Auteurs forever chase final cut and a blank check. L.A. chef Evan Funke, the acclaimed phenomenon behind two of the toughest reservations in town, Felix and Mother Wolf, has attained both with his latest restaurant in Beverly Hills, the eponymous Funke, which opened May 5. “I told Evan, ‘This is your Spago,’” says Kurt Rappaport, Funke’s new business partner and sole backer.
“I had no budget — and I exceeded it,” explains Rappaport — the CEO of Westside Estate Agency and luxury real estate agent who has brokered home sales for the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Larry Ellison and Tom Cruise — of his carte-blanche spend (he doesn’t provide a dollar figure, but a high-end restaurant build can cost $5 million and up). Rappaport hopes Funke becomes a dealmaking, scene-shaking “modern-day Cheers,” in the vein of the late Morton’s. There’s a 1,500-name wait list for reservation, and the restaurant is already drawing heavy hitters: David Geffen posted a pre-opening photo to his Instagram of himself ensconced in a booth at Funke with Rappaport, Barry Diller, Kris Jenner and K5 Global’s Michael Kives.
The restaurant includes a glass-enclosed pasta-making “lab” in the middle of the dining room, which Rappaport compares to a Damien Hirst vitrine, as well as soundproofing covered in linen fabric from the jaw-droppingly expensive LVMH brand Loro Piana. “This is a business, but I believe the more you spend, the more things work,” says Rappaport, who first encountered Funke years ago when the chef catered a birthday for producer Steve Tisch.
For Funke, 44, having a deep-pocketed grubstaker like Rappaport means fuller creative freedom. The chef explains that with previous projects, his most ambitious ideas were often “value-engineered out. I couldn’t have this piece of equipment, or we didn’t have the staff to do it. I’ve had a lot of things up my sleeve that I’ve been really waiting for the perfect time to reveal.”
Funke (pronounced “funky”) speaks of two main inspirations for the three-level, 10,000-square-foot restaurant, situated opposite the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the latter the site of Vanity Fair’s Oscar party, which the chef catered this year. For the menu, it’s about the flavors of Sicily; key dishes include Funke’s renditions of the staple pan pizza sfincione, as well as specialties like artichokes buried in coals with garlic and mint. For the overall concept, Funke says he looked to the haute fashion emporiums of nearby Rodeo Drive, “where everything is curated: polished and elegant, yet relaxed. I thought, ‘Why not do that here?’”
TV producer Ben Silverman explains why he’s a fan of Funke’s cooking. “What I like about Evan’s food is its accessibility,” he says. “You can see the craftsmanship, the detail, the historical, contextualized approach he takes — but it’s also just delicious. It really works the moment it hits your mouth.”
Funke has had his ups and downs in the restaurant world. His first restaurant, the well-regarded Bucato in Culver City, imploded in 2015 amid allegations of mismanagement. Not long after, Funke filed for personal bankruptcy and also was named as a defendant in a civil suit, from which he was later dropped. The imbroglio served as a jumping-off point for Funke, a reverent 2018 festival-circuit documentary about him. Earlier this year, a battle broke out between the management company behind Mother Wolf and the developers of the building where it’s located that included allegations of trademark infringement and breach of contract. Funke, who has a management deal at Mother Wolf, downplays the drama as “a dispute at ownership level; what we do on the ground, every day with our guests, is very much separated.” (In the latest news surrounding Mother Wolf, the city of Los Angeles is investigating whether 5 percent service fees paid by diners and touted as supporting health benefits for staff were improperly withheld from workers.)
Funke grew up in a free-spirited household in Pacific Palisades, one of five children of visual-effects specialist Alex Funke, who won back-to-back Oscars on the Lord of the Rings films. (Eldest brother Graham is a veteran DJ who’s opened for bands like the Foo Fighters.) “There are a lot of chefs that I really respect,” says Funke, “but there was never really anybody that I wanted to be like except my dad. He’s an absolute master at his craft.” Notes producer Brian McGinn, a longtime Funke follower whose projects have included Netflix’s Chef’s Table series and Disney+’s Wolfgang Puck documentary Wolfgang: “Evan was born into storytelling, so he has Hollywood in his DNA; he’s someone who just knows how to design a feeling and set a mood.”
Venice’s Felix was Funke’s breakout, a forum for his obsession with handmade pasta inspired by a desire to preserve disappearing traditions. The same impulse was behind Funke’s searching shortform series Shape of Pasta, about his quest to discover and study techniques still mastered only by a select group of elderly nonnas in Italian villages, which Jeffrey Katzenberg developed for Quibi. “Evan’s a world-class chef as well as a treasure hunter,” says Katzenberg.
Mother Wolf in Hollywood, despite its recent troubles, has been a roaring success. Boasting a lavish Rome-by-way-of-Vegas interior, it’s the rare L.A. restaurant to feature the trifecta of serious cuisine, on-point service and paparazzi out front (hoping to catch everyone from the Knowles-Carters to the Obamas). Funke, who has developed a reputation for self-seriousness, including a history of scowling press photos, says that its triumph is a testament to people wanting to have fun — especially as the pandemic eases.
“They were denied for years sitting at home,” he says of his patrons. “They were denied anniversaries and denied birthdays and denied vacations, and they’re looking for experiences, especially in restaurants, that make them feel.” At Mother Wolf, “People come to eat like they’re going to die tomorrow, and I find that energy very attractive. I want to open really fun, boisterous places. I really enjoy the juxtaposition of opulent atmosphere with brutally rugged food, austere plating — fine dining. That’s the plan for Funke, too.”
Funke, who cherishes his formative years at Spago two decades ago among colleagues he recalls as “just monster technicians, driven and professional,” nevertheless acknowledges that the culture was “very aggressive, very machismo, so hard.” He says he takes a decidedly softer approach these days in his own kitchens.
And he’s found the release of FX’s high-stress hit The Bear, about the vagaries of commercial cooking, to be cathartic — because of the way it makes chefs feel seen by “non-restaurant people,” he says.
“The worst of the worst on the show was a Tuesday night for us. It was PTSD,” adds Funke of seeing The Bear. “I got home, my wife’s watching it. I’m like, ‘You have to turn that off.’”
Still, it’s inspired him to begin exploring, alongside a pair of screenwriting partners, his own kitchen-confidential stories: “People love to experience the guts of things,” he adds. “I wouldn’t mind getting more into TV because to me, it’s just another form of storytelling and production — and that’s how I see what I’m doing with these restaurants.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.