Atera's Matt Lightner: Restaurants Are Like Houses; It Takes Years to Make Them Homes
A number of transplants are making waves in the New York City restaurant industry of late. David Bowien brought us Mission Chinese, an outgrowth of his successful San Francisco pop-up. Andy Ricker planted Pok Pok here, the first satellite market outside of his home city, Portland, Oregon. And Matt Lightner gave us Atera (77 Worth Street, 212-226-1444), channeling the creativity he applied at Portland's Castagna before he was picked off by a group of investors for the Big Apple.
That restaurant opened almost two years ago, and it immediately gave New York something new entirely: a temple of gastronomy bent on challenging the boundaries of American cuisine via techniques Lightner picked up at Mugaritz and Noma. This is a serious restaurant dashed with whimsy, where dishes are not always what they seem -- the chef is most famous for plating courses to look like something else entirely, shaping food so that it resembles tree bark or flowers.
His work -- and that his food comes together well on the plate and over the span of a multi-course omakase -- has earned Lightner a spot among the top brass of New York City's chefs; not bad for a guy who claims he began cooking out of necessity. "I started cooking to make money to buy clothes and stuff like that," he says. "I had no interest at all in going to college and being in these boring classrooms that are packed full of people -- that seemed like a poor way of learning. I wanted to do something with my hands." He moved from Omaha, Nebraska, to Oregon with his sister, and then spent the next several years moving up and down the west coast before he jetted to Europe for deeper training.
When he returned to the States in 2009, it was the middle of the recession, and so he headed back to Portland, where he met Castagna owner Monique Siu. He wasn't set on staying in the Pacific Northwest, but the restaurant gave him a chance to make some money and apply the lessons he'd learned across the Atlantic. He garnered national attention, and then he was approached by Atera's owners to move out here and command the kitchen of the restaurant they were building. "I was like no, no no," he says. "It took about two months. We finally came up with an idea. It's a tough business; there's so much that you have to do, and it's pretty demanding financially and mentally -- you need a really strong support team. We started to click in the context of that, so it ended up working out."
In this interview, he talks about what he wishes he could import into NYC from Portland, the importance of a constructive food dialogue, and where the New York restaurant industry goes from here.