One of Today’s Rising Chefs on Hating High School, the Challenges of an Open Kitchen, and the Meaning of a Dining “Experience”
Matthew Lightner, the chef of Atera, has been having quite an inaugural year in New York City. With rave reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and – most recently – Bloomberg, Lightner has announced himself as a major talent. Still in his early thirties, Lightner comes to Manhattan by way of Spain’s Mugaritz and Portland, Oregon’s Castagna, where he was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2010. As readers of this site probably know, Lightner’s style is an arresting marriage of two of-the-moment movements–modernist and foraging–set within that most au courant of dining contexts: the countertop restaurant.
Following a dinner at Atera in the late spring, I had a chance to sit down with Lightner, whom I found refreshingly understated and thoughtful. Herewith, the highlights of our conversation:
TOQUELAND: You’re getting a lot of attention right now among chefs and critics. Are you enjoying the spotlight?
LIGHTNER: For me it’s not so much about the spotlight; it’s more about the food and the experience always. So if I get recognized now for it, if I get recognized in five years or two weeks ago, I think that’s what’s more precious and important.
TOQUELAND: I’m sure there are a lot of faces you recognize –
TOQUELAND: Is that something you have to try to shut out and say, “I’m just doing my thing?”
LIGHTNER: Yeah. I’m just kind of a quiet, laid-back kind of guy so it is kind of shocking when we have chefs come in here. It’s amazing.
TOQUELAND: Three-part question: How often do you change the menu? Does it have to change? And how hard is it to change a thing that has a very clearly thought-out ebb and flow and rhythm to it? In other words is it difficult to incorporate a new element?
LIGHTNER: That’s always the big challenge. Right now, we’ve worked very hard to get a really flowing menu together. And we think that it’s good, but it’ll change. Seasons and nature continuously evolve and we want to evolve with them. So right now we’re starting to get little lovage shoots. The lovage will get larger, more intense, and we’ll have to implement it in a different style. And then finally it goes to seed, and it kind of moves on. We want to feel like there’s a life to the food.
TOQUELAND: With a menu that has as many courses as yours, and which is built to change all the time, how finalized does a dish need to be before it’s ready to come out of the kitchen?
LIGHTNER: I think before it stays on the menu, it has to be very final.
TOQUELAND: Is your success rate pretty high? When you have an idea for something and you take it out for a test drive in the kitchen, do you usually get pretty close to what you had in your mind on the first go?
LIGHTNER: It just depends. For instance, sometimes if I want to come up with a dish and it just happens to be the day that nothing’s going right, it’s not going to go right. But now, if I come up with a dish when everything’s going right, it seems to go right . .. it’s funny, because it’s almost like destiny, as if sometimes a dish was meant to kind of happen, as if it were somewhere hidden in the back of my head or hidden in the back of my notebooks of old experiences that I can bring into the new and into my style. And then some things might not ever work.
TOQUELAND: How did you first get interested in cooking?
LIGHTNER: I got into cooking out of necessity. I wanted to make money. Because I wanted to buy my own shoes and I wanted to buy things for myself and take care of myself, and I felt like that was the way. So I started washing dishes.
TOQELAND: I assume this was a high school job?
LIGHTNER: Yeah. When I was 14-years old, I started washing dishes at a cafe. I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. Family owned place that did tons of covers. I washed dishes. It was funny because it was probably one of the cleanest places I’ve worked. And really hard working. The idea was always to beat the cooks: the dishwashers always had to beat the cooks.
I really wasn’t interested in academics whatsoever. I had real issues at high school.
TOQUELAND: Were you just bored with it?
LIGHTNER: I don’t know. My interest was very low. Didn’t really care. I was one of those kids. Didn’t care. I’d just sleep all day in class. But I’d go to work and I loved working. I loved working with my hands. And the people I worked with really appreciated me.
TOQUELAND: When you say you didn’t have any interest: You seem like a highly intelligent person. Were you able to coast by and get okay grades not doing very much, or were you really academically challenged?
LIGHTNER: I had some really bad issues my senior year in high school because academically I was pretty much failing. I really just wanted to work on my feet. I wanted to work with my hands. I also always loved art, loved sculpture, loved painting. That interested me more.
TOQUELAND: So you did stuff like that as a kid?
LIGHTNER: Yeah, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue. .. so I started working at different restaurants . .. and then started learning a bit more through cookbooks. I think I was 17 and I found out that there was a whole world of mother sauces in France. And then I started reading books about how some of these chefs were so organized and perfect and clean. And I was, like, “That’s what I want. I want to be a part of a profession that seems kind of dingy or bad, but that’s not, that is actually very respectable.”
