"I always wanted a profession where I'd be continually challenged or where I could challenge people or things around me. And I think here we're able to do that."
Chef Matt Lightner loves an adventure: a long hike or forage through the rural landscape surrounding Portland, Oregon; an 18-month stint at Mugaritz on the north coast of Spain; and, almost a year ago now, packing it up and moving to New York to open Atera, an 18-seat restaurant with a 22-course tasting menu that has diners making reservations months in advance.
Lightner's plates are whimsical, earthy, and somewhat romantic, presented on smooth slabs of stone, planks of wood or—sometimes—maybe a regular plate. He concentrates flavors and presents them in somewhat disassociated packages to challenge and excite his patrons. The result is a series of dishes both deeply rooted to the earth yet technically sophisticated—one dish may have more than 25 components.
Lightner is still settling into his restaurant and getting it to a point where he can return to foraging and hiking on the rare day off. Until then, we talked with the chef about the chief motivation for his style, and what he wants to share most with diners sitting in those 18 seats.
You came from the foraging wilds of Portland to New York. Have you felt out of place? I think all serious chefs—no matter where they are—are dedicated to the restaurant, and everything else is a perk. Being in New York is almost exactly how it was at Castagna [in Portland], but here you find yourself even more in the kitchen, and spending even more time on your days off trying to see what's going on around you, trying to figure out what you're going to do to become better.
Why's that? Because to really set yourself apart you have to continuously think about who you are, what you're going to do, and how you're going to get better.
Because New York is a bigger market? Because at any given time the tides will change in the city and all of a sudden a style of food we like becomes a fad or fashion. So it's been really fun to learn: who are we and what are we going to do? How are we going to continuously be better, and be unique?
You were sort of wooed to come to New York and presented challenges to your investors that they didn't say 'no' to... Yeah, well, New York is such a risky challenge for a concept like this. And usually that's a challenge on its own, because when you have a really strong vision, there's always push back. So I had to see how far that push back was—is this something that would be successful?
What was the strongest motivation for you to up and move here? To be able to showcase something in such a great food city with so many other chefs doing the highest level of food. It's an adventure I really wanted to take.
Your work at Noma and Castagna both incorporated a good deal of foraging. Do you see yourself being able to connect as strongly with your ingredients here as you did in Portland? After living in New York City for about a year now, that's kind of the process. Hopefully as soon as we mature as a restaurant and become more organized, we'll have more opportunities for it. And we're really lucky—we work with Evan Strusinski, who sends us a lot of interesting projects and gets us really fun things. We work with a lot of farmers in the greenmarkets as well.
Does your small dining room allow you to use more rare ingredients? Yes and no. Throughout one week you might need more quantity of one herb than you would think. Especially here with the kind of experience we're working towards.
Your plates can be whimsical or confounding or exciting, but they're never predictable in appearance. What's the purpose of this presentation for you? Part of it's expression and fun. A lot of people are trying to do the same thing that other people are doing, just a little bit better. So for us it's about doing something completely different. We want people to have fun, and we want people to discover food. We want them to go through a rediscovery process.
And why change the visual identity of food, like presenting sunflower as a peach pit? It's about pushing boundaries a little bit. We thought maybe we could go all the way and make things look like something that you wouldn't eat, but there's a different process behind that. We do a dish that's a tartare. It has only two ingredients in it—tomatoes and lamb—and it looks like some bloody raw patty. And the idea is that it's so red that it looks like it was cut right off of the carcass and put on the plate. So we try to have people have fun with it; it's so delicious because it's smoky, it's acidic, it has everything in it, but it looks as clean and fresh as possible. It's the epitome of the concept of raw meat.
Do you feel any pressure in constantly reinventing your methods? I have to or I would get way too bored—I have to continuously find something new and interesting. If things get stagnant you almost get a sense of depression, like you're just going through the motions. I always wanted a profession where I'd be continually challenged or where I could challenge people or things around me. And I think here we're able to do that. Once that stops, the life of what we're doing dies.
Aside from visuals, what are you trying to do from a flavor perspective with your food? Like the rose concentrated in ice? Well, the rose definitely is a visual thing, but you also have to use a little bit of imagination. Imagine it's the fall and a cold front comes in and freezes all the roses, encapsulating the aroma and texture of the petals so that you can just grab one and taste it...
When did you come up with that? We were working with a couple of different kinds of ice and shapes of it like broken shards and stuff like that. We were talking about taking these ices and gels and then asked, "what's the story behind it?"
So in general you think of the product before story? Yeah. They both can kind of work with themselves. Food has to taste good, but here it also has to mean something. If it doesn't mean anything then it would just be about pure luxury. So it has to have that story, that life, and that feeling. Especially when it ties into seasonality and nature.
Do you feel any sense of community here, yet? I think it takes time. I've moved around a lot so I feel like I adapt quickly—I just need to have work and my family at work. It's about longevity: staying in the community, helping the community out, building a level for friendship, building your level of colleagues and stuff. Hopefully in the next couple of years that's where I'll be.