Venice is unseasonably warm this December. It’s contributed to one of the worst wildfire seasons in memory, and the ash from the various fires around Southern California trickle down like a tragic snowfall on the Westside neighborhood. Evan Funke, clad in a large gray hoodie and coverup sunglasses, sits back on a chair at the tiny pink-laden parklet hiding behind his Abbot Kinney restaurant Felix. The smell of ash and the faint morning sunlight set a serious tone despite the casual vibe of the beachside town.
Funke, a towering, intense figure, speaks like a Victorian era preacher: methodical and philosophical. He’ll crack the occasional smile, but his mostly stern exterior reinforces his attitude toward cooking: be the best, or go home.
Eater sat down to ask Funke the question many of his loyal customers have: How does he feel about the snub. In October, nationally known LA restaurant critic Jonathan Gold excluded Felix from his widely read annual list of the 101 “best restaurants” in Los Angeles. To the confusion of many, newcomer Vespertine landed at the top spot. Downtown’s other big Italian opening Rossoblu — a restaurant in the same vein as Felix — sits at number ten. Gold does address the elephant in the room.
“I disagree with Funke on what pasta might be,” he explains in a follow up piece to the 101 restaurant list. “I am on the side of suppleness, noodles that feel almost alive under your teeth. His aesthetic leans toward the severe end of the spectrum, where pasta is wet on the outside and barely cooked at the center. Some people call this style filo di ferro, ‘iron string,’ pasta cooked just a few seconds short of al dente. I think Funke’s pasta goes a few steps before even that. Does this call for pistols at dawn? I hope not!”
And now, weeks after Eater LA awarded Felix the title of Restaurant of the Year, Funke gets to publicly respond to Gold. Here goes:
On the snub: “I disagree so strongly with [Gold’s] opinion. I cook pasta with geographic specificity. It’s not an interpretation. If I didn’t eat those pastas at those doneness levels from those regions, I would not cook it so.”
On learning of Felix’s exclusion from the list: “I was standing at the pass and picked up my phone to see the news. I laughed. I found it so bizarre. I was a bit flabbergasted.”
On the unintended consequences of the snub: “I don’t want to be a braggart but we’ve been stacking up a lot of accolades and awards. I think it was a boon for him because it drove readership to the LA Times. Everybody read his list because of the omission, the controversy. I think it drove more people to take a look at my style of pasta, so that people could make up their own minds. In a way, he did us a service. I don’t have any beef with Mr. Gold. He doesn’t have a beef with me.”
On Felix’s astounding success: “We’re going to do the best of our ability every night, whether there are awards or not. Everything beyond that is gravy. I enjoy the respect and I am humbled by the accolades. I’m so happy and grateful for everyone who has been so kind, including Eater, Jeff Gordinier (who named Felix the best new restaurant of the year for Esquire), Saveur, and all these people who have gushed over this restaurant. We do it for the people that love this restaurant.”
On the difference between Felix and Bucato, his previous pasta restaurant: “The location here at Felix is great. Abbot Kinney is a bubble within a bubble in Venice, and you have this captive audience. But I don’t think I’ll have a team as perfect as the one I had at Bucato. I was invested in every single person. I took kids straight out of culinary school and trained them in my likeness. It’s not to say the crew at Felix is any less talented or dedicated or focused. I just had this connection to the team at Bucato, like they were my children. I have three of them from that team that now work at Felix with me.”
On the difficulty of the restaurant business: “This is the hardest shit that anybody can do. This business is so fucking hard. There’s no other reason to do it other than love. Pure unadulterated love. Until you’re driven from it. Any jackass can make one dish, one time, perfectly. Try making 75 perfectly in an evening service. That’s what this business is about. Consistency is the hardest thing to achieve. It was driven into me at Spago. They’re so consistent across the board, they’re the benchmark. Lee (Hefter) is a fucking taskmaster and he’s driven by consistency. “
On what hurts a restaurant after initial success: “Complacency is the thing that ends up killing you in the end. Every business has chinks in the armor. For me, the devil is in the details. It’s when things fall through the cracks. People get comfortable within their roles. If you’re not improving constantly, then there’s somebody right behind you. I’m driven to succeed regardless of my own welfare.”
On the next steps after Felix’s monster first year: “I really want to make a home here. I love my business partners. I have two cookbooks to write in the next year. We want to start catering out of this place. At this point, I’m not cooking as much anymore. I’m here to mentor. I’m at the point in my career where there’s very little cooking to be done. Cooking on the hot line is a young person’s game. What I can do is teach technique.”
On Funke’s next steps: “I have three concepts in the works. I’ve been developing them for the past five years. Two are Italian, and the third one might not be Italian.”
Funke takes a moment to soak in the success he’s had at Felix. It’s been a wild ride. He says he’s only taken fourteen days off in the last nine months. “Because parents don’t get days off,” relating the project to having a baby. He thinks for a moment, taking a deep breathe. “There’s no genius in the kitchen. There’s only work. It’s a practice, and you continue working at it. I’m a bit of philosopher. I’m an old soul.”