I think it might have been Thomas Keller who said this a while ago, but chefs are looked up to just like lawyers and doctors. It’s amazing to see that come along. But there’s also a lot of responsibility with it. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of cleaning. It’s a lot of organizing. It’s a lot of perfectionism.
TOQUELAND: Not a lot of margin for error.
LIGHTNER: No, and you don’t get paid like those guys do, but sometimes it’s more rewarding in the end because you get to see it every single day.
So, I ended up going to Portland. I went to culinary school up there. Just a small program; it was about twelve months. Started working in kitchens. I was lucky enough that I got into a sous chef position very early, started learning to manage people very early.
TOQUELAND: At that time–this was 10, 11 years ago–did you have a sense of the style in which you wanted to work eventually, or were you even thinking in those terms?
LIGHTNER: I always wanted to think of something different. I always felt like I wanted to just find my own path. I always knew that I wanted to have an amazing place. I always wanted to figure out what I didn’t have that other guys had, either three-Michelin-star chefs in France or at the time Thomas Keller had come out with the French Laundry book, and seeing that stuff was super-inspirational. A higher learning, a higher education, a higher place in restaurants exists, you know?
TOQUELAND: Did you have from your own personal experience at that point a gold standard of a dining experience?
LIGHTNER: Unfortunately, I was never able to really dine out a whole lot. It was mostly through reading different books and studying that I had this idea of what an amazing experience could be.
TOQUELAND: Do you think that’s better in some ways? I’m often struck when I talk to young cooks at how little money they make. It’s hard to go eat at certain places. That kind of kicks your imagination into being a factor, no?
LIGHTNER: Yeah, definitely. And the thing is that you have to believe that you can do it. That’s one of the things that I tell a lot of young cooks: you have to believe that you could cook at a level like Alain Ducasse. Because that’s why you’re here. You’re not working the 16-, 17-hour days knowing that you’re not going to ever do it. If that’s the case, then you have to come to grips with it and go, “Well, maybe I need to find a different segment of the restaurant industry.” But if you believe in it, all the hard work’s going to come around . ..
That’s what I believed: I wanted to learn. I wanted to figure that out. I felt I caught onto cooking very fast. I could always move around pretty quick and fast in the kitchen and was just very good at basic cooking techniques . .. [but] as far as modern food and precision, it’s something that I was lacking. So there was the quest to go to Europe.. . for about seven years, I tried. Then I was 27 and it was now or never. I did the normal thing: I started applying at El Bulli. I probably applied there fifteen times and never heard back. And then I applied at Mugaritz. And a week later, I heard back. .. I got a phone call.
TOQUELAND: Conveying the news?
LIGHTNER: Yeah. And they said, “Well, there’s another option as well: If you want to be part of a scholarship program here, to become part of the ICEX program, travel here, but you have to be here for a year.” And I was, like, “My fucking dreams are coming true!”
. .. when I first walked in there, they were doing the vegetable dish that has 40 different kinds of herbs and flowers. And seeing little perfect trays and people not even using their fingers to put something on, little tweezers and offset spatulas and putting everything into the right little crevice inside the vegetables. And I was just, “Oh, my God, what did I get myself into? What’s going on?”
TOQUELAND: But you were at the same time, I assume, given where you ended up, very drawn to it?
LIGHTNER: Yeah, definitely very drawn to it. But I was always feeling that I was missing what they had and that was what I wound be challenged on: this level of organization, this level of precision, this level of beauty. Completely taking everything else that I’ve learned before, throwing it out the door. And that was very nerve racking and shocking. It was also extremely exciting.
TOQUELAND: If I understand what I’ve read about you and the influence of that place on you, it seems to me that it must have shined a light on something inside you that you weren’t quite aware of before, or quite able to articulate, that it started leading you to where you are now, or made you turn that corner to where you are now?
LIGHTNER: Exactly. It turned the corner and it turned it big . . . it really took maybe six months of walking around and going on hikes [to understand] the whole feel, the whole presence, the essence of everything. The surroundings, the inspiration of it. You finally get it. It’s like, if I’m living in the Basque country, I’m painting the Basque mountains. I’m not painting the Rocky Mountains, you know? And that clicked for me.
TOQUELAND: You mentioned when you were a kid you didn’t enjoy school but you did enjoy art. When you look back at the kind of stuff that you did as a kid, is there any connection to what you do now?
LIGHTNER: I don’t think on an artistic side. But on the philosophical/cerebral side, yes. Because ever since I was a young boy I always enjoyed the idea of entertainment. Restaurants in general, when our families would go out to eat, they’d have beers and great food and they would talk and laugh and you’d go into these restaurants . .. and granted, these are restaurants in Missouri, places where the decor is poor.
TOQUELAND: Family restaurants?
