As open skylights fill the center of Felix with the pale Venice sun, Evan Funke hovers over the kitchen pass coaching his sous chef on the upcoming evening’s menu. The restaurant that was once Joe’s for twenty four years became Funke’s highly anticipated sophomore project in early April, an answer to Bucato’s sudden closure in late 2015.
The celebrated Culver City pasta restaurant went on a tear three years ago when it opened, and seemed like it was on the fast track to widespread acclaim. Then Funke left without giving much notice and the place closed shortly thereafter.
In the wake of Bucato’s closure, Funke left Los Angeles, the city he grew up in, and absconded to Chicago to work under Rich Melman, the veteran restaurateur behind Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, one of the largest privately-owned restaurant groups in the country.
That’s because the standalone pasta laboratory sitting in the center of the dining room features the same elements of Bucato’s handmade pasta program, with only the use of rolling pins, knives, cutters, and even hands instead of traditional extruders. A more modern extruder does get put to use for certain dishes every once in a while. Throw in a wood-fired oven that’s baking some of the most textbook Neapolitan pizzas in LA, and you have the kind of Italian restaurant that’s reaching for national fame.
Evan Funke is the picture of an opinionated, fiery chef with a deep booming voice and broad wiry beard. He ought to be fretting just six weeks into opening one of LA’s busiest restaurants, serving upwards of 250 covers a night already and booking reservations a month out, but he’s pretty relaxed, composed even. Eater talks to Funke about his grueling schedule, his big takeaways from Bucato’s closure, and what keeps him grounded.
On the subject of Bucato:
First things first: what happened at Bucato? “I trusted someone I shouldn’t have. I got into business with someone I shouldn’t have,” says Funke, dropping a bombshell. He declined to explain who exactly the business parter in question is. “I made the decision to work with this person and I’ve paid for those decisions.”
On the “hiatus” he took from Los Angeles after leaving Bucato:
“I had to relearn the business. He [Melman] recalibrated my understanding.” After eight months in Chicago, he was connected with Janet Zuccarini, whose Toronto restaurant group Gusto 54 controls seven eateries and a catering business. “I needed someone who had integrity,” says Funke.
He says he had been left in a pretty bad position after Bucato, and needed to find someone who understood the nature of the restaurant business and could appreciate his unique approach to Italian cooking. Zuccarini and Funke are now partners at Felix, with intentions to open other concepts down the line.
“Janet understood me immediately because my cooking is inspired by the food of housewives, grandmothers, and aunts.”
On leading by example:
Funke’s been working straight since March 29, his last day off, and he doesn’t have another day off scheduled until June 5. When I ask why he works so hard, he says, “Parents don’t take days off. I’m built for this business. Everything that comes in needs to see you. If I want to lead this team, I have to lead by example.”
On what inspires him, and what keeps him grounded:
Funke cites his father Alex Funke, an Academy Award-winning special effects director of photography who’s worked on everything from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Starship Troopers, as his greatest inspiration. “My wife Grace keeps me grounded. She’s the most intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate person I know.”
He continues, “The younger generation is motivated by accolades. Everyone wants to become a sous chef. I know things like stars and Yelp are important to the business. But awards like Best New Chef and Restaurants aren’t up to me. More than anything I want to be regarded highly among my peers.”
On what keeps him up at night:
There are a tremendous number of anxieties for a restaurateur, especially one that’s opened a second hot restaurant in Los Angeles. “It takes a lot for me to get riled up, with the exception of when the staff isn’t doing something right.” When I press him, to try and get something more worrisome than wayward cooks, he says, “The health department. It’s a deep seated fear.”
Funke’s not quite sure why, and he admits the only time the health department has ever shut anything down he’s worked in was during a brief stint serving porchetta sandwiches from a truck, mainly because the vehicle wasn’t up to code.
After an hour of chatting, Funke’s ready to step back up to the pass and keep working on dishes for the evening’s service. Now that he’s landed a reputable, stable partner in Janet Zuccarini who understands his vision, there’s really no limit for where Felix can go. The critical acclaim and recognition might eventually come, but each piece of pasta still has to get rolled out by hand.