For a chef so new to the New York dining scene, Matthew Lightner has made quite an impressive, East Coast debut. An alumni of L’Auberge in California, Mugaritz in Spain, and Noma in Denmark to name a few, Lightner launched his first New York venture, Atera, in March of last year. And in just a short time, the avant-garde, modern American eatery has already garnered two Michelin stars, a spot on Bon Appetit’s Best 50 New Restaurants list, and a 3-star review from The New York Times.
Equally remarkable are the culinary hat tricks Lightner pulls of nightly at Atera. From an open kitchen, he crafts cutting edge eats, like “Shells” for Razor Clams, made out of aerated Baguettes, and “Macarons” from whipped and dehydrated Beer. “A tasting menu of this sort isn’t easy to conceptualize and make work,” Lightner admits. “It’s a lot like a Rubik’s Cube. It tells a story of your history and your future. I think that eating should always be a discovery process.”
We spoke with the envelope-pushing chef about his earliest inspirations (Chinese buffets and dive bars), his obsession with foraging and who his dream dinner guest at the restaurant would be. Jerry Garcia, really?
In a relationship.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef?
I knew at a pretty young age that in some capacity I was going to be in the food service industry. As a kid, I was mesmerized by Chinese buffets and dive bars where people gathered and had a really good time.
Who were some of your greatest culinary mentors?
My greats culinary mentors are Francis Perrot, Phillipe Boulot, and Andoni Aduriz.
You’ve had the opportunity to work in a lot of different cities, like Errenteria, Del Mar, Copenhagen, Portland, and now, New York. How did each dining culture leave a unique imprint on you as a chef? Which did you find to be the most inspirational and personally formative overall?
I never had the opportunity to travel as a kid and even all the way up until I was 18, so I told myself one day when I have grandchildren that I would need a lot of stories of all the different places I have visited and have once lived in. It became a goal of mine. The most impactful was Spain by far, I spoke very little of the language and started to read people’s expressions more. I was able to really see a whole different side of people and the culture, and it made me pay more attention to the finer details or I would be lost.
While you’re committed to seasonal cooking, your approach is unabashedly modern. What’s your response to the idea that this kind of cooking is overly fussy or in some way disrespectful to the ingredients themselves?
I have been reading a book right now talking about how the invention of the pot was a modern technique that transformed cooking as well as the wooden spoon and colander. Some things work, and the things that don’t will disappear like bad ideas on infomercials. It’s a process.
What do you think molecular gastronomy contributes to dishes that can’t be achieved by classic technique?
We look at every technique, and want to perfect it and make it better for us. There is no such thing as classical or modern. We like to reanalyze everything and express it through our lens.
Are there any techniques, tools, or chemicals that you just can’t get behind, or push the envelope too far?
For us, we make the most common seem uncommon. There’s nothing in particular we don’t get behind, but if you’re doing something that is not you or who you want to be, then look at it for what it’s worth and don’t use it. If it can’t help you, then get rid of it.
Before opening Atera, you were at Castagna in Portland, a city with an even “greener” aesthetic than NYC. What was their response to your style of cooking?
The response was overwhelmingly amazing. The people of Portland know what’s good and what’s not, and have highly product driven palates.
How did you develop your passion for foraging? What qualities do you think these kinds of ingredients lend to a dish?
I have gone mushroom hunting for years, but the first time it opened my eyes was picking oxalis, wild violets and fern at Mugaritz. This was before the whole craze, and it is something they did as a seasonal ritual. Then seeing how Noma changed cuisine by using strange and interesting products redefined was completely eye-opening.
How do you conceptualize dishes, like “Crunchy,” “Sticky,” and “Beet Ember?” Your creative process must be a whole lot different than the standard protein+starch+vegetable equation!
We think about it when we conceptualize dishes, and their names the have to be a part of the story. Sometimes we define them by their purpose.
How does working in full view of the customers change the dynamic in the kitchen? Do you ever get stage fright?
Working in full view can be both challenging and rewarding, and changes the dynamic in your kitchen completely. You always have to be on, and off nights become very long nights. I have always been one to welcome fear and to try and overcome it, but yes, it can be intimidating.
Out of all of the accolades you’ve received… two Michelin stars for Atera, a “Best New Chef” title from Food & Wine, which was most personally gratifying to you, and why?
Wow, difficult question. I’m still pinching myself from getting the Michelin stars, it feels inhuman. But of all the accolades I would have to say being named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. It was at a time where I was just trying my own food for the first time, and I am not the most confident of guys so there was a lot of doubt. When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it. It gave me more confidence and drive to push forward, and confirmed that this was the right path and to never give up.
What’s your go-to meal after a long night of service?
A sandwich and a beer.
What can we find you doing (and eating) on a rare day off?
I’m trying to eat more at home, usually really healthy. But I like to stop and watch the city move like crazy and take a bike ride.
Besides at your own restaurant, what are some of your other favorite places to eat in the city?
I’m going to go with Barbuto. So many good ones, it’s impossible to name them all!
What’s the strangest item in your home fridge or pantry right now?
I spend very little time at home, so there’s nothing very strange in my refrigerator at the moment. Right now, there is a lot of broccoli and spinach.
Besides foraging, what culinary trends are you really into right now, and which do you wish would just die already?
Once you do something and it becomes trendy that usually also means it becomes boring! Trends will die. Well, in New York they all seem to come and go, and fast! I’ve been here two years and seem so many of them. It feels best to just do what you want to do if whether its a trend or not. We just try to attach ourselves to learning as much as possible.
Who would be your dream dinner guest at the restaurant (they could be living or dead)?
Jerry Garcia… that would definitely be a fun night!
What’s been your biggest kitchen disaster?
I served braised short ribs once that were not cooked. I thought at the time that maybe this isn’t for me.
How do you think your line cooks would describe your style as a leader?
My crew would say I’m tough and probably a little crazy.
Any other projects (new restaurants, collaborations, cookbooks, food TV) in the works?
There is always something interesting going on in my head, but tough to say which will actually materialize!
You’re on your deathbed…sex or dinner? And no, you can’t say both!
Deathbed? Hmm… I guess that depends on when that time comes, but chefs never eat poorly.