LIGHTNER: Family restaurants. And everyone’s so happy in these settings. For me, that was kind of the thing. I always felt like I wanted to find some kind of experience that brings people to a place of pure enjoyment.
TOQUELAND: What do you mean when you say experience? It’s a word you use a lot.
LIGHTNER: Well . ..you go into a regular restaurant. And even places that make burgers make an experience around the burger: how it feels, how it smells, how things happen. And that’s what it is. I want people to be able to come in here and to feel the difference, to see what’s going on, to see what’s happening and actually have the experience elevate the food.. . so instead of just judging each dish, you’re in the flow of things, you’re part of something, you’re in the cycle of what’s happening.
TOQUELAND: For me this is a restaurant that, when I come to eat here, I’m going to come with someone who really likes and is serious about food and we’re going to talk about what we’re eating. And that’s basically going to be our experience. Is that surprising to you? Is that what you expect and want from people? Or is that not what you’re trying to achieve?
LIGHTNER: I think that is definitely what you want. And you want people to already know that.
TOQUELAND: You mean, coming in? That, for example, isn’t really a place for a business dinner, right?
LIGHTNER: No, definitely not. It’s an adult, foodie kind of restaurant because some of it’s very intense, some of it’s kind of out there, some of it makes you want to think. And we want people to engage and have these conversations.
TOQUELAND: Am I correct that you’re your own pastry chef here?
LIGHTNER: Yeah, I do the pastries.
TOQUELAND: Have you always done that?
TOQUELAND: I was pretty knocked out by the desserts. And a member of the service team said, “Oh, I love chef’s deserts.” I didn’t realize you did them until then.
LIGHTNER: Like I said, go back to the experience. You talk about experience. You talk about things being seamless, things going together. It’s tough to do it when someone else has their own set of ideas. .. my first position in Mugaritz was at the pastry department. So that was the first eye opener. It’s like, “Wow, deserts don’t suck here. “ Really cool, like doing a white chocolate sphere that was hollow that you poured over a distillation of chocolate.
TOQUELAND: And it all seemed of a piece with what came before?
TOQUELAND: Can you talk to me about the unique challenges of the open kitchen scenario and the set menu?
LIGHTNER: We’re lucky enough to have a kitchen downstairs so we’re able to do a lot of the production, because there’s just no space up here. But it’s kind of nice because it’s set up really well. We really thought about every drawer, everything. But at the same time, too, it is challenging. For instance, you can’t fit many more guys than what we have back there right now.
TOQUELAND: You mean during service?
LIGHTNER: Yeah . .. we will always have that challenge and we will always have the challenge of mise en place. For instance, we want to continuously think about what a tasting menu should be. Should it all be just dishes? Should it always be snacks before, maybe no snacks in between [larger dishes]? So what’s the difference between that? And it would be very challenging for us to move that. For instance, all of a sudden, your third course in, you’re eating stuff with your hands again and having little bites, and you’re moving into another dish. For us, that would be very challenging but I think it would be very fun.
TOQUELAND: For the customer?
TOQUELAND: What about the physical proximity to the customer and you guys talking and communicating? Is that something that you have to work on or are constantly aware of?
LIGHTNER: Yeah, it’s a lot of eye contact and it’s a lot of . .. you tap people. You can’t be overly aggressive when you talk about things or call things. Or, for instance, when reviewers come here, you have to be very quiet about it. You know, good eye contact with the guys in the back. Lots of communication. So it can be challenging because everyone’s kind of in a different place. There’s all kinds of different mise en place. Everyone’s either getting wines or they’re getting pairings, so it’s challenging.
TOQUELAND: It almost sounds like the way a band communicates, during a performance.
LIGHTNER: Yeah, a little bit. It’s a lot of that.
TOQUELAND: A lot of hand gestures?
TOQUELAND: “Should we stretch this out or slow it down?”
LIGHTNER: Exactly. You kind of whisper to them. It’s a lot like that. That’s good.
TOQUELAND: Was that an adjustment for you? Are you normally more vocal in the kitchen?
LIGHTNER: I can be. It’s still an adjustment for me. I’m used to being in a kitchen that’s in the back and you’re telling people, “Come on, come on, come on! We need to go, we need to go, we need to push, we need to go, come on guys, let’s keep going, keep cleaning up.” And you can’t. It’s tough to do that, because you’ve got to go up to them and be like [lowers voice], “Hey, you guys need to keep this clean. Come on, please.” [raises voice again:] Instead of: “What are you doing over there? Let’s go! Come on, please! Hey! Come on, help us out here!”
TOQUELAND: Which would be normal. That’s any kitchen.
LIGHTNER: Well, for the most part. Castagna was a closed kitchen but it was very quiet, very organized. And all the yelling really ever happened if there was a huge major problem, which is inevitable in this business.