inside and out | Photographed by Eric Wolfinger

Born in Santa Monica and raised in the Palisades, Funke is a 6th generation Californian and unabashed localist. “I never wanted to cook anywhere but in Los Angeles,” he said. “The diverse dining scene, the authenticity … you can throw a dart anywhere on the city map and find amazing food. The abundance and produce palette that is available to us here, the seasonality, is the best. People who say we have no seasons here just aren’t paying attention.” His culinary education started at the now defunct Le Cordon Bleu campus in Pasadena, followed by a stint at Wolfgang’s catering arm before washing salad greens at Spago and training under the legendary Lee Hefter. Of Hefter, Funke acknowledges that no other person was as pivotal in his training as a chef.  A known “taskmaster“ with a kind if hidden heart, Lee Hefter “asked unattainable things on a daily basis” according to Funke. Funke continues to describe Hefter as the unsung hero and master kitchen tactician at Spago, where the young culinary grad quickly rose to Sous Chef during those formative years. 

Pasta Party at Felix | Photographed by Wonho Frank Lee

Chef Evan’s own career then took a gigantic right-hand turn—all the way to Bologna, Italy—and it was here that his California roots and rigor first collided with Italy, and specifically with the artisanal, exacting, perfectly-formed pasta that has become his signature.  When chatting with Evan, he frequently and unselfconsciously referred to the great nonnas of Italian cuisine—to the exclusively feminine experts who shaped his apprenticeships in Bologna and elsewhere. In a culture often marked by toxic kitchen machismo, Evan’s reverence for the Italian women who taught him is as deep as his respect for Hefter’s harrowing style. Both were sources of career refinement that inform his more recent and towering successes in the Los Angeles market. As Funke puts it more succinctly, “mentorship is what you leave behind as your legacy, not fame.” Wise words coming from one of LA’s most famous chefs right now.

Evan Wolfe | Photographed by Eric Wolfinger

Post Bologna, Funke’s first solo act was with Josh Loeb and Zoë Nathan at Santa Monica’s Rustic Canyon, a beloved neighborhood institution at which he helped triple net revenue from 2008–2012. At Rustic, Evan brought a lot of his culinary asceticism to the business side as well. Perfectly formed pasta only sells if you know how to control food costs. We discussed the business side of restaurant ownership at length. Funke’s success at Rustic Canyon was followed by a disastrous business partnership at short-lived Bucato in Culver City, which left the young chef with a 3.5 million personal bankruptcy and sorely learned lessons. In describing this time, Funke noted that “failure is the sharpest weapon” and that “failure leads the conversation.” He continued that “It’s not enough to just be a cook anymore … this is first and foremost a business where art and science happen to intersect.”  

Linguine al Limone at Felix | Photographed by Joy Limanon

Fast-forward to the present and Chef Evan Funke is now at the pinnacle of the LA food scene. His “love letter to the greatest hits of Italy” is restaurant Felix on Abbott Kinney in Venice, still one of the hottest tickets in town and what many consider to be the holy high temple of pasta in the United States. That the epicenter of modern American pasta-making is in carb-conscious Los Angeles is not lost on this resident. Diners at Felix can see the pasta-making in action in the open center quadrangle, and it is here that Funke’s hallmark precise, meticulous, artisanal style was fully born. In teaching a new generation of young pasta apprentices the craft, Funke continues to teach himself. I asked him bluntly if he thought he was now a “master” of pasta. Because I come from the side of the industry where being a “master sommelier” also involved a whole lot of toxic egocentrism, I was curious to hear his response. He smiled and replied that the “greatest indication of mastery is in perpetually being the student.” A frequent visitor to Japan as well, Funke’s response was the perfect Zen reply.   

The elegant bar at Mother Wolf | Photographed by Eric Wolfinger

Nowadays, if you want to catch up with Evan, you’ll need to camp out in front of his latest opening, Mother Wolf, or call in all the favors to score that coveted reservation.  (Recent buzzy guests included Michelle and Malia Obama dining with Beyoncé, among other luminaries.) I thought a lot about the conflation of art and artisan, of avocation and vocation when I finally made it in for dinner at Mother Wolf. I’m not a restaurant reviewer, to be honest; my 17+ years of working in restaurants inevitably makes me way too compassionate to be critical. That said, I know when things are integrated and working, and when they are not. For a relative newbie restaurant, Mother Wolf is simply on fire. Funke’s gone vertical rather than horizontal on this concept; it’s a deep dive into all things Roman and it’s honestly one of the best meals I’ve had in 20 years. Like a symphony or an NBA team, talent and teamwork require someone to conduct or coach; otherwise, the wheels too easily come off the damn train. Seeing my former colleague—more salt and pepper in the signature beard now—occupying this role made me feel both proud and old.  

Blue prawns with green garlic salsa verde at Mother Wolf |  Photographed by Eric Wolfinger

And Chef Evan Funke’s just getting going. We wrapped our deep and free-ranging conversation with a discussion on the geopolitical history of Italian cuisine, on the evolution of its independent city-states and the corollary micro regionalism that is unique to modern Italy. We agreed that a deep dive into Sicily, specifically Catania, might be his next great thing so stay tuned. It’s rare to find a chef that is as manually talented as he or she is intellectually curious. I think Los Angeles has its great one right here folks, and that he’s a native Angeleno makes it all the more satisfying to see. Ben fatto indeed and bravo. I’m excited to see what this talented guy does in the next 20 years or so.


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