Atera Sous Chef Rex Huang Gave up an IT Job for Life Behind the Burners
Rex Huang has a decade on most of the people in his line of work, and that's a good thing, because having less time for self-exploration keeps him focused. He left behind a career in business for the burners, getting his start in the business when he asked for one day to prove his worth as a stage at What Happens When. Now he's a sous chef under Matt Lightner at the tiny, inventive downtown restaurant Atera (77 Worth Street, 212-226-1444), where he's culling lessons he hopes to eventually apply at his own restaurant. Here, he talks about getting his start, the greenmarket, and why the restaurant industry is better than his desk job.
Photo of Rex Huang by Ashley Hoffman
When did you start cooking?
I started cooking as a hobby, and it just grew into a serious passion. It was always a dream of mine to open up a restaurant, but I decided I would try before I got older. This is not my first career.
I was in business development for IT companies, web companies.
What kind of stuff did you when this was just a hobby?
I loved to just go to the market and see what was out there, what was fresh, and what excited me. The people I choose to work with have that approach -- they're really ingredient driven and finding the full expression of what nature has to offer.
Do you go to the market for Atera?
Yeah, sure. We go to the Union Square green market and say, "Let's see what these great purveyors have to offer."
What's different about going to the market for this kind of seating?
We don't do a lot of seats. We only serve maximum 34 in the dining room so it's a lot easier for us. We don't need to source large quantities. We can go and say there's only one bundle of parsnips.
Some of the dishes here are like mini sculptures.
Sure yeah, a lot of stuff we do will be like that. But we're not a place that likes to do a lot of adornment. Obviously we love pretty things so we love making pretty plates. We want to present food in a way that's visually pleasing, but in terms of artistry, we like to have the art imitate life.
What do you think Atera's context is?
I don't want to call it postmodern, but the context is a little bit of an underdog, a little bit of the unexpected: We don't have signage, our chef is not from New York, and a lot of us, like myself, aren't life cooks, so we really like to play on that -- how you can surprise and how things aren't always as they seem.