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? Expand