Restaurant

Chef Evan Funke is a Pasta Architect

With an ineffable devotion to traditional handmade methods, Angeleno toque Evan Funke has mastered the craft of pasta making and shaping. At the new Hollywood dining room Mother Wolf, Funke's talent for storytelling through a menu of ancient Roman dishes and a cinematic atmosphere is reverberating from coast to coast, making the restaurant one of the country’s most coveted culinary experiences.

Evan Funke’s fanatical obsession with pasta is like the Beyhive and Beyoncé or Tom Brady and winning. It’s not passion as much as it is religion. The love affair began early in his career at Spago, the Wolfgang Puck institution, and continued at the acclaimed, now-shuttered Bucato in Culver City. After a couple-year sabbatical, Funke took things to the next level with the opening of Venice’s Felix Trattoria, in 2017, where he and his team crimped, folded, and shaped noodles like origami from a temperature-controlled pasta lab presiding confidently right smack in the middle of the dining room.

Funke’s zeal for the Old World craft of handmade pasta techniques is the stuff of lore. While training with a pasta master in Italy, he once ate cacio e pepe for 25 days straight, three times per day, on a quest to discover its true essence. He’s rolled sfloglia approximately 35,000 times and mastered 155 different shapes. In an eponymous 2018 documentary about the chef, his contemporaries marvel at the intensity of his dedication—some say insanity—when it comes to texture, flavor, geometry, and even the way water moves when noodles are dunked. “I’m a little nuts,” he admits. “Pasta is an animal. It lives, it breathes. It’s affected by its immediate environment and by your energy and intention. So I’m still figuring it out. Where that comes from, I have no idea.”

Funke’s latest venture, Mother Wolf, is an ode to Roman cuisine. Designed by Swedish architect Martin Brudnizki and located in Hollywood’s landmark Citizen News Building, the ornate space has been an epicenter of Tinseltown buzz since debuting earlier this year. The interiors are bathed in Italian glamour: Murano lighting fixtures, a trompe l’oeil depiction of the riviera’s lemons and pomegranates, and furniture and bar detailing inspired by midcentury masters like Gio Ponti and Carlo Scarpa. The menu is full of Eternal City classics like cacio e pepe and spaghettone alla gricia, while a vintage amaro cart meanders through the crowd of celebrities and industry power brokers.

Below, we visit Funke at the site of his latest triumph to learn about his inspirations, the art of hand-rolling pasta, and how Mother Wolf transports guests to a place beyond the boundaries of L.A.

What was the impetus for Mother Wolf? What compelled you to do a Rome-inspired restaurant?

The consistency of the cuisine found in the city. It’s obviously a very deep and rich culinary scene. It’s extremely diverse. Romans have been historically conquerors of many things. So when they would expand, they would find things they really enjoyed, bring it back to the capital, and make it there. So I like that they draw a hard line when it comes to specific things. That speaks to the reason why this restaurant is successful and we can do 450 covers at a very high level. It’s part of a larger perspective I have on running restaurants.

When did you start to become interested in pasta, and how did that fascination develop?

I was drawn to pasta originally very early on in my culinary career, probably year one or two. I was working with Wolfgang Puck at Spago and my station was directly behind the pasta making station. So I paid attention to the rhythmic methodical and meditational movements of pasta. I was very interested in the architecture of how this organic material would wrap itself around filling. The first shape I fell in love with was the agnolotti. After staying with Wolfgang for six years, I did a series of jobs at restaurants and I was left feeling unfulfilled and wanted to do something difficult.

At the time—2006, 2007—I found that the majority of pasta in the United States was made by machine. So I scoured the internet and stumbled upon a webpage for La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese in Bologna and eventually found my mentor, Alessandra Spisni. She was the one to open the door for me to start seeking out other pasta makers on the peninsula of Italy who still practice handmade shapes. Typically when you find these people, they are women in their eighties and nineties and have been making a singular shape since they were children.

I’m constantly putting myself in the student seat when I meet these incredible people, just absolute masters of a singular shape. So I wanted to do something difficult, to make sure whatever I set my mind to was different. I don’t really like conventional things.

Is agnolotti still a favorite or what’s the favorite shape now?

What’s my favorite shape? The one I haven’t discovered yet.

Portrait by Jeff Vespa.
When you walk into this space, it transports you someplace else. It's immediately recognizable you're no longer in Los Angeles, you're at Mother Wolf.

Though that specific shape did start you out. Is that something you put on the menu a lot because of that? Does it still spark you because it was the first?

Agnolotti was the first shape I fell in love with and out of the 155 shapes I can do by hand, it’s the one shape that was taught to me by a man. I’ve since gone back to learn it from an expert woman named Gemma in Piemonte. Does the agnolotti interest me? Of course. All of these shapes and all of the ones I have not discovered interest me. It’s what gets me up in the morning. But putting agnolotti on the menu takes a very specific amount of attention.

I don’t put pastas on a menu unless we can achieve greatness, excellence. I don’t add pastas to a menu to fill in a gap. I’m very intentional with the product mix of the pastas based on seasonality and the intention of the menu. Furthermore, I cook regionally. So texture and the al dente spectrum is a very important thing to me, the way they cook pasta in Piemonte versus Bologna versus Naples are three very, very different textural differences.

You seem to approach pasta making like a sculpture. Do you approach it that way? Do you consider yourself an artist?

Artist gets thrown around a lot. I consider myself a craftsman and a storyteller. It just so happens that my medium is flour, eggs, and water. Sculptor, sure. Architect is probably leaning more toward [it], minus the math, but there’s a ton of math I do when it comes to pasta. Thinking about textural differences and how you can restrict or add hydration to get a different outcome, or how a stuffed shape reacts to when you chew.

If you look at any shape of pasta; take tortellini, for instance. How many times people have gone into a restaurant and eaten tortellini that is both overcooked and undercooked at the same time? What happens is when you make a tortellini, you start with a diamond shape with filling in the middle. You take the bottom of the diamond and connect the top of the diamond, making a triangle. It’s called a touchpoint.

So now you have single thickness pasta, and now you have double thickness pasta. If you don’t depress that pasta back down to single thickness, it’s going to be crunchy when you cook it and won’t cook uniformly. So breaking apart the conventional wisdom of how you fold and shape pasta is what my approach really is. I think about the architecture of the pasta shape. Break it apart, throw away what doesn’t work and put it back together so it acts like a singular experience texturally. Flavor is one thing. Texture is a massive part of the pasta experience. I want the texture and the flavor to be fighting in your mouth for who’s best. And they both have to have the same volume. They both have to speak very loudly when you’re enjoying pasta. That said, sometimes a bowl of pasta is a bowl of pasta to people and that’s okay. But I like to think I want to cook for the people that want to engage in something a little bit more than just food for fuel.

Food is just one small element of what this restaurant is and what all of my restaurants are.

The design of Mother Wolf is very cinematic. What kind of story are you trying to tell?

First and foremost, just speaking on real estate, a space like this does not come on the market and gets snatched up for a restaurant. It’s typically parceled out for mixed-use or office buildings or whatever. So as soon as I saw it, I said let’s go. Because Los Angeles as a dining scene is filled with small, quaint, romantic, and warm spaces. There aren’t a lot of big luxurious and opulent spaces to do a restaurant. So when I saw the space and I saw that Martin was designing it, I jumped at the chance to do something grand, to bring some cinematic elements to dining. More so now than ever, people are looking for experiences. It’s not enough anymore to just have great food and service. You have to provide people a way to escape daily life. When you walk into this space it transports you someplace else. It’s immediately recognizable you are no longer in Los Angeles, you’re at Mother Wolf.

It’s a very important theme throughout this entire concept. Paired with the juxtaposition that is Rome. Rome is a living, breathing museum. It’s ancient and modern, pastoral and urban. So the juxtaposition of having Biggie Smalls on the audio, in this amazing atmosphere, eating very rustic food. It works very well for Los Angeles. Also Roman food is a melting pot of a lot of different things, as is Los Angeles. On top of that, so much of Italian food is environmentally driven. If you are sitting on the island of Capri, eating a caprese salad with the person you love, with the ocean breeze on your face, sipping a crisp glass of white wine. That’s very difficult to reproduce in the ass-end of Culver City. 

It’s not just the atmosphere, the opulence, the hand-blown glass chandeliers. It’s the anthropology of all of these ancient dishes we’re creating and having our service staff being able to speak to those so you have a richer understanding of the entire experience. It’s not just great food. It’s not just great wine. It’s not just beautiful ambience. It’s the entirety of the organism and how people feel when they leave. That’s what I’m really going for. Food is just one small element of what this restaurant is and what all of my restaurants are.

You’re a very good storyteller. How did the idea for the amaro cart come about?

The amaro cart is a sleeper hit. I’m big into gueridon service. The days past, in continental cuisine where you had bananas foster or cherries Jubilee or crepes suzette, all of those old-school elements that really bring the entertainment value and the connection between service staff and diner. They’ve kind of gone by the wayside because they’re difficult to achieve. You have to train intensely to get somebody to be able to flambe with cognac right next to someone who’s wearing a lot of hairspray. It can get dicey. So gueridon service is something I really like and it brings something special to the experience because when the amaro cart rolls up. There’s 25 amari all from different regions, all with spectacular profiles and aromatics made by extraordinary artisans. It just becomes an additional layering effect to the overall experience. And I love Amari. My favorite is the Centerbe; it’s from the Alpine, made with 100 herbs, and it’s super stony.

Is there a dish or two in the restaurant that you really feel encapsulates everything you’re trying to do?

No. Pinpointing a singular element of this restaurant that speaks to the diversity of all the elements is a difficult question to answer. A fun question, but I think difficult to really pinpoint.

Okay, then what’s a dish right now that you’re really jazzed about?

To be perfectly candid, I always come back to cacio e pepe. When I first went to Italy from 2007 to 2010, I lived in Rome. When I go to a place to study something, I saturate myself with whatever that is, whether it be pizza in Naples or cacio e pepe in Rome. For 25 days straight I ate nothing but cacio e pepe three times a day in order to taste the worst possible iteration, and the most ethereal preparation, and everything in between to find the profile that I really wanted to achieve. Everything from five different pepper corns and nasty McCormick, to pre-ground pepper and butter and oil, to lard and dry versus creamy. It’s a dish with parallel storytelling.

I say parallel because the Italians—and I love them—romanticize the origins of dishes. If a story doesn’t exist, they’ll make one up in order for that dish to live on. The vast majority of these culinary traditions have been passed on via word of mouth. If the story is uninteresting, then it’s not going very far. So they’ll fold in sex and politics and weird names in order for the dish to live on—cacio e pepe is no different. There’s this amazing romantic story that it was born in the pastoral communities of Abruzzo, Lazio, Tuscany across the central band, during the transumanza (the tradition of herding of cows and sheep from lowlands to higher mountain pastures). The shepherds take bags of black pepper, dried pasta, and pecorino cheese they salt and make themselves, and camp out to make this black pepper pasta.

In reality, the popularity of cacio e pepe was born in the 1950s and 60s in osterias (traditional trattorias) as the first bar snack, served very dry with a lot of salty pecorino and a ton of black pepper. What do you want when you have something very dry, salty, and spicy? To drink more wine. That’s where the popularity of this dish was actually born. It wasn’t until much later that the creamy version was invented by Italian chefs. So they have these dueling romantic and realistic stories of these dishes. It’s just endless. These histories are very important when you’re discussing food with guests—it makes for a richer experience. 

What’s fascinating is that instead of going to the top restaurant, you did the encyclopedia tour of cacio e pepe to figure out its essence.

I’m a little nuts.

How did you finally fall upon the flavor?  

There’s a lot of elements, it’s a confluence of many things. It’s playing to my clientele, number one. It’s American palate. If I was to make cacio e pepe, dogmatic approached cacio e pepe—dry, spicy, pecorino, water, pasta—nobody would want it because after 90 seconds it is literally a coagulated, congealed mess. So that’s number one. Number two, the dogmatic approach versus the reality is in my experience. If a Roman is telling you how to make cacio e pepe, they’re going to go the dogmatic approach. This is this. When in reality what’s happening in the restaurant is an entirely different story. They’re adding olive oil or seed oil or butter or lard in order to create a more luscious and succulent version that will still last after you take your Instagram post. So I have to play to my clientele.

I wanted to make sure that the elements of cacio e pepe spoke volumes: al dente, pecorino, black pepper, and obviously heat. I can’t tell you how many lukewarm pastas I’ve had in Italy. Steaming pasta is not really a thing in Italy. You get it lukewarm, especially if you’re eating carbonara. Americans really love hot pasta. If it’s not hot, they’re sending it back. So those are the elements that I really dug into to make sure that they would all hit. Lastly, leaning into the balance of the dish. Because there’s so few elements at play, you really have to make the music with fewer instruments and it still has to be a beautiful song. Where I landed on, I have no idea.

It’s just the intuition that good cooks have.  It’s not tangible, it’s just there. When you know it’s there, it’s there. And to articulate how to get there, I don’t know. It’s through trial and error and I use failure as my sharpest tool in my toolbox because if we don’t try to fail, we never achieve the results that we ultimately want. Too few people, especially in this industry, are afraid to fail. But I fail every single day. Because when you fail, you internally discuss why you failed versus when you win it’s like—great we won. Let’s go. What’s next?

I apply the failure rule to when we win and when we lose. Making pasta is the same thing. How will you know how to make a tortellini unless you try 10,000 times? How will you ever roll a perfect sfloglia if you haven’t rolled 10,000 plus? I’m at 35,000 now and I’m still figuring it out because pasta is an animal. It lives, it breathes. It’s affected by its immediate environment and by your energy and intention. Where that comes from, I have no idea.

When that bite comes on your tongue, your brain says that’s it. 

Yes.

You compared cacio e pepe to making music with less instruments. Do different mediums of art inspire your cooking? 

Absolutely. I’m a glutton for beautiful things. When I go to Italy, my eyes are completely wide open. I’m an open pore for everything. I have a photographic memory for texture and flavor, not so much other things, but when it comes to pasta and food. So much of life is filtered into why we like certain dishes, why we like certain music, why we enjoy certain artists. I’m just a glutton for beauty, whether it’s the finish on a perfectly sanded and newly finished floor or a beautiful garment or Michelangelo’s whatever.

If it’s beautiful, you should behold that. When you find beauty, you should hang onto it and enjoy it for what it is. But I’ve never been one to stay with beauty too long because I’m perpetually dissatisfied with most things. When I do find something beautiful, and it’s striking to me, I have a way of processing it into something else. I don’t listen to a lot of music, but I have music here all the time. That goes for art as well. 